Neanderthals were able to outwit straight-tusked elephants, the largest land mammals of the past few million years. Leiden professor Wil Roebroeks has published an article about this together with his German colleague Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser in the Science Advances journal.

It sounds like an archaeological discovery from an adventure book. In 2021 German archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) started her research into the remains of dozens of elephants that had been excavated in the 1980s and 1990s from a lignite quarry near Halle in Germany. The study of these bones is part of a longer-term overarching Mainz-Leiden research project that is analysing all the finds from this quarry. The elephant remains are part of a large number of animal (and plant) remains from this quarry, which give a good insight into an ecosystem from 125,000 years ago, in which humans were also active. The elephant bones, which were previously studied by Italian palaeontologists, were something of a mystery because they are mainly from adult male elephants. This is an unusual pattern that is not known from other sites.

Painstaking work

Gaudzinski-Windheuser almost immediately saw cut marks on the bones that had unmistakably been made by stone tools during butchering. The Mainz-Leiden team set about examining the bones and scouring the crates containing thousands of elephant fossils for bones with similar marks. Based on this painstaking work, Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues now conclude that over a period of 2,000 years many generations of Neanderthals hunted in groups what are known as straight-tusked elephants, the largest land mammals of the Ice Age. The males weighed up to 13 tonnes and had a shoulder height of more than 4 metres. Never before has such clear evidence been found for these hunting activities.

Preference for males

There is an easy explanation for why the hunting activities mainly focused on adult male elephants. Adult bulls lead a predominantly solitary life, unprotected by a herd. This made them an ‘easier target’. Moreover, the yield from such a hunt was considerable: the researchers calculate that one ten-tonne male elephant – by no means the largest from the area studied – provided at least 2,500 daily portions of fat and meat for adult Neanderthals.

Larger groups

The discovery offers another important insight, namely that Neanderthals temporarily congregated in larger groups than the maximum 20 that had previously been assumed. This could also be a good explanation for their impact on their natural environment, as previously identified by the same group of researchers. The Neanderthals must also have been able to store large quantities of meat for long periods.

The researchers have already made fascinating discoveries from the finds from the lignite quarry. They concluded, for instance, that Neanderthals kept certain parts of forested areas open with their frequent use of fire. The team wrote about hunting techniques 125,000 years ago, based on deer remains from the same site, in an article published five years ago in Nature Ecology and Evolution. They continue to study the remains and hope to find out even more about human’s influence on the landscape 125,000 years ago.

Discovery for the future too

Hunting methods, a broad prey spectrum, the use of plants as food, the impact of fire use on vegetation, temporary aggregation into larger groups to fell the largest giants on earth: these data tell us a lot about how our ancestors lived 125,000 years ago. But such insights are also building blocks for our future, says Roebroeks. ‘We are finding out more and more about the habitation history of our planet, how our survival strategies (hunting, gathering, fire use and – later – agriculture) influenced and changed ecosystems, and what effect our diet has on our biology and behaviour. This knowledge offers clues for how humans can continue to live on Earth in a healthy and sustainable way.’

The research into the interaction between prehistoric humans and their environments, and what it can tell us about a sustainable lifestyle, is part of the Leiden interdisciplinary research programme Liveable Planet.