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About 125,000 years ago, huge elephants that weighed as much as eight cars each wandered into what is now North Europe.
Known scientifically as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the imposing animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, reaching a height of more than 4 meters (13 feet). Despite this imposing size, the now extinct straight-tusked elephants Neanderthals routinely hunted and slaughtered them for their meat, according to a new study of the remains of 70 of the animals found at a central German site known as Neumark-Nord, near the city of Halle.
The discovery is shaking up what We know how extinct hominids, which existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to preserve meat, and lived a more stable existence in groups that were larger than many academics had anticipated, the research suggests.
A distinctive pattern of repetitive cut marks on the surface of well-preserved bones, the same position in different animals, and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal, revealed that giant elephants were dismembered for their meat, fat, and brains. . after death, following a more or less standard procedure for a period of about 2,000 years. Since a single adult male animal weighed 13 metric tons (twice that of an African elephant), the slaughter process likely involved a large number of people and took days to complete.
Stone tools have been found in northern Europe with other remains of straight-tusked elephants that had some cut marks. However, scientists have never been clear about whether early humans actively hunted elephants or meat salvaged from those who died of natural causes. The large number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cut marks put an end to this debate, said the authors of the study published Wednesday in the journal. Progress of science.
Neanderthals likely used thrusting and throwing spears, found at another site in Germany, to attack male elephants because of their larger size and solitary behavior, said study co-author Wil Roebroeks, a professor of Paleolithic archeology at the University of Leiden in Germany. According to the study, the demography of the site was skewed towards older male elephants than would be expected if the animals had died naturally.
“It’s about immobilizing these animals or taking them to muddy shores so that their weight works against them,” he said. “If you can pin one down with a few people and corner them in an area where they get stuck. It’s a matter of ending them.”
The most surprising thing about the discovery was not that Neanderthals were capable of hunting such large animals, but that they knew what to do with the meat, said Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and the Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in a commentary published along with the study.
“The performance is amazing: more than 2,500 daily servings of 4,000 calories per serving. A group of 25 foragers could eat a straight-tusked elephant for 3 months, 100 foragers could eat for a month, and 350 people could eat for a week,” wrote Starkovich, who was not involved in the research.
“The Neanderthals knew what they were doing. They knew what kind of individuals to hunt, where to find them, and how to execute the attack. Critically, they knew what to expect with a massive butchering effort and an even bigger meat return.”
The Neanderthals who lived there likely knew how to preserve and store meat, perhaps through the use of fire and smoke, Roebroeks said. It’s also possible that such a meat bonanza was an opportunity for temporary gatherings of people from a larger social network, said study co-author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a professor of prehistoric and protohistoric archaeology. at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
She explained that the occasion could perhaps have served as a marriage market. A October 2022 study Based on ancient DNA from a small group of Neanderthals living in what is now Siberia, it suggested that the women married outside their own community, said Gaudzinski-Windheuser, who is also director of the Monrepos Archaeological Research Center and Museum. of the Evolution of Human Behavior in Neuwied.
“We don’t see that in the archaeological record, but I think the real benefit of this study is that everything is now on the table,” he said.
Scientists had long thought that Neanderthals were highly mobile and lived in small groups of 20 or less. However, this latest finding suggests that they may have lived in much larger groups and been more sedentary at this particular place and time, when food was plentiful and the climate mild. The climate at that time, before the ice sheets advanced at the start of the last ice age around 100,000 to 25,000 years ago, would have been similar to conditions today.
Killing an elephant with tusks would not have been an everyday event, the study found, with roughly one animal killed every five to six years at this location based on the number found. However, more elephant remains may have been destroyed as the site is part of an open pit mine, according to the researchers. Other finds at the site suggested that Neanderthals hunted a wide variety of animals in a lake landscape populated by wild animals. horses, fallow deer and deer.
More broadly, the study underscores the fact that Neanderthals were not the brutal cave dwellers so often depicted in popular culture. In fact, the opposite is true: they were skilled hunters, knew how to process and preserve food, and thrived in a variety of different ecosystems and climates. Neanderthals also made sophisticated tools, thread Y Artand them he buried his dead carefully.
“To the more recognizable human traits that we know Neanderthals had (caring for the sick, burying their dead, and occasional symbolic representations), we must now also consider that they had preservation technologies to store food and were occasionally semi-sedentary or were a Sometimes it operated in larger groups than we imagined,” Starkovich said.
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