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(CNN)Some 125,000 years ago, enormous elephants that weighed as much as eight cars each roamed in what's now northern Europe.
Scientifically known as Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the towering animals were the largest land mammals of the Pleistocene, standing more than 13 feet (4 meters) high. Despite this imposing size, the now-extinct straight-tusked elephants were routinely hunted and systematically butchered for their meat by Neanderthals, according to a new study of the remains of 70 of the animals found at a site in central Germany known as Neumark-Nord, near the city of Halle.
The discovery is shaking up what we know about how the extinct hominins, who existed for more than 300,000 years before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, organized their lives. Neanderthals were extremely skilled hunters, knew how to preserve meat and lived a more settled existence in groups that were larger than many scholars had envisaged, the research has suggested.
A distinct pattern of repetitive cut marks on the surface of the well-preserved bones — the same position on different animals and on the left and right skeletal parts of an individual animal — revealed that the giant elephants were dismembered for their meat, fat and brains after death, following a more or less standard procedure over a period of about 2,000 years. Given a single adult male animal weighed 13 metric tons (twice as much as an African elephant), the butchering process likely involved a large number of people and took days to complete.
Stone tools have been found in northern Europe with other straight-tusked elephant remains that had some cut marks. However, scientists have never had clarity on whether early humans actively hunted elephants or scavenged meat from those that died of natural causes. The sheer number of elephant bones with the systematic pattern of cut marks put this debate to rest, said the authors of the study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
The Neanderthals likely used thrusting and throwing spears, which have been found at another site in Germany, to target male elephants because of their larger size and solitary behavior, said study coauthor Wil Roebroeks, a professor of Paleolithic archaeology at Leiden University in Germany. The demographics of the site skewed toward older and male elephants than would be expected had the animals died naturally, according to the study.
"It's a matter of immobilizing these animals or driving them into muddy shores so that their weight works against them," he said. "If you can immobilize one with a few people and corner them into an area where they get stuck. It's a matter of finishing them off."
Preparation of big-game meat
What was most startling about the discovery was not that Neanderthals were capable of hunting such large animals but that they knew what to do with the meat, said Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in commentary published alongside the study.