Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have uncovered a 500,000-year-old complete fossil tusk of an ancient elephant at a Late Lower Palaeolithic site in southern Israel.
The exceptionally well-preserved 2.5 metres long tusk was exposed during a two-week excavation named ‘Operation Elephant’ near Revadim, which lies between the Judean Mountains and Israel’s coastal plain.
It belonged to a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), a species which first appeared in the region c. 800,000 years ago, and disappeared entirely from Europe and West Asia c. 40,00 years ago.
Estimated to have reached up to 4.2 metres in height, the ancient species was much larger than the present-day African elephant.
Previous excavations at the Revadim site have unearthed numerous stone and flint tools assigned to the Late Acheulean, along with a plethora of faunal remains.
They have also revealed one of the largest assemblages of straight-tusked elephant bone fragments in the southern Levant.
Cutmarks on the faunal remains (including on those of straight-tusked elephants) and fat residues identified on the stone tools indicate that animal butchering, and perhaps consumption, took place at the site.
However, what makes this new discovery so impressive is that it is the largest complete fossil tusk ever found in the Near East.
The next step – extracting the tusk from the surrounding sediment – will pose a serious challenge.
‘The fossilized tusk is extremely fragile, and it is likely to disintegrate when exposed to the air and sunlight, and to human touch,’ explains Professor Israel Hershkovitz from Tel Aviv University.
‘The tusk was subjected to an initial conservation treatment when it was first discovered. Now we are excavating it within its archaeological context, before transferring it to the Israel Antiquities Authority Conservation Laboratory, where it will be studied and conserved.’
Experts are now exploring theories of whether the tusk represents the remains of a hunted elephant or whether it was collected and kept by the site’s prehistoric inhabitants. As the tusk shows no signs of processing, they suggest it may have served some ritual purpose.
It is therefore hoped that the fossil can shed new light on the role of elephants within Lower Palaeolithic dietary and social practices.
Following conservation work, the tusk will be displayed in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel in Jerusalem.