Neanderthals Hunted and Butchered Massive Elephants 125,000 Years Ago

Meat from the gigantic animals could have fed hundreds of hominids, according to a new analysis of bones found in central Germany

Close-up of cut mark on animal bone
The findings suggest Neanderthals made deep cut marks on the foot bones of straight-tusked elephants to access the rich deposits of fat in the animals' foot pads. Wil Roebroeks / Leiden University

Neanderthals hunted and butchered gigantic prehistoric elephants, garnering massive amounts of meat that could feed hundreds of people, according to a new analysis of 125,000-year-old animal bones.

The findings, published Wednesday in Science Advances, provide yet another piece of evidence to suggest that humans’ closest ancient relatives were more sophisticated and skilled than the brutish oafs popular culture has made them out to be.

Between 1985 and 1996, archaeologists recovered 3,122 elephant remains at Neumark-Nord 1, a site near the present-day city of Halle in central Germany. The trove included entire skeletons, stomach contents and random bones from more than 70 individual straight-tusked elephants. This now-extinct species stood more than 13 feet tall and weighed between 6 and 13 tons—roughly the same as eight mid-sized cars. Straight-tusked elephants were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene.

Recently, researchers decided to give those remains a closer look. They found a series of strategic, repetitive cut marks on the bones’ surface, suggesting that Neanderthals carefully butchered the enormous mammals for their fat, meat and even their brains. This behavior likely persisted at the site for more than 2,000 years over dozens of generations, per the researchers.

Archaeologist with massive femur bone
Archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser examines the femur of a large adult male straight-tusked elephant LEIZA / Lutz Kindler

The dismembering process would’ve taken between 200 and 600 hours if done by one person, and it yielded a massive amount of meat: more than 2,500 daily portions of 4,000 calories each, the researchers calculate. That would’ve been enough to feed 25 Neanderthals for three months, 100 for a month and 350 for a week. Straight-tusked elephants were “the biggest calorie bombs that are walking around in these landscapes,” says study co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, to the Agence France-Presse.

Marks on the bones suggest Neanderthals went to great lengths to harvest every bit of usable food possible—even the fat pads on the animals’ feet. Archaeologists didn’t find many tooth marks on the bones, which indicates that not much was left for opportunistic scavenging carnivores to eat.

“There’s maybe a bit of nibbling on isolated vertebra, but most of these remains were so clean they weren’t attractive for carnivores,” says study co-author Lutz Kindler, an archaeologist at Germany’s Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, to New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

Archaeologist next to replica elephant
Archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser stands next to a life-size reconstruction of an adult male straight-tusked elephant. LEIZA / Lutz Kindler

Scientists have long believed that Neanderthals lived in small groups of roughly 20 members or fewer and moved around frequently. The new evidence, however, suggests they may have gathered in much larger numbers, at least temporarily, and stayed in the same place under the right conditions, such as abundant food and good weather. It’s possible these gatherings could also have helped members of different groups pair up with mates, reports CNN’s Katie Hunt.

Based on the sheer amount of food one straight-tusked elephant could provide, the findings suggest Neanderthals knew how to store and preserve meat, likely by smoking or drying.

Since many of the specimens at Neumark-Nord 1 were male and older elephants, Neanderthals were likely actively hunting, not just scavenging meat from animals that had died of other causes. Male elephants often roamed alone, which would’ve made them easier targets than females, which tended to congregate in groups to protect their young.

Cut mark on animal bone
Cut marks on the foot bone of a straight-tusked elephant Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser and Lutz Kindler

Archaeologists suspect the prehistoric hominids hunted the colossal creatures by driving them into pits or muddy areas, then finishing them off with spears. Past research has suggested that Neanderthals hunted other mammals, too, including deer and wild horses.

“Neanderthals knew what they were doing,” writes Britt Starkovich, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen who was not involved in the study, in an accompanying article for Science Advances. “They knew which kinds of individuals to hunt, where to find them and how to execute the attack. Critically, they knew what to expect with a massive butchery effort and an even larger meat return.”