New study finds ancient humans butchered elephants with stone tools 500,000 years ago
Archaeologists working at a site in Israel have found stone tools made hundreds of thousands of years ago alongside the remains of an ancient species of elephant and other game. The researchers tested the stone tools scientifically and found residue of fat and bone on them. They speculate Homo erectus people used the tools to butcher elephants and other animals for eating.
The authors, in their article in the journal PLOS One, say the site is just one of many Paleolithic sites showing evidence that people in the distant past butchered and ate elephants and mammoths. The site examined in this study was of Acheulian culture and dates between 300,000 and 500,000 years before the present. Homo erectus was a pre- Homo sapiens species that is considered not to have been as advanced as modern humans, but recent studies have shown they were more advanced than initially believed.
Location of the Revadim quarry (PLOS One)
But did these people who lived so long ago hunt or scavenge the elephants? In their article the authors allude to this question but don’t speculate about it.
“The methods of obtaining meat by early humans [are] still under discussion. While some scholars still argue that in Palaeolithic times humans were scavengers, most researchers nowadays strongly advocate hunting as the principal method for obtaining calories, based on new results of sets of analyses of the archaeological record. In this paper, however, we make no contribution regarding this hunting-scavenging debate but focus our attention on the use of Palaeolithic stone tools that follows the acquisition of the carcasses,” they wrote.
However Paleolithic people obtained the elephant carcasses for meat and marrow. The article says elephant and mammoth bones with cut marks indicating meat removal and percussion marks indicating marrow extraction are found at many Paleolithic sites.
Archaeologists photographed this elephant rib bone with cut marks in situ with flint tools, including a hand ax. (PLOS One photo)
“The archaeological record indicates that elephants must have played a significant role in early human diet and culture during Palaeolithic times in the Old World,” they wrote. “... Elephant remains are found in Palaeolithic sites, both open-air and cave sites, in Europe, Asia, the Levant, and Africa. In some cases elephant and mammoth remains indicate evidence for butchering and marrow extraction performed by humans. Revadim Quarry (Israel) is a Late Acheulian site where elephant remains were found in association with characteristic Lower Palaeolithic flint tools. In this paper we present results regarding the use of Palaeolithic tools in processing animal carcasses and rare identification of fat residue preserved on Lower Palaeolithic tools. … The association of an elephant rib bearing cut marks with these tools may reinforce the view suggesting the use of Palaeolithic stone tools in the consumption of large game.”
The authors said they found thousands of animal bones in each layer of the site, including the ancient elephant species Palaeloxodon antiquus, and oxen, gazelles, deer, and horses. There were 155 bones of the straight-tusk elephant in total.
The tools they examined include a scraper and a hand ax or biface, two tools typical of Paleolithic technology. (See the photos below.)
(PLOS One photos)
The scraper in the image below had “an organic residue probably of vegetable nature” and indications that it “had a prolonged contact with animal tissues,” the authors wrote.
The researchers also looked at use wear on these tools and found “well preserved and clear use-wear traces, including both edge removals and polishes. The biface use traces indicate the processing of medium-hard material throughout transversal motions, related probably to hide scraping. In the case of the scraper, the traces shows attributes associated with soft or medium material processed throughout longitudinal motion. The possible interpretation is cutting of animal tissues. Another kind of polish, that could be associated with wood, was also detected.
Both tools shows residue of adipocere (animal fat) which can be related to butchering (de-skinning) activity or hide working. On the scraper, both tissues and vegetable materials residues were found.
Featured Image: Paeleoxodon anitquus was a large elephant species that became extinct. (H. Osborn drawing/Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller