Neanderthals Hunted Giant Elephants, Lived in Large Groups

When Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany in 1856, it didn’t take long for scientists to depict the hominids as dumb brutes.

Even today, the word is often used to describe someone lacking in intelligence or subtlety.

Yet the latest research once again shows that these pre-humans were likely far more intelligent and advanced than previously thought.

After studying a huge trove of animal bones and stone tools first unearthed in a German coal mine in the 1980s, researchers found evidence that Neanderthals regularly hunted and butchered the straight-tusked elephant, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.


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Everybody knows woolly mammoths, of course, but the equally extinct straight-tusked elephant was even bigger. It weighed up to 13 tonnes and reached 4 meters tall at the shoulder — nearly twice the size of modern African elephants.

Hunting and killing such huge beasts with wooden spears would have been a terrifying and dangerous experience. Yet when researchers began examining the bones and tools from the mine in east-central Germany, they found 3,400 bones belonging to 70 of these enormous elephants, Science reported.

After months of examinations, nearly every bone showed signs of butchery, offering the first real evidence of large-scale elephant hunting among Neanderthals living 125,000 years ago.

“Either they were capable of storing the huge amounts of food that came from butchering these animals for a long time and/or that they were operating in, at least temporarily, in much larger groups than commonly envisaged for Neanderthals and other early hunter-gatherers,” University of Leiden archaeologist and study co-author Wil Roebroeks said in an interview with NPR.


Scientists have uncovered the first evidence that Neanderthals hunted huge extinct species of elephants. Photo: Shutterstock


Bigger elephants mean bigger groups

It’s no surprise, given their size, that straight-tusked elephants had a lot of meat.

In fact, a single elephant would have had enough flesh to feed 350 people for a week or 100 people for a month.

If Neanderthals were harvesting these animals, it changes not only the modern understanding of their intelligence but the size and complexity of their tribes.

Scientists have long believed that Neanderthals lived in small groups of up to 20 individuals. But that doesn’t make sense in the context of the banquet offered by a single dead elephant.

“This is really hard and time-consuming work,” Lutz Kindler of the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center, told Science. “Why would you slaughter the whole elephant if you’re going to waste half?”

The answer is simple: You wouldn’t. Looking at the bones from Germany, researchers found gouges and scratches on nearly every single bone.

“They really went for every scrap of meat and fat,” Roebroeks said.

That means Neanderthals lived in much larger groups, coordinating elephant hunts with a “high level of competence in sequencing and planning.”

“So ok, cool — Neanderthals hunted elephants,” study co-author Britt Starkovich told NPR. “But beyond that, the social and cultural implications of this are really, really profound. The thought of a hundred Neanderthals coming together to exchange ideas and culture and genes and stories, it’s incredibly compelling.”

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.