A new study shows that Neanderthals had a greater talent for cooperation than scientists previously thought. About 125,000 years ago, they already hunted in an organized course on forest elephants, the largest land animals in the past three million years.
After studying a large amount of remains of forest elephant bones, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals hunted en masse to kill adult forest elephants. Then they also worked together to dry huge quantities of the meat of the killed animal so that it could be preserved for a longer period of time. Not only were early humans active in larger groups than previously thought, but they also stayed in one place for longer than previously thought. Because killing, cutting and drying the thousands of kilograms of meat produced by such an elephant must have taken a lot of time. The study was published in the journal Science Advances.
It is the next step in the “liberation” of the Neanderthals, who were, in our view, a primitive, stupid man some twenty years ago. We now know that this early man mastered fire, Making cave paintingsbury the dead and transfer the DNA to us.
The new study, to which Dutch archaeologist Will Robrocks also contributed, adds new elements to this modern picture. The researchers examined 3,122 forest elephant remains found in Germany, ranging from nearly complete skeletons to disjointed bone remains. It was already known from previous research that these bones came mainly from adult males. From this, the researchers concluded that the Neanderthals did not wait for the death of huge forest elephants, but rather hunted the animals in groups.
Almost all of the elephants’ skeletons were covered with carving marks from stone tools. “These traces indicate that they had access to very fresh corpses, which they removed completely,” Robrocks says. Animals can hardly die of natural causes: “In that case you would expect a lot from animals, young and old, because they have a greater chance of dying.”
13 tons heavy
The researchers concluded that there must have been a catch. But when you hunt a jungle elephant, you don’t just do it. Robrocks: “An adult male can weigh about 13 tons. That’s about ten passenger cars in a heap.”
So why not catch a female who barely weighs half? “It was much more difficult to catch them, because they lived in groups with other females and also vigorously guarded their young. Adult males often lived in partial isolation.” Of course, the double amount of meat also couldn’t sneeze.
Therefore, hunting such a giant animal required a lot of cooperation. And this was only the first step. “It is estimated that a group of 25 people could easily process such a massive amount of meat and fat in less than a week,” Robrocks says.
Fat was also common
The ellipses show that animal fat was very common. The meat of wild animals is very lean, unlike the fatter meat we eat today. “Forest elephants had a lot of fat on their lower legs, which served as a kind of shock absorber. Really all the foot bones have wound marks.”
To make all that meat last, Neanderthals must have dried it. They may have done this through exposure to air, but also through fire. “They definitely had that,” says Robrocks. “In Europe, fire was already used 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Sometimes they also kept the landscape open by burning trees and other plants. But of course you could also smoke meat with it.”
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