Neanderthals butchered 10-ton giant elephants to feed themselves

They were calorie bombs.
Nergis Firtina
Dr. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser next to a life-sized reconstruction of an adult male straight-tusked elephant.
Dr. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser next to a life-sized reconstruction of an adult male straight-tusked elephant.

Lutz Kindler 

A new study conducted by Leiden University researchers suggests that Neanderthals may have lived in larger groups than previously thought and hunted enormous elephants that were up to three times larger than modern elephants, according to the institutional press release.

Found near Halle (Central Germany), 125,000 year-old-skeletal remains of elephants were first discovered in the 1980s. The bones of around 70 elephants were from the Pleistocene era.

As reported by, an adult male elephant at that time could weigh up to 13 metric tons, and they were three times bigger than modern Asian elephants and larger than woolly mammoths.

"Hunting these giant animals and completely butchering them was part of Neanderthal subsistence activities at this location," Wil Roebroeks, a professor of archeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, a co-author of the study, told AFP, according to

"This constitutes the first clear-cut evidence of elephant hunting in human evolution," also said Roebroeks.

Neanderthals butchered 10-ton giant elephants to feed themselves
Large prehistoric relative of modern-day elephant.

Elephants had been hunted

The age and sex composition of the remains discovered in the quarry led the researchers to conclude that the elephants had been hunted.

"It's a typical selection made by hunters who went for the biggest prey," Roebroeks said.

"Whereas adult males are solitary animals most of the time," Roebroeks said. "So they are easier to immobilize, driving them into mud and pit traps. And they are the biggest calorie bombs that are walking around in these landscapes," Roebroeks explained.

"An average male elephant of about ten tons would have yielded something like, minimally, 2,500 daily portions for an adult Neanderthal," he added.

"They could deal with it, either by preserving it for longer time periods—that is already something that we didn't know—or simply by the fact that they lived in much, much larger groups than we commonly infer."

They used flint tools to butcher

According to the researchers, the Neanderthals butchered the animals with flint tools, which left visible imprints on the well-preserved bones.

"They are classical cut marks that are generated by cutting and scraping off the meat from the bones," Roebroeks said. The Neanderthals may have dried meat by hanging it on racks and lighting a fire underneath, according to traces of charcoal fires they may have used.

"But if you have a ten-ton elephant and you want to process that animal before it becomes rotten, you need something like 20 people to finish it in a week," he added.

The study was published in Science Advances on February 1.

Study abstract:

Straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) were the largest terrestrial mammals of the Pleistocene, present in Eurasian landscapes between 800,000 and 100,000 years ago. The occasional co-occurrence of their skeletal remains with stone tools has generated rich speculation about the nature of interactions between these elephants and Pleistocene humans: Did hominins scavenge on elephants that died a natural death or maybe even hunt some individuals? Our archaeozoological study of the largest P. antiquus assemblage known, excavated from 125,000-year-old lake deposits in Germany, shows that hunting of elephants weighing up to 13 metric tons was part of the cultural repertoire of Last Interglacial Neanderthals there, over >2000 years, many dozens of generations. The intensity and nutritional yields of these well-documented butchering activities, combined with previously reported data from this Neumark-Nord site complex, suggest that Neanderthals were less mobile and operated within social units substantially larger than commonly envisaged.

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