Neanderthals would drive mammoth off the edge of cliffs

Neanderthals cleared of herding mammoth over cliff edge

(Read the article on one page)

It has long been believed that the piles of mammoth and woolly rhino bones found piled up at the foot of a cliff in Jersey was the result of Neanderthals driving the animals to their deaths over the edge for food. Jersey was, after all, a major site for Neanderthal habitation. However, new evidence published in the journal Antiquity suggests that it would have been impossible for the Neanderthals to herd the mammoth off the cliff, not least because of the plateau that ends the cliff edge was so high and rocky that mammoth and other weighty animals would never have ventured up there.

"It was in the 70s and 80s that the hypothesis was put forward that Neanderthals were grouping together to drive herds of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos off the cliffs and butchering them," said Dr Geoff Smith, an analyst for Jersey Archive. "No-one has ever really questioned it so we are going back, re-assessing and re-analysing and see if we can come up with new information to come up with more support or even refute it slightly.”

The piles of bones are a major feature at La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey , a British Crown dependency just off the coast of Normandy, France.  La Cotte is one of the most spectacular Neanderthal sites in Europe - hundreds of thousands of stone tools and animal bone fragments have been uncovered at the Jersey site where Neanderthals lived on and off for around 200,000 years.

One of the reasons that led to the cliff hypothesis is that the animal bones showed signs of severe trauma.  The legs were badly broken, something that would be incredibly difficult for people to do – mammoth bones are very elastic and very tough. The injuries were consistent with the scenario of the animal falling from a great height and landing on its feet.

Neanderthals would drive mammoth off the edge of cliffs

It is thought Neanderthals would drive mammoth off the edge of cliffs. Photo credit: Jersey Heritage

To examine this perspective, researchers drew on a survey of the seabed that stretches away from the cliff to reconstruct the landscape when the Neanderthals lived there. They found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that it would have been virtually impossible for mammoths to get up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom.

"I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place."

Some other features of the bones piles were also at odds with the cliff perspective. The bones heaps appeared to be deliberately arranged. The first bone heap contained the remains, mainly skulls and ribs, of nine mammoths and a rhinoceros. Another bone heaps consisted of mainly limbs, pelvic bones and scapulae of at least 8 mammoths and three rhinoceros. Could the bone heaps reflect a butchering site instead?  

Neanderthals living there may have brought the bones there after hunts, or from scavenged carcasses, and used them for food, heating and even building shelters. Older sediments at the site are rich with burnt bone and charcoal, suggesting the bones were used as fuel. The heaps of bones were preserved when Neanderthals last abandoned the site, and a fine dust of silt blew over and preserved the remains.

Bones from archaeological sites show that nothing of the animal was wasted. Hunters could make needles, awls and spear tips from animal bones. The sinews, gut and tendons were used to bind stone tools to wooden hafts. The stomach became a useful bag for carrying blood or water. The fat may have been used to waterproof skin boots and other clothing. Grease may have been smeared over the skin to insulate against the cold or to protect from insects. Hair, which has strong fibres, were twisted together to make thread, and the animal skins were used to make bags, as well as clothes, shoes, blankets, and shelter.

The results of the latest research appear compelling.  However, if the Neanderthals didn’t herd the mammoth over the cliffs, the question remains as to how the bones came to be snapped in pieces, something that would have been virtually impossible for the Neanderthals to do.


Justbod's picture

Interesting article. Shows how important it can be to revisit and challenge established theories. Want to visit Jersey now!

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature:




Maybe they dropped rocks from the cliff to break the bones?

Or, they herded the animals under the cliffs to drop rocks on them to kill them?

That's the mystery right? How did the bones break? I'd say your right, something went over the side, rock or bone. 
It says in the article: "Bones from archaeological sites show that nothing of the animal was wasted"

They were not going to waste that marrow.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Ancient Technology

The Lycurgus Cup.
A strange chalice made its way into the British Museum’s collection in the 1950s. It is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman artifact called the Lycurgus Cup. The image on the chalice is an iconic scene with King Lycurgus of Thrace...

Ancient Places

The highly-decorated tomb is built in a distinctive ‘L’ shape
A mysterious ancient tomb with “unusual and rare” wall paintings has been discovered in Egypt. Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enany told BBC reporters the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb found during excavation work in Giza’s western cemetery “likely belonged to Hetpet, a priestess to Hathor, the goddess of fertility, who assisted women in childbirth.”

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article