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2019-08-09 12:02:03   •   ID: 2114

Early Paleolithic Pleistocene European Straight-Tusked Elephants and early Humans

Figure 1: Pleistocene European Straight-Tusked Elephant; Wikipedia Commons
Figure 2
Figure 2-4 shows different views from a molar of an European Straight-Tusked Elephant the Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus (FALCONER & CAUTLEY, 1847), found within the Rhine- Region and stratigraphically dated to MIS 5 sediments- Credits to D. Döbert / Lorsch.

The Typical "Elephas Antiquus-Fauna", which contains Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis, Sus scrofa, Dama dama, Capreolus capreolus, Megaloceros giganteus, Alces latifrons, and Bos primigenius in addition to the straight tusked elephant is characteristic for the European Middle to Late Pleistocene Interglacial conditions. Under optimal conditions even Hippopotamus amphibius and Bubalus murrensis occurred.

Figure 3
This Faunal Association is especially found within a Mediterranean Core area, expanding to West and Central Europe under warm thermal conditions. The Eastern boundary of the Antiquus fauna can be roughly drawn from Poland to Romania.

Proboscideans are an order of mammals that include the living elephants as well as the extinct mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres. All members of the order have a proboscis or trunk that they use to grab food and water.

They also have specialized teeth to browse and graze on vegetation as well as tusks (modified second upper incisors) used to scrape bark off trees, dig on the ground for food, and to fight.

The living three species of elephants on our planet are the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).

Figure 4
Genetic evidence from four individuals of Straight-Tusked Elephants, from two well known sites in Central German sites (Neumark-Nord: n=3; MIS5) and Weimar Ehringsdorf (n=1; MIS7) indicates that P. antiquus mitochondrial genomes are related to African forest elephants.

This is of major interest, regarding that until recently Palaeontologists suggested, based on skeletal traits, that Palaeoloxodon was related to the Asian elephant.

Surprisingly, P. antiquus did not cluster with E. maximus, as hypothesized from morphological analyses. Instead, it fell within the mito-genetic diversity of extant L. cyclotis, with very high statistical support.

The four straight-tusked elephants did not cluster together within this mitochondrial clade, but formed two separate lineages that share a common ancestor with an extant L. cyclotis lineage 0.7–1.6 Ma (NN) and 1.5–3.0 Ma (WE) ago, respectively
“ (Meyer et al. 2017).

Figure 5 shows a transversal scraper from a Palaeoloxodon site in Spain, probably used in butchering Activities.

Experimental work shows, that even simple flakes, but also Handaxes, and Scrapers were used in the processing of Elephant carcasses during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic.

Figure 6 shows two typical Limestone Handaxes from Venosa, dated to the middle Pleistocene. Here a site with Palaeoloxodon antiquus fauna was "excavated" early in the 20th century.

The Archeological Record from the Levante to Europe, evaluated with up-to-date Methods (Isotope- techniques, TL, Microstratigraphy, Taphonomy, Strontium isotope analysis, Paleogenetic methods) allow a reliable reconstruction of Man- Elephant relationship focused on the following points:

Figure 5
Nutritional importance of Meat and Fat: Getting access to large quantities of high quality Fat and Meat, whether by scavenging or active hunting (The Start of active hunting roughly coincidences with the Evolution of H. Erectus), was one important prerequisite of Human Encephalation, because inclusion of more animal food in the diet stimulated brains to enlarge.

We argue that a significant aspect of meat and fat came from elephants, as long as elephants were available. It is true that Acheulian hominins consumed a large variety of other animals, but none of these resembles the “ideal” package of fat and meat offered by the elephant.

The archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that Acheulian homi- nins were not indifferent to such ideal food-packages that roamed Africa, Europe, Asia and the Levant during the Pleistocene, and ate elephants continuously over hundreds of thousands of years
“ (Barkai and Gopher 2013).

Ron Barkei even suggests, that: „ early hominins might have had taste preferences and that elephant meat played a significant role in their diet, when available.

Furthermore, the archaeological evidence coupled with ethnographic observations and the study of frozen mammoths suggest that juvenile elephants were specifically a delicacy and were hunted intentionally since their specific meat and fat composition seems to have had a better taste and a better nutritional value
“ (Barkai 2017).

Hunting / Scavenging / Exploitation of Elephants: An important prerequisite of a scientific evaluation of Killing / Slaughtering sites remains the proven integrity of the site.

Participially we have to face two different scenarios:

1. the exploitation of a single elephant carcass or

2. A lithic industry in close association with multiple remains of elephants and other Mammalian Macrofauna.

There are numerous Pleistocene associations of Elephants and Paleolithic sites. Killing of Elephants by early hunters is not easy to prove.

Direct proof comes from sites, where hunting-devices (spears, fragments of stone tools found incorporated within bone) are embedded in the carcasses. Such settings remain certainly the most elegant evidence but are notorious rare.

Killing or scavenging of Elephants and the consecutive butchering may indirectly evidenced by the nearby association of Stone tools, with microtraceologic evidence of slaughtering activities and stone tools cut marks on the Elephants bones before other carnifores had opportunity to consume the carcasses.

It seems that the mortality pattern of processed animals was focused on young adults (Cerelli et al. 2016).

A critical overview was recently published by Cerelli et al. (see attached papers). Aspects from some earlier excavated sites have been already described in this Blog.- here I focus on more recent excavations, mainly from South Europe.

Important Archaeological sites: The earliest evidence of elephant carcass butchery comes from the Early to Middle Pleistocene of Africa. The main sites are FLK North Olduvai level 6 (1,82 Ma), FLK North Olduvai Bed II and Barogali (Djibouti) (ca 1,5 Ma).

In Israel, Palaeoloxodon antiquus associated with lithic tools are reported from Gesher Benot Ya'akov (0,8 Ma). At Revadim Quarry (ca 500-300k.a BP), on the Israelian costal plain, Middle Pleistocene elephant bones with cut marks associated with bifaces made on stone and cortical elephant bone were present.

South Europe was during the last years an important area of Paleolithic research. Many of the sites date to MIS 13 and are about 500 k.a. old.

The exploitation of elephant (Palaeoloxodon) carcasses is documented in a number of Middle Pleistocene sites in Spain (Aridos 2, MIS 11 , Ambrona MIS 12) and France (Terra Amata; MIS 9-11).

At Notarchirico (Basilicata), a Lower Palaeolithic industry, that included Bifaces and Choppers, was dated between 670 and 610 k.a. and associated with a skull of P. antiquus with the tusks still in place.

The butchering site of La Ficoncella (Tarquinia, Latium) is slightly younger (MIS 13). Here, an incomplete P. antiquus carcass was associated with small sized lithics, resembling the Bilzingsleben / Vertesszöllös assemblages from the Middle Pleistocene.

Important human-elephant interaction is documented during the late Middle Pleistocene from several sites near Rome, in particular at Castel di Guido, dated between 327 and 260 k.a. (MIS9).

Castel di Guido is a famous Middle Pleistocene elephant butchering site where intentionally fragmented bones of elephant and of other large mammals were found together with Acheulean industry, including bifaces made of various stone types and of elephant bone, associated with flint tools on flakes.

La Polledrara di Cecanibbio site is another locality near Rome with rich Palaeoloxodon antiquus deposits from the the Middle Pleistocene. Geology points to a flat fluvial-marshy landscape, with open spaces and moderately covered woodlands.

Small Flake tools, made from small local flint pebbles, were found near a almost complete and articulated skeleton of an Elephant.

Several of these Flakes, without and with simple retouches, occurred together and were used for butchering / hiding purposes according to Microtraceology.

Some larger tools (mainly scrapers) were made made from Elephants cortical bones. The age of the Archaeological Horizon is associated to the "Ponte Galeria Sequence", (PGS) dated as early as 450 k.a. (MIS 13)

In Greek the Early Paleolithic Site Marathousa ,Megalopolis Basin, Greece is of major importance. It is dated by ESR to MIS 13. The lithic industry is Mode 1 (Core and Flake ensemble).

of particular interest are an elephant cranium and numerous post-cranial elements, which were found in close anatomical association and are attributed to a single individual of the straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

The skeleton belonged to a male individual in its late adulthood close to or in its sixties, with live skeletal height around 3.7 m at the shoulder and body mass around 9.0 tonnes. The good state of preservation of the MAR-1 bones allows the identification of taphonomic modifications.

Cut marks on the elephant skeleton, and on other elephant and mammal bones, indicate human exploitation by means of butchering activities, in accordance with the traits of the lithic assemblage and its spatial association with the bones.

Carnivore activity is also recorded on some elephant and cervid bones. Marathousa 1 is among the oldest elephant butchering sites in Europe and the only one known in Southeastern Europe
(Konidaris et al. 2018)“.

Symbolic and Spiritual aspects: Ron Barkai et al. recently discussed the Symbolic / Cosmologic connection between Elaphants and Man during the Pleistocene. Although somewhat speculative- his discussion opens new avenues of understanding the special relationship between our ancestors and Elephants (see for example the last external links)

Resources and images in full resolution: