Walking among elephants: A 300,000-year-old, nearly complete elephant skeleton from Schöningen

Photo by Jordi Serangeli

Elephants ranged over Schöningen in Lower Saxony 300,000 years ago. In recent years, remains of at least ten elephants have been found at the Palaeolithic sites situated on the edges of the former opencast lignite mine. Now, a collaboration of archaeologists from University of Tübingen and the Lower Saxony State Office for Heritagehave recovered for the first time in Schöningen an almost complete skeleton of a Eurasian straight-tusked elephant.

Death on the lakeshore

The animal died on what was then the western lakeshore. What exactly happened and what the biotope surrounding the area was like 300,000 years ago is now being carefully reconstructed by the team. The elephant is an older female with worn teeth, as archaeozoologist and Leiden University alumni Ivo Verheijen explains. ‘The animal had a shoulder height of about 3.2 metres and weighed about 6.8 tonnes – it was therefore larger than today’s African elephant cows.’

The excavation of the elephant

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Flint flakes

The elephant most probably died of old age and not as a result of human hunting. ‘Elephants often remain near and in water when they are sick or old,’ says Verheijen. ‘Numerous bite marks on the recovered bones show that carnivores visited the carcass.’ However, the hominins of that time would have profited from the elephant too; the team found 30 small flint flakes and two long bones which were used as tools for knapping among the elephant bones.

Bárbara Rodríguez Álvarez, University of Tübingen, was able to find micro flakes embedded in these two bones, which proves that resharpening of stone artefacts took place near to the elephant remains. She also refit two small flakes, this confirms that flint knapping took place at the spot where elephant skeleton was found.

3D model of the elephant’s remains, made by Ivo Verheijen

Footprints

The fact that there were numerous elephants around the Schöningen lake is proven by footprints left behind and documented approximately 100 meters from the elephant excavation site. Flavio Altamura from Sapienza University of Rome who analysed the tracks, tells us that this is the first find of its kind in Germany. ‘A small herd of adults and younger animals must have passed through. The heavy animals were walking parallel to the lake shore. Their feet sank into the mud, leaving behind circular tracks with a maximum diameter of about 60 centimetres.’

The Schöningen sites have already provided a great deal of information about plants, animals and human existence 300,000 years ago during the Reinsdorf interglacial. The climate at that time was comparable to that of today, but the landscape was much richer in wildlife. About 20 large mammal species lived around the lake in Schöningen at that time, including not only elephants but also lions, bears, sabre-toothed cats, rhinoceroses, wild horses, deer and large bovids. ‘The wealth of wildlife was similar to that of modern Africa,’ says Serangeli.

The Schöningen excavation site. Photo by Jordi Serangeli

Further research

Further detailed analyses of the environmental and climatic conditions at the time of the elephant’s death are taking place at the Technische Universität Braunschweig, the University of Lüneburg and Leiden University.

Leiden University has been part of the analysis of Schöningen research team for over 25 years, under the supervision of emeritus professor Thijs van Kolfschoten (LINK). To reconstruct the former vegetation directly surrounding the elephant carcass, associate professor Mike Field and his students are currently studying the macrobotanical remains from sediment samples taken during the excavation. All sediments surrounding the elephant skeleton have been waterscreened during the excavation and André Ramcharan, staff member of the zoological laboratory is sorting through the residues to find the remains of microfauna. The small mammal remains are currently studied by bachelor student Kaisla Lönnqvist, under supervision of Laura Llorente Rodriguez and Thijs van Kolfschoten. The remains of small mammals found around the elephant carcass originate from predatory bird pellets and can therefore be used to reconstruct the regional landscape.

The excavations in Schöningen are financed by the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony.

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