First direct evidence of elephant hunting shines light on Neanderthal subsistence strategies

Analysis of more than 3,000 remains of the now-extinct species has revealed the first 'clear-cut' evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution.

A study of the world’s largest assemblage of European straight-tusked elephant remains, dated to c.125,000 years ago, has provided the first ‘clear-cut’ evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution.

The now extinct European straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) was the largest terrestrial mammal of the Pleistocene. They roamed the Eurasian landscape between c.100,000 and 800,000 years ago.

Prof. Dr Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser of JGU stood beside a life-size reconstruction of an adult male Palaeoloxodon antiquus in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle. IMAGE: © Lutz Kindler, LEIZA

With body mass estimates of up to 13 tonnes, and shoulders reaching as high as 4 metres, straight-tusked elephants were roughly twice the size of present-day African elephants.

Previous instances of lithic artefacts found in association with skeletal remains of straight-tusked elephants offer indirect evidence that they served as a food source for Late Pleistocene Neanderthals and early modern humans.

But this has led to questions over whether humans scavenged on elephants that died natural deaths – or whether they hunted them.

Prof. Dr Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser examines the femur of an adult male Palaeoloxodon antiquus at the Saxony-Anhalt State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology in Halle.  IMAGE: © Lutz Kindler, LEIZA

In a recent study, a team of researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), and Leiden University in the Netherlands analysed a collection of 3,122 skeletal remains of European straight-tusked elephants excavated in the 1980s and 1990s from 125,000-year-old lake deposits at the Pleistocene site of Neumark-Nord, near Halle in Germany.

As well as identifying cutmarks, the team found that the remains of male elephants dominated the assemblage.

These findings have led the team to conclude that Pleistocene populations hunted elephants in this area continuously over a period of around 2,000 years, and mostly targeted older males. This may have been because, as with extant elephants, older males are more solitary, and would be easier to approach without the protection of a herd.

As they are so much larger than females, adult males would also have yielded much higher returns for significantly less risk.

Deep cut marks were identified on the heel bone of a male elephant, who had died age around 50 years old. Foot bones of elephants may have been severed in order to access rich deposits of fat. Photo: © Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University

‘This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution,’ said Professor Wil Roebroecks of Leiden University.

According to the study, the full findings of which have been published in Science Advances, the evidence for large-scale food processing and storage indicates that Neanderthals may have operated, at least temporarily, within groups much larger than typically assumed.

Excavations at archaeological site of Neumark-Nord near Halle, Germany, in summer 2007. Photo: © Wil Roebroeks, Leiden University

In 2021, the team published data revealing that woodland receded in the Neumark-Nord region following the arrival of Neanderthals – the earliest clear case of landscape modification in human evolution.