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Archaeologists discover almost complete 300,000-year-old elephant skeleton

Archaeologists from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution have discovered the almost complete remains of a Eurasian straight-tusked forest elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) from a Palaeolithic site near Schöningen, Germany.

The elephant died on what was the western lakeshore 300,000 which is now the site of a former opencast lignite mine. The remains have been well-preserved due to the water-saturated sediments.

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Jordi Serangeli, head of the project excavations said: “We found both 2.3-metre-long tusks, the complete lower jaw, numerous vertebrae and ribs as well as large bones belonging to three of the legs and even all five delicate hyoid bones.”

The elephant has been identified as an older female with worn teeth that had a shoulder height of around 3.2 metres and weighed 6.8 tones – much larger than African elephant cows today.

Front body part of the forest elephant Photo: Jens Lehmann, Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege

Archaeozoologist Ivo Verheijen said: “It 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. 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. This included micro flakes embedded into bone which shows that re-sharpening of stone artefacts took place near to the elephant remains.

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The discoveries in Schöningen include some of the oldest fossil finds of an auroch in Europe, of a water buffalo and three sabre-toothed cats. In Schöningen archaeologists also recovered some of the world’s oldest and best-preserved hunting weapons: ten wooden spears and at least one throwing stick.

Stone artefacts and bone tools complete the overall picture of the technology of the time. “The lakeshore sediments of Schöningen offer unique preservation and frequently provide us with detailed and important insights into the culture of Homo heidelbergensis,” says Nicholas Conard, head of the Schöningen research project.

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 the University of Leiden (The Netherlands). The excavations in Schöningen are financed by the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony.

Universitaet Tübingen

Header Image Credit : Ivo Verheijen

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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