At twice the size of modern African elephants, straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene. The remains of these giants, who lived across Europe and western Asia between 800,000 and 100,000 years ago, have occasionally been found in association with stone tools, prompting questions about their interactions with hominins. Now the analysis of a collection of cut-marked elephant bones from Germany is shedding new light on the subsistence patterns and social organisation of Neanderthals living in this area in the Middle Palaeolithic.
The assemblage of more than 3,000 elephant bones, representing at least 70 individuals, was discovered between 1985 and 1996 in 125,000-year-old lake deposits at the site of Neumark-Nord, in central Germany. New investigation into the cut marks on the bones indicates that they were the result of quick and thorough butchery of fresh carcasses, with no signs that carnivores had first access, suggesting that the elephants were hunted rather than scavenged. This is supported by the age and sex of the individuals targeted, as adult males (by far the most common among the assemblage) were largely solitary, and therefore would have been easier to hunt than females in a mixed-herd group.
After the effort of the initial hunt, the researchers estimate that it would have taken 25 individuals (slightly larger than the assumed size of an average Neanderthal group) three to five days to butcher and process one adult male elephant, and that this would have produced more than 2,500 portions: enough to feed a group of 25 for at least three months, or a group of 350 for a week. This raises the possibility that Neanderthal groups at Neumark-Nord may have been larger than is generally believed, or that people were gathering here in larger numbers, at least temporarily, to share in the labour and the reward of a hunt. The research, recently published in Science Advances (https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.add8186), offers a better understanding of the unique find at Neumark-Nord, as well as important evidence for Neanderthals’ complex food-sourcing behaviour.
Meanwhile, another study is providing further proof of the sophisticated subsistence patterns of Neanderthals, this time in Portugal. Analysis of marine crustacean remains recovered in 2010- 2013 from Middle Palaeolithic deposits in Gruta da Figueira Brava cave, c.30km south of Lisbon, is demonstrating that Neanderthals had a taste for seafood. Researchers have determined that, 90,000 years ago, the Neanderthals who occupied the cave were harvesting brown crab (Cancer pagurus) and other shellfish at the coast a couple of kilometres away, then bringing them back to the cave to cook and eat. Although crabs have many nutritional properties that make them a positive addition to a hominin diet, it is also possible that the Neanderthals, like many of us, simply appreciated the flavour of freshly grilled crustaceans.
The paper, which has been published in Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.3389/fearc.2023.1097815), is the first in-depth study of such an assemblage and, like the findings from Neumark-Nord, shows that – whether their goal was large or small – Neanderthals were more than capable of carrying out careful planning in order to enjoy a meal.