Why Early Humans Were Breaking Elephant Bones a Million Years Ago

Why were archaic hominins making copies of stone tools out of pachyderm bones? Could it have been respect, hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens even existed?

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Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

We ate elephants. The squeamish among us today might take issue with that culinary choice, but some argue that our ancestors did not just eat of the elephant: proboscideans, raw or (later) roasted, may have been crucial to our evolution.

That is debatable, but we can determine one thing: what pachyderm parts we ate. Now, a team of Israeli and Italian archaeologists has debunked the conventional wisdom that elephants don’t have exploitable marrow in their limb bones.

It turns out that, 300,000 years ago, early elephants in early Italy were butchered by early humans — who, among other things, cracked the elephant’s long bones, arguably in order to get the tasty, nutritive marrow. In fact, there are plenty of sites where hominins were eating elephant marrow, it seems.

The paper by professors Giovanni Boschian of the University of Pisa and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, and others, which proves the existence of marrow cavities in fossil elephant bones by CT scan, appears in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Where was this CT scanner? At a Pisan hospital. The 300,000-year-old elephant bones were about the same size as a person so they could fit into the machine, Barkai explains.

Fossil elephant femur undergoing CT scan in Dipartmento di Ricerca Traslazionale e delle Nuovo Tecnologie in Medicina e Chirurgia, University of Pisa
Fossil elephant femur undergoing CT scan in Pisa hospitalCredit: Giovanni Boschian et al, Zoology and Anthropology Unit, Pisa University

The elephant in question isn’t one of the types we know today: It was the straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), which thronged Eurasia, including Britain, until going extinct. Male Palaeoloxodons reached 4 meters (13 feet) in height at the withers and weighed about 15 tons.

We cannot say when the straight-tusked elephant went extinct everywhere, or why, but it is believed to have died out in Britain at least with advancing glaciation 115,000 years ago. Elsewhere it lasted longer, and in any case, before they died out, they were widely consumed.

In fact, going back a million years, hominins hunted and ate elephants everywhere there were elephants: in Africa, Europe and Asia — including in what is today Israel. And Greece. The hominins utilized all parts of the elephant, including its head.

As for the way the elephant would have been served, when hominins acquired fire (and began to control it) is fiercely debated, but clearly the first elephant eaters would have done so raw. And they quite certainly wouldn’t have caviled at scavenging.

Break a leg

Even though elephant bones with indisputable butchering marks going back a million years have been found, as have shattered archaic elephant bones — including in prehistoric Holon, central Israel — the thinking had been that the early humans were not breaking elephant bones for marrow.

This is a small antelope leg bone with cut marks, indicative of early human butchery practices.
Antelope leg bone with cut marks, indicative of early human butchery practices 2 million years ago at Kanjera.Credit: Courtesy of Joseph Ferraro

Why not, given that we know hominins were hunting large prey going back at least 2 million years (stone tools with telltale fossil carcasses were found in Kanjera, Kenya)? The archaeologists exploring Kanjera even found evidence that the archaic hominins those millions of years ago were cracking gazelle bones, presumably for marrow.

It is one thing to wreck the gracile leg bones of a gazelle; massive elephant tibias and femurs are a whole other story, Barkai tells Haaretz — and Palaeoloxodon had much thicker, tougher bones than today’s dinky elephants.

But mainly, it had not been clear until now that elephant limb bones even have the kind of marrow we can extract and eat.

All bones have marrow of some kind. But elephants were thought to be so massive that hollow bones with a medullary cavity (like ours) occupied by a fat-rich yellow marrow “sausage” couldn’t support their weight. Elephant limb bones were assumed to all consist of spongy cancellous bone tissue suffused with marrow in liquid form; they were assumed to have no central hollow shaft.

Skull and model of straight-tusked elephant
Skull and model of straight-tusked elephantCredit: José-Manuel Benito / Locutus Bo

Which begs the question: Wait, we didn’t know to this day if elephant bones have marrow like ours? Hasn’t one died in a zoo, and hasn’t anybody taken a saw--

“No,” says Barkai. Archaeological excitement about the nutritive aspects of pachyderm consumption and how that could have contributed to human evolution has, in modern society, run into the public penchant for Dumbo.

Or as Barkai puts it, there has been dissonance among elephant researchers. “Usually they love elephants but don’t like to think about eating them,” he observes. So nobody has been asking if elephants had marrow like sausage or not because we don’t want to eat them, we want to make anthropomorphized movies about them.

Also, remote places where elephants are still eaten, sometimes raw, don’t have a scientific community analyzing bone slices under microscopes.

There was one site in Spain, reported in 2012, where there was clear evidence of elephant marrow exploitation, Barkai tells Haaretz. As the present paper puts it: “It should be noted however, that the excavators of the Preresa [Madrid] site found this evidence difficult to comprehend since, in their view, “elephant bones lack the medullary cavity and instead have perforated bone tissue.”

But Barkai and the team looked closer, spurred by the preponderance of evidence that early humans were butchering elephants and clear evidence that they were shattering their bones — which begs the question of why they would do something that difficult. Hence the CT scan of broken fossil elephant bones found in the Middle Pleistocene site of Castel di Guido, west of Rome: a time of Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals there made tools of the bones, as well as tools of stone. Barkai points out, though, that bone tools are sharp but not as robust as flint ones. The ancients would be unlikely to take the terrific trouble to hunt down a massive great elephant and labor to smash their sturdy bones in order to make tools that couldn’t bring down a chicken.

Moreover, intriguingly, the bone tools were identical to the stone tools.

Gesher Benot Yaakov
Gesher Benot Yaakov, where hominins lived for a million years, and ate elephants tooCredit: Gil Eliahu

Brain gain

The long and short is that some elephant limb bones (but not ribs, for example) definitely do have cylindrical yellow marrow, says Barkai. And in fact, people today — for instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo — are hunting and eating elephants, and eating their marrow too.

Crucially, the parsimonious explanation for why ancient hominins using crude stone tools would trouble to break an elephant’s leg isn’t to make bone tools; it’s to eat the marrow.

There is ample evidence in Israel too that elephants were being eaten, by Homo erectus. The evidence at Revadim (about 40 kilometers south of Tel Aviv) is categorical, Barkai says.

Another spot with intriguing evidence is further north at Gesher Benot Ya’akov, a prehistoric site that keeps on giving. Among the wonders found there is evidence that hominins shattered the skull of elephants, presumably to eat the brain. And to get at the lovely fat glands. “The elephant skull is full of fat,” says Barkai. “The temporal lobes of the brain could produce a kilo each.”

A Buddhist monk offers a watermelon as he prepares to bless the temple's elephant during a ceremony as part of the Sinhala, Hindu and Tamil new year celebrations in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 17, 2019.
Buddhist monk offers a watermelon as he prepares to bless the temple's elephant, at Sinhala, Hindu and Tamil new year celebrations in Colombo, Sri LankaCredit: \ DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/ REUTERS

The prehistoric site in Holon also shows evidence of elephant consumption, with bones being shattered for the marrow.

It bears noting that not all elephant bones have a marrow cavity; possibly the development is related to age, or condition. And the ones that do have small shafts.

That said, a video taken of modern pygmies in the Congo killing and butchering an elephant, cracking its bones and eating raw marrow, leads to a tentative conclusion that today’s smaller elephants have much more cylindrical marrow than did the great hulking Palaeoloxodon.

How do you eat an elephant? Respectfully

While extracting marrow, the archaic humans made tools of their bones — not the most useful objects. But there is no sign they had been used. They even turned bone into bifacial tools, which take a lot of planning and work to create.

Why would they do this? Barkai has a stunning speculation: It isn’t because there was a lack of raw materials as first thought, he says. He posits that the practice had a spiritual aspect: That it was a form of respect for the elephant among the hominins hunting it.

Biface tools from Castel di Guido: A: Stone tools. B: Elephant bone tools
Biface tools from Castel di Guido: A: Stone tools. B: Elephant bone toolsCredit: Giovanni Boschian et al, Zoology and Anthropology Unit, Pisa University

In an upcoming paper, Barkai posits that once archaic humans began to seriously eat meat about 2 million years ago, proboscideans became key to a trait that would become pivotal in human evolution: the ability to share. Thus, the archaic humans developed a special relationship with elephants.

The academic approach to sharing among hunter-gatherers usually confines the debate to economics or practicality — possibly a way to bolster social status (by showing off), and so on. But that overlooks possible spiritual aspects. Barkai suggests that early sharing could have implications beyond anthropocentrism: It may have reflected the network of relationships among the different components of the universe, humans, trees, rocks, fish, whatever, and, crucially, elephants.

"Hunter-gatherer societies view the world in a unique way, as composed of other-than-human-persons capable of thinking, feeling, deciding, etc.," Barkai says. "Multiple worlds exist in parallel: A world of humans, a world of animals, a world of stone, a world of mountains, a world of rivers and so on. The human world is just one of many, and humans must live side by side by the other entities and pay them respect in order to ensure the world order."

In other words, his theory is based in part on the anthropological observation that latter-day hunter-gatherers have the non-anthropocentric notion that animals are edible beings with free will and emotions that share their habitat, as well as the practical observation that a single elephant provides a stunning amount of meat and fat.

"Humans shared the world with animals and had special relationships and interactions with elephants and mammoths, as proboscideans were viewed at the same time as other-than-human-persons as well as an essential and significant source of calories," Barkai tells Haaretz.

“The elephant thus offers a remarkable example in exploring this duality in human existence … appreciating and relating to the different agencies of the world, and at the same time depending on those same agencies for their successful survival,” Barkai concludes. The rules of respecting the animal that “agrees” to be killed and eaten include not carelessly throwing out bits and bobs of it, but utilizing it fully — which includes feeding bits of it to the dog. And turning the bones into tools, even ceremonial ones.

The argument over what makes us “human,” something special beyond the ape, isn’t even close to any conclusions. Perhaps it may involve that very aspect: Respect for our surroundings and the beings therein, and the development of a thoughtful relationship with our universe.