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Neanderthal groups looked and acted differently than once thought, research suggests

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you ever get tired of eating leftovers, you should take pity on the Neanderthals. A new study suggests our prehistoric cousins would slaughter giant, straight-tusked elephants for dinner, giving new meaning to the phrase supersize it.

LUTZ KINDLER: These elephants were much, much larger. They were three times larger than African elephants today. So these were really calorie bombs.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Lutz Kindler is a zooarchaeologist in Germany. In a study out in the journal Science Advances, his team writes that the meat and fat from a kill like that could sustain 25 people for three months or hundreds of people for a week.

SHAPIRO: His co-author, Wil Roebroeks, says this has big implications for how Neanderthals might have lived.

WIL ROEBROEKS: It gives us an insight in - either that they were capable of storing the huge amounts of food that came from butchering these animals for a long time and/or that they were operating in, at least temporarily, in much larger groups than commonly envisaged for Neanderthals and other early hunter-gatherers.

SUMMERS: The researchers studied elephant bones recovered from a German mine decades ago. They found regular patterns of cut marks on the bones, suggesting Neanderthals methodically broke down their kills, just like your local butcher might break down a chicken the same way each time.

ROEBROEKS: Of course, you can only butcher animals - and there's not a lot of way in which you can butcher them, but they seem to have been doing it over a very long time period.

SHAPIRO: They also found the remains were disproportionately adult males, a sign that Neanderthals were hunting rather than scavenging the animals.

BRITT STARKOVICH: It's just really unusual. There aren't a lot of natural explanations for why that would happen, which is why these researchers concluded that it must have been from hunting and targeting bull males in particular, which are often living, like, solitary. They're not part of a herd. So it's a little bit easier to kill them.

SUMMERS: Zooarchaeologist Britt Starkovich was not involved in the work. She says it reframes her understanding of Neanderthals as simply small bands of roaming hunter-gatherers. Instead, an elephant kill would have allowed them to gather larger groups for longer periods of time.

STARKOVICH: So, OK, cool - Neanderthals hunted elephants. But beyond that, the social and cultural implications of this, I think, are really, really profound. The thought of a hundred Neanderthals coming together to exchange ideas and culture and genes and stories, it's incredibly compelling.

SHAPIRO: And she says the study provides yet more evidence that Neanderthals were more clever than they often get credit for. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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