Sport Archeology: The giants of the lake

13:35  23 may  2020
13:35  23 may  2020 Source:   sueddeutsche.de

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Der Unterkiefer der Waldelefantenkuh, die vor etwa 300000 Jahren lebte. © dpa The lower jaw of the forest elephant cow, which lived about 300,000 years ago.

In Lower Saxony archaeologists have discovered the remains of 300,000 year old forest elephants.

The giants of the lake

300,000 years ago, large herds of forest elephants, huge animals with a shoulder height of up to 3.2 meters, lived in Schöningen, Lower Saxony. The skull of a magnificent specimen alone, about which a team headed by archaeologists from the University of Tübingen reports in the journal Archeology in Germany, was more than one meter tall. It is the oldest, almost completely preserved skeleton of a Eurasian forest elephant. The elephant cow was larger than today's African counterparts.

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Archaeologist Neil Haycock discovered a cervical vertebra in September 2017 on the site of today's opencast mine in Schöningen. Even the sheer size amazed him. Immediately next to it were two huge, worn molars, including the lower jaw, and a hyoid bone. Bit by bit, the researchers took the bones out of the sediment of a primeval lake. Thanks to good conservation conditions in the bank sediments, the bones survived, only the skull is weathered in parts and disintegrated into smaller pieces.

Elephants, rhinos, bears, aurochs, wild horses and saber-toothed cats once lived on the lake.

The new finds are so exciting for archaeologists, because it is always better to reconstruct the living environment of early humans of the genus Homo heidelbergensis, who were also at that time settled near the lake and went hunting with their spears and throwing sticks - possibly also elephants. The climate was similar to today's, only the animal world was different: Around 20 large mammal species lived around the lake at the time, in addition to the elephants also lions, bears, saber-toothed cats, aurochs, wild horses and rhinos. "The wealth of wild animals was similar to that of today's Africa," says Jordi Serangeli, Tübingen archaeologist and excavation manager in Schöningen.

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The researchers had previously recovered individual bones and tusks from at least ten elephants from the Paleolithic site, but never a complete, extremely well-preserved specimen. "We found the 2.3 meter long tusks, the lower jaw, numerous vertebrae and ribs as well as bones from three legs and even all five tongue legs," says Serangeli.

The elephant cow probably died due to her old age of around 50 years, in any case there are no recognizable injuries that she suffered before death. "Elephants often stay on and in the water when they are sick or old," says archaeozoologist Ivo Verheijen, who is involved in the research. "Bite marks on the bones show that predators used the carcass after his death."

The researchers came across an interesting detail in the vicinity of the elephant carcass. In the silt they found about 30 flints, small marks that typically occur when sharpening stone blades. Two fragments even fit together, which archaeologists consider to be evidence that people made and sharpened their blades directly on the carcass.

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"The Stone Age hunters probably cut meat, tendons and fat from the carcass," says Verheijen. The researchers also discovered two longer bones that were used as tools. Interestingly, the foot bones of three of the four legs are also missing. The researchers suspect that people separated the feet from the carcass and took them with them because of their high fat content.

Paleolithic footprints prove that other elephant species were on the move at Schöninger See. Deepening shows that a herd of young animals and adults once ran along the bank. Such traces had never been found in Germany before. The impressions of the heavy animals are particularly impressive, their feet left almost round hollows with a diameter of up to 60 centimeters in the lake sediments.

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