The Sciences

Hunter-Gatherers Butchered an Extinct Elephant at This Ancient Campsite

Hunter-gatherers likely used Tagua Tagua Lake as a seasonal stop, watering hole 12,000 years ago.

By Paul SmaglikMay 23, 2024 4:00 PM
Composite image showing various fossils excavated at Tagua Tagua Lake in Chile, including close-up views of skeletal remains and stone artifacts, each marked with measurement scales and identifiers
Fossils from Tagua Tagua Lake in Chile (Credit: Labaraca et al)


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A new snapshot of a camp on a central Chile lake reveals a picture of a band of hunter-gatherers who paused to butcher, then feast upon, an extinct relative of the elephant about 12,450 years ago.

The narrative the archeologists are trying to construct based on artifacts found there includes seasonal stops at Tagua Tagua Lake and the periodic banding together of multiple groups, according to a study in PLOS ONE.

A Band of Hunter-Gatherers

The dominant feature of the site is the fossil remains of a gomphothere, an extinct relative of the elephant. The bones show signs of butchering, and nearby stone tools — including one probably used to scrape the hide — supports that.

The site also features other signs of food processing — including the charred remains of plants and small animals, as well as fossilized cactus seeds. The archeologists then used those artifacts to make several inferences.

First, they suspect that multiple groups banded together. It probably required several people to butcher the giant mammal — and even more to eat it before the meat went bad, since there was no way to effectively preserve it.

“So you must gather a lot of people to feast,” says Rafael Labarca, an anthropologist with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago and an author of the study.

That inference is based on ethnographies of other cultures. For instance, in Africa, after a successful hunt, many groups banded together for a few weeks not just to dine but to maintain social relationships. “We think something similar was happening,” says Labarca.

Read More: What Is a Nomad, and Are There Any Nomadic Tribes That Still Exist?

Ancient Chilean Campsite

The evidence also points to temporary, seasonal use of the site — likely during the dry season. The lake provided ample access to water, as well as birds, mammals, and amphibians the nomads could eat. Those resources likely drew the nomads back to the lake time and again; several similar sites have been found on the lake, but with items carrying different carbon dates.

“We suspect that these early hunter-gatherers visited the lake regularly because of the resources it offered,” says Labarca.

Labarca suspects that the nomads returned to the lake during the dry season. But he’s not sure if they lived in a more permanent site the rest of the year, followed an established route throughout the year, or wandered aimlessly.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know about these hunter-gathers in Chile”, says Labarca.

Read More: What Did the Transition From Hunter Gatherer to Farming Really Look Like?

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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