While it's already known that Neanderthals were skilled hunter-gatherers, new evidence suggests that they decided to hunt and eat some of the biggest animals of their time period.
A new study published in Science Advances by a team of researchers from Germany suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate straight-tusked elephants. Straight-tusked elephants were the largest land animals of the Pleistocene epoch and roamed Europe and Asia between 800,000 and 100,000 years ago.
Skeletal Analysis of Straight-Tusked Elephants
In the 1980s, coal miners near Neumark-Nord, Germany, discovered a plethora of stone tools and animal bones. In 1985, archaeologists began evaluating the find, spending over a decade on the research.
However, it wasn't until recently that researchers uncovered marks and scratches on nearly all of the 3,400 straight-tusked elephant bones included in the find.
Some of the bones were so heavy that researchers required a forklift to move them. According to archaeozoologist and lead study author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser in an interview with Science, almost every bone shows signs of butchery, especially under a microscope.
These results mean that the Neanderthals who hunted these elephants were extremely thorough, according to researchers. They didn't leave behind much meat on the carcasses if any at all. Researchers were able to determine this due to a lack of bite marks on any of the bones, which would have indicated that scavenger animals, such as hyenas, were chewing on the remains.
Other important findings in the study include intense cuts on multiple elephant skulls and mandibles, indicating that the group of Neanderthals exploited nearly every body part of the hunted elephant.
Larger Implications for Neanderthals
Given the vast amount of bones found at the site, and the marks found on them, it's already evident that Neanderthals hunted straight-tusked elephants for food. It's important to note just how big the elephants were. Adult male straight-tusked elephants could weigh up to 13 metric tons (over 28,000 pounds), which is roughly twice as large as modern-day adult male African elephants.
Researchers estimate that the meat from one straight-tusked elephant would have been enough to feed 350 people over a week or 100 people over a month.
Given this estimation and the fact that archeologists recovered so many elephant bones, researchers say it's fair to assume that Neanderthals sometimes moved in groups larger than previously thought.
However, that may not have always been the case. While taking down an adult straight-tusked elephant likely took lots of planning and effort, it's unclear whether Neanderthals remained in large groups for long periods of time or split off and separated once after the hunt.
Regardless, it's possible that because one group of Neanderthals in Europe was able to hunt down these animals, other groups of Neanderthals were able to as well, making our ancestors even more complex than what was once assumed.
Read More: Which Animals Did Early Humans Mainly Hunt?