Neanderthal Hunters Probably Didn’t Herd Mammoths Off Cliffs

Not that it’s impossible, in general; it just probably didn’t happen at this one particular spot

Photo: Mauricio Anton

Popular lore has it that skilled Neanderthal hunters once herded mammoths off cliffs to a rocky doom. There is one site in Jersey, a British island off of France's northern coast, where mammoth bones marked with prehistoric stone knife marks were found in broken heaps. Because Neanderthals frequented the area, researchers thought this finding meant that the Neaderthals were systematically driving the animals over the edge of cliffs for an easy kill. And this idea has spread widely, through documentaries and media stories.

Now, new evidence emerges that this was probably not the case. It's not a crazy idea: Evidence exists that Native Americans drove buffalo off cliffs from about 12,000 years ago until around 1,500 C.E. But in this particular spot, it would like have been impossible for Neanderthals to drive the mammoths off the cliffs. Here's the Guardian

Researchers have found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that mammoths and other weighty beasts would never have ventured up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom.

"I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place."

The researchers surveyed the seabed near Jersey, which was not covered in water during the Neanderthal's 200,000 years living in the area, the Guardian continues. Mammoth ambushes, they say, would have been a much more likely scenario given the rocky landscape. As for the bone piles, the team thinks that the Neanderthals simply gathered them together for food, tool use or even to make fires with. But one question still remains, as Ancient Origins points out: why are some mammoth bones snapped in multiple places, "something that would have been virtually impossible for the Neanderthals to do?"  

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