2. Meat and Fat in the Early Human Diet
The role of protein and fat in the Paleolithic human diet has been previously demonstrated [6
], in addition to the significance of complementary calories gained from vegetal resources [10
]. Animal meat and fat constitute an excellent source of calories and provide essential amino acids, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids [12
]. While meat clearly offers a good nutritional option, fat has virtues of its own, as it is the densest form of nutritional energy available in nature [2
], providing a much higher calorific gain than either protein or carbohydrates [14
]. In addition, fat is plentifully present in large herbivores even in times of resource depletion [16
], and in some cases, when there is a certain dietary stress, it may even be the only means of survival [14
]. Thus, fat, marrow included, must have had an important role in early humans’ diet. Fat content has indeed been documented to affect prey selection among recent hunter-gatherers [17
(sensu lato) evolved ~2 Ma in Africa, presenting new body proportions, an increased brain volume, new dental characteristics, and possibly a specialized digestive system dependent on enriched foods to successfully maintain the body and brain [16
]. Fat and marrow were an essential food source for Homo erectus
in providing for their daily energy expenditure [2
]. Bone marrow was also demonstrated to be a better source for vitamin C than meat [21
]. Thus, it is not surprising that the earliest archaeological sites contain animal bones in direct association with stone tools, demonstrating the consumption of meat, fat and marrow by early humans [6
However, how did early humans procure animal carcasses? While some scholars were in favour of scavenging the leftovers of big cats [22
], most current studies suggest otherwise. Studies of bone modifications suggest that early humans had primary access to animal carcasses [7
]. Furthermore, the ability of early humans to design hunting tools is evident [27
]. Given the important role often attributed to meat and fat in early human diet, it seems unlikely that scavenging was the dominant strategy for animal procurement, as the dependence on animal-based calories must have necessitated active involvement in ensuring a steady supply of prey [7
]. Moreover, recent research has acknowledged the abilities of early humans to perform complex tasks indicating advanced social and technological capabilities [30
Additional support for assessing the hunting abilities of early humans comes from the field of primatology, as some basic traits may have been shared by our early ancestors and most common Pan relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos [6
]. Chimpanzees have been documented hunting medium and small-sized mammals [31
] and meat consumption by chimpanzees was demonstrated as highly valuable [35
]. Hunting methods applied by chimpanzees include spotting, watching, following and chasing the prey; and one group in Senegal was even observed hunting using wooden spears [36
]. These observations suggest a deep, phylogenetically rooted origin of this behaviour in these very closely related taxa [6
], implying that hunting was a trait already practiced by the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, a trait that might have evolved as the adaptive role of calories acquired from meat and fat became more important.
3. Proboscidean Exploitation by Early Humans
Given the presence of elephant/mammoth remains at many Paleolithic sites worldwide [37
], and as elephants were by far the largest terrestrial animal available for Paleolithic humans, presenting a unique combination of large quantities of both fat and meat [2
], we suggest that elephants played a major role in early humans’ diet and adaptation [5
]. Direct evidence of proboscidean consumption is provided by isotopic studies, indicating a significant dependence upon mammoths by early humans in Europe [45
]. The importance of proboscideans in the Paleolithic diet is further stressed through cases in which selected elephant body parts were carried into Paleolithic caves [38
], implying their high nutritional value.
The issue of prey choice and body part transport is complex and beyond the scope of this paper. However, for example, among the Hadza (Tanzania), for example, animal body parts that are considered high-ranked are more likely to be transported from kill sites to base camps, compared to low-ranked body parts [49
]. In the case of elephants, a high nutritional value is attributed to various body parts present at many Paleolithic sites [37
], further implying the significance of elephants in human diet and adaptation (however it goes without saying that most probably fat and meat were also transported to these sites, leaving no archaeological signature after being consumed). Recent hunter-gatherer documentations present elephant meat and fat as highly valuable [50
], and even as prestigious foods [51
], while other accounts refer to the abundance of edible tissue in elephant carcasses [53
] as well as the probable preference in taste for elephant fat and meat [55
]. It is also interesting to note that among traditional societies the carcasses of procured animals are usually exploited to their full potential, often out of economic motivations, but often also out of an ontological stand of respecting the hunted animal [15
]. Among the caribou hunters in Greenland, for example, all materials which can be extracted from the hunted caribou are used: antler, fur, meat, fat, sinews, bone fat and marrow [15
]. A similar maximization of elephant carcasses was demonstrated in Castel di Guido (Italy), where early humans fractured elephant bones for marrow, and used elephant bones as a material for tool manufacture [58
Some other incentives for the hunting of proboscideans may be related to technological needs, while others may refer to social considerations. The thick hides of proboscideans could have been used for clothing, containers and shelter; their bones could have been used to produce tools of both practical and symbolic significance. In some cases, for example, elephant bones were used to produce “tools” mimicking the typical iconic Lower Paleolithic handaxes [59
]. The bones of elephants could also have been used as fuel for fire [60
]; and fat produced from their fat deposits, internal organs and bones could have been used for cooking [62
]. Tusks were also used for the manufacture of various artefacts, possibly as early as the Lower Palaeolithic [28
]. There are also suggestions for the use of mammoth bones for the construction of dwellings [63
]. It is true that scavenging natural elephant/mammoth death locations could have provided early humans with some of these materials (apart from broken elephant limb bones used for the production of handaxes and most probably fat as well). We wish, however, to make it clear that the direct procurement of proboscideans by hunting provides early human a series of benefits, besides the major caloric contribution.
Some argue that big-game hunting might have been mostly aimed at gaining prestige and social status [18
]. According to these suggestions, big-game hunting was done primarily for its prestige value, or for other social and political benefits, commonly referred to as “costly signaling”, while nutritional considerations played a secondary role.
While the possible motivations for the acquisition of proboscideans are multiple, the strategies applied by Paleolithic groups for elephant and mammoth procurement are still unclear. Binford [66
] suggested marginal scavenging as the applied strategy for procuring elephants. In contrast, the hunting of proboscideans by prehistoric humans has been suggested, mostly based on indirect archaeozoological evidence, from several Middle Paleolithic [43
] and Upper Paleolithic sites [60
]. In addition, an early work by Johnson et al. [62
] has suggested the application of mammoth hunting strategies by the Clovis people of North America, suggesting that “elephants have behavioural mannerisms that, once learned by early man, could lead to maximal predation”. In addition, indeed, elephants are relatively easy to locate due to their repeated use of familiar paths [62
], their dependency on water sources, and the very clear tracks they leave behind [70
The issue of the extinction of proboscideans throughout North America and Euroasia during the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene is a matter of debate. The overkill hypothesis, for both North America and Western Europe, first developed by Martin [71
], was attacked by Grayson and Meltzer [73
] and Meltzer [74
], who claimed that there is no evidence supporting it whatsoever (but see [75
] for counter-attacks). Nikolskiy and Pitulko [77
] suggest, based on the data yielded from Yana site (Siberia), that the humans that occupied the site hunted mammoths infrequently, and that such a sporadic pattern of hunting cannot be the cause of mammoth extinction. It should be noted that the Yana hunters were targeting mammoths first and foremost for ivory, supplemented by a nutritional use [78
]. Frison describes the hunting strategies of the Paleoindians of North America as “systematically opportunistic” [79
] (p. 41). However, Frison further explains that “the loss of breeding females to Clovis hunters could have dramatically hastened the extinction of the species, especially at a time when ecological conditions were deteriorating” [79
] (p. 43). Surovell and Waguespack [76
] claimed by comparing the Clovis record to the Old World record that the number of 14 clear Clovis proboscidean kill sites identified in North America is “in fact a very large number”, suggesting that “in comparison to the Old World record, Clovis peoples seem to have exploited elephants with much greater frequency than in any other time and place” [76
] (p. 94). A year later Surovell and Waguespack [80
] further claimed the Paleoindians hunters applied specialized large-game predation strategies, providing, in their view, a circumstantial support for the Overkill hypothesis. It seems likely, then, that humans probably played a role in these extinctions, though the exact extent of this role cannot be accurately assessed.
In this study, we present the available archaeological data demonstrating direct and indirect evidence of proboscidean hunting. In addition, we discuss ethnographic and ethno-historical data describing elephant hunting by recent hunter-gatherers and small-scale societies (excluding strategies irrelevant for prehistory, such as the use of guns, swords, horses and vehicles). Hunting by traditional methods but with modern materials (i.e., wooden spears with metal blades) is also discussed, as spears were in use by both prehistoric and contemporary groups prior to the introduction of metal. The gathered data are used to support our contention that elephant and mammoth hunting was within the capabilities of early humans and indeed had been practiced at will.
It should be noted that starting from the mid-16th century a commercial demand for ivory emerged, contributing to increased elephant poaching [8
]. Thus, contemporary indigenous groups often hunt elephants for both the commercial value of their ivory and for their fat and meat [51
] (pp. 134, 498). Hunting large game for commercial purposes is often associated with the use of rifles, rather than traditional methods [82
]. Lewis [54
], however, reveals a different situation among the BaYaka of the Congo Basin. There, complex social mechanisms are aimed at monitoring elephant hunting for dietary purposes, in addition to limiting the gain of status and prestige of successful hunters. Such variation in the motivations for hunting may affect both the number of elephants hunted and the strategies applied to do so. We believe that the case presented by Lewis, reflecting the practice of elephant hunting mainly for dietary purposes among egalitarian immediate-return societies, offers greater relevance for reconstructing elephant hunting in prehistoric times, when early humans were hunting elephants mostly for nutritional proposes.
We start by presenting archaeological evidence of elephant hunting. We then discuss Upper Paleolithic depictions that may be of relevance, before exploring cases of elephant hunting in the ethnographic and ethno-historical records, listed according to the applied strategy. Finally, we present the rituals accompanying elephant hunting among contemporary hunter-gatherers, which demonstrate the significance of elephant hunting among those societies, and the role of elephants in the cosmological and ontological conceptions of these groups. Eventually, we discuss the presented data, and conclude.
7. Elephant Hunting Rituals and Cosmology
Many Hunter-gatherers groups conceive of animals as “non-human persons” or “other-than-human-persons” [56
], thus perceive the hunt differently than as envisioned by Western societies. Recent hunter-gatherer societies world-wide are practicing ceremonies and rituals aimed at negotiating the divide between the appreciation of animals as equal co-dwellers of the world on the one hand, and the hunting of the same animals on the other [57
]. These rituals are oriented, in many cases, both towards negotiating with the specific “Lord of animals” regarding the hunt and for maintaining social order, equality and personal autonomy within the group. A brief reference to the human-animal interface and its reflection in hunting rituals is therefore in order.
According to Lewis [54
] “Immediate-return hunter-gatherers achieve relative equality between camp members by […] employing levelling mechanisms such as teasing and avoidance to deal with attempts by others to claim status or impose themselves” [54
] (p. 2). Within this context, rituals act as “a levelling mechanism that strengthens community spirit and mediates power evenly between individuals and subgroups” [152
] (p. 197). Thus, it is not surprising that hunting in general, and elephant hunting specifically, is bound by rituals and spirit-plays performed before, during and after the hunt, and which “must be rigidly followed” [51
] (p. 98).
Rituals and spirit-plays are often affiliated with the environment. Among the Baka (Cameroon), for example, rites and their components are strongly related to the forest [153
]. According to Lewis [154
], the BaYaka perform spirit-plays and songs to establish a relationship of care and concern between humans and the forest, by means of which they expect the forest to share on demand its wealth (the animals in it, in the case of hunting).
Among the Mbuti pygmies, before the hunt of an elephant, the group members sing songs to the forest to ensure a successful hunt [50
] (p. 143). Special dances take place as well, during which some play the hunters and others the elephants. In those dances, the hunters always win and hunt the elephant.
The spirit-plays accompanying elephant hunting stress its great economic and social value and are aimed at ensuring the success of the hunt, eliminating any claims to special status by the hunters, and at monitoring the hunt by the women and at the sharing of the elephant by the whole group and neighbouring groups [54
]. Among the BaYaka, for instance, prior to the departure of men to an elephant hunt, women sing Yele songs and enter a state of trance, “flying” over the forest. When they spot an elephant during the “fly”, “they ‘tie up’ the elephant’s spirit” [54
] (p. 22). The following morning the women tell the men where to find it. In effect, the women “catch” the elephant first [54
]. This is also why an elephant hunting trip is called “a women’s hunting trip”, even though no women join it in person. In the case of the Baka pygmies (Cameroon) it is believed that if the dances are performed in perfect harmony with the singers and drummers, the hunt will succeed [155
]. Joiris [153
] later describes an amulet called a simbo, worn by hunters, with a small bell that allegedly jingles whenever a potential prey approaches. This bell is considered to have great hunting powers, originating in the call of a specific species of bird that tends to perch on elephants’ backs. It is said that this bird’s call informs the hunter that an elephant is close by, even before the hunter sees the elephant. A Baka elephant hunt is preceded by spirit-plays summoning the forest spirits to bring about a successful hunt [156
]. Furthermore, a forest spirit called jengi is known to guide the hunters to places where there is prey, while also protecting them from the perils of the forest. Among the Nuer, a specific ceremony is performed before the hunt by a magician who is familiar with the ways of elephant “calling” [51
]. The Nuer believe that there is a spiritual bond between elephants and humans. This connection is stressed by a myth about the origin of elephants, in which the daughter of Loh, one of the original Nuer, became an elephant and told her people that they will want to kill her for her “huge teeth” and because her meat is “fat and sweet”. She further says that they may do so, if they obey her words: “You shall never throw the first spear, and when I am dead you shall cut flesh from off my back and eat it raw” [51
] (pp. 96–97). Joiris [153
] also points to a cosmological and ontological connection between humans and elephants, expressed through several rituals referring to the animal’s relationship with humans and with the environment.
Rituals and spirit-plays also take place during the hunt. Among the BaYaka, the women’s deep trance continues while the men are out hunting [54
]. The women rock rhythmically back and forth while singing Yele songs. This state proceeds until the forest spirit Moshunde flies through the forest and tells them that the men have hunted, taking them to the place of the kill. At the kill site, additional spirit-plays are performed. After the hunt, a spirit-play called Malimbe takes place, in which the spirit can demand whatever it desires from the wife of the elephant hunter—usually a share of the meat [54
]. After dusk, a forest spirit named Eya is summoned to mark the death of the elephant. This spirit-play involves humoristic, sexually explicit and vulgar dialogue. During the feasting, songs are sung, celebrating the abundance of meat. These spirit-plays and feasting continue until most of the meat has been consumed [54
]. Among the Baka pygmies, after an elephant hunt, some of the young boys play the spirits of the forest who make the dying of the elephant known to the people [156
Certain rules and taboos accompany the hunting of elephants, as well as the distribution and consumption of the elephant’s meat and fat after the kill. It is a known taboo among the Nuer, for example, to kill an elephant by stealth. Rather, they must directly confront it, otherwise “the elephant will kill them in the combat or later through the agency of its spirit” [51
] (p. 96), or it will cause “disasters, sickness and famine to the people” [51
] (p. 98). To succeed in future hunts, a Baka hunter who is the first to spear an elephant must not eat even a single piece of the meat, and the same goes for his paternal and maternal families [132
]. This custom was suggested by Sato [157
] to be a levelling mechanism, with the hunter and his older relatives being absent from the festive feast during which the elephant is consumed [156
]. Among the Bayaka, certain foods, such as the meat of prey animals, must be carefully distributed among all present, following a series of strict rules [54
]. If these rules are not followed, the hunter will incur bad luck and future hunts will fail. Thus, meat is always distributed initially in camp before being cooked and redistributed again by the women, who send plates to the men’s area in the centre of the camp and to their female friends and relatives. Furthermore, rather than gaining prestige, those men who hunt too often, are mocked and teased. Consequently, they will prefer to stop hunting for a while, rather than being cursed or exiled. Interestingly, this mechanism is monitored by the women, who may refuse to cook meat provided by such a hunter, thus forcing him in effect to leave the camp. Lewis [54
] demonstrates this with the case of a successful elephant hunter who was exiled because he refused to stop his frequent hunting. Among the Nuer there was no monitored distribution of the elephant meat [51
]; rather, everyone could eat as much as they liked, with no discrimination in favour of the hunters.
The rites and spirit-plays described above are aimed at negotiating with the spirits of the forest, ensuring the proper conduct of the hunt and its success, regulating the hunt and enforcing the sharing of the carcass among group members as well as neighbouring groups. The importance of these ceremonies demonstrates the dietary significance of elephant hunting and the sharing of elephant fat and meat, as well as the role of elephant hunting and sharing within the inter- and intra-group social discourse. These insights illuminate the dual roles, both practical and social/cosmological, of elephants among recent hunter-gatherers.
Proboscideans and humans have shared habitats across the Old and New Worlds for hundreds of thousands of years. Notwithstanding the assumption that both prehistoric humans and the more recent hunter-gatherers conceived of elephants and mammoths as habitat companions and as other-than-human-persons, the archaeological evidence stress the dietary use humans made of these mega-herbivores, and the ethnographic data further supports these claims. The dual conception of proboscideans as equal co-residents of the world as well as an essential food source for humans, demonstrated above, is part of a much wider cosmological belief system and ontology of recent hunter-gatherers (a belief sometimes termed animism, or even new-animism, see [158
]) and perhaps also of early humans, and pertaining to every component in the world, not only proboscideans. In the case under discussion, it has been argued previously that the physical, social and behavioural resemblance between proboscideans and humans must have highlighted the “personhood” of elephants and mammoths and the human relationships established with them [1
]. The available ethnographic and ethno-historical evidence suggests that elephants have been hunted by recent hunter-gatherers wherever they naturally occurred. This pattern, we believe, is also likely regarding prehistoric times too. Direct evidence in the form of lithic implements embedded within proboscidean bones supports the use of projectiles for proboscidean hunting during prehistory. Other hunting strategies, such as the use of pitfalls and traps, are more difficult to find, as they occurred outside of the archaeological sites typically excavated, while most excavations take place at base camps, or butchering sites. Generally, the signal left by past societies is not always visible in the archaeological record, especially when discussing activities which have taken place off-site [160
]. Indeed, many of the strategies presented above would not leave a trace within archaeological sites chosen to be excavated. Thus, we believe that in order to improve our understanding of proboscidean hunting strategies during the Paleolithic, excavations should go outside the base-camps, identifying and exploring the kill sites.
Several hypotheses in respect to possible proboscidean procurement strategies applied by prehistoric societies have been posited in the past. Hannus [161
] suggested several scenarios regarding the New World, which can also be applied to the Old World: the surrounding/entrapment of proboscideans; the exploitation of proboscideans trapped in marshy sediments; the wounding of proboscideans (probably by spears) in the abdominal area, and tracking them; the stampeding of a herd towards bluffs; and the opportunistic scavenging on weakened or dead animals.
The list of scenarios suggested by Hannus lacks many of the possible strategies presented above. The archaeological, ethnographic and ethno-historical records demonstrate a wide variety of strategies that were applied in both the distant and recent past in elephant/mammoth hunting, including the use of spears, axes, traps, pitfalls, arrows and fire.
The use of dogs by recent hunter-gatherers for elephant hunting, as already described, might correspond with the appearance of canids at certain Upper Paleolithic sites in Eurasia featuring mammoth remains. Shipman [141
] suggests that several Eurasian archaeological sites dated to between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago, and bearing a large quantity of mammoth bones, reflect two different phenomena: the development of a complex projectile technology and the domestication, or partial domestication, of canids. The remains of large canids have been found at those sites, suggesting, in her opinion, the use of dogs during mammoth hunting. A similar suggestion was posited by Fiedel [162
] regarding North America, contending that dogs provided the earliest settlers with assistance in tracking, hunting and transportation, and thus also played a part in mammoth hunting. Interestingly, a study using stable isotopic tracking of bone collagen at the Gravettian (29,500–31,500-year-old) site of Predmostí I (Moravian Plain), indicated that while Pleistocene wolves were more inclined to eat horse and possibly mammoth, the large canids at the site relied mostly on reindeer and muskoxen as prey [46
]. These results were interpreted as implying that Gravettian hunters, who themselves relied heavily on mammoth fat and meat, controlled to some extent the diet of these canids and did not feed them with mammoths.
Additional indirect data implying the feasibility of elephant hunting by early humans is provided by Haynes [70
]. Based on an analysis of elephant dung, Haynes suggested that “A clever tracker can examine dung boluses to estimate (1) how large the animal was; (2) how long ago the dung was passed and how fast the animal was traveling—hence, how far ahead the animal may be—and (3) the animal’s relative health, appetite, and feeding preferences. All these clues would improve the efficiency of human foraging, thus reducing the cost in time and energy needed to hunt elephants”. Sikes [139
] (p. 220) demonstrated that elephant tracking can indeed be performed by using their droppings as an indicator. The familiarity of hunters with the behaviour of elephants has been demonstrated in several other ethnographic and ethno-historical accounts as well ([81
] (pp. 134–136, 498), [131
] (p. 170), [136
] (p. 63), [156
]), further supporting the importance of accumulated and shared knowledge in proboscidean hunting. Remarkably, the tracking and hunting of elephants can take up to two weeks, with elephant hunting expeditions reaching as far as 50 km away from their village [156
Certainly, even when practicing elephant hunting on a regular basis, scavenging too could occur if a group of humans or an individual, for example, were to stumble upon a dead elephant [51
]. Furthermore, it was demonstrated by Capaldo and Peters [163
] that cases of natural deaths by mass drowning during the wet season in Tanzania can provide scavengers with an abundant supply of meat. Such a supply would be relatively predictable if it involved climatic seasonal and spatial repetition. However, such events are uncommon and tend to occur only in specific geographic areas [25
]. Thus, the usually sporadic and infrequent nature of such cases implies that it could not have acted as a main trajectory in the procuring of such a key component in the early human diet.
Regarding Homo erectus
(sensu lato) and the Acheulian cultural complex, there is a lack of direct evidence in respect to the strategy employed for elephant procurement. However, it is our contention that the required cognitive abilities, including team work, social cooperation, communication skills and the production of a wide array of tools suitable for hunting (mostly made of perishable material such as wood), were all integral components of their abilities (see [28
] for supporting data). Such abilities have already been suggested regarding the occupants of the Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Yaʿaqov, ~780,000 years ago [30
], who are known to have procured and eaten elephants [165
]. Furthermore, the large quantities of fat and meat associated with elephants may imply the existence of some form of food sharing between group members and possibly between different groups, and/or preservation, as well as the existence of cooperative acquisition strategies [7
]. Preservation of meat of medium and large game indeed was documented among recent hunter-gatherer groups, allowing it to be preserved for several days and even longer periods of time [15
]. Preservation of elephant meat is described in the case of the Mbuti pygmies, by smoke-drying it, and the sharing of it by several bands for several weeks [50
] (pp. 144, 163). Meat could have also been preserved without the use of fire, by sun-drying [167
], or by burying it in an anaerobic environment, underground or underwater [169
]. Similar abilities could have been a part of the Homo erectus
behavioural repertoire, enabling them to cope with the great amount of meat and fat provided by an elephant carcass, thus making the effort involved in obtaining it worthwhile. Moreover, we believe that the important role of elephant meat and fat in the diet of Acheulian hominins necessitated an active approach in the procurement of elephants, further supporting the various hunting scenarios. Additionally, based on a bio-energetic model, together with the cultural transformations known to have taken place in the late Lower Paleolithic Levant, an explanation has been offered to account for the demise of Homo
erectus and the appearance of a new, locally-evolved, post-Homo erectus
hominin lineage at ~400,000 years ago in the Levant [2
]. The model suggests that the disappearance of elephants from the human diet in the Levant around this time triggered a selection process in favour of those who were better adapted for hunting larger numbers of smaller, faster animals with a high fat content. It is of note that no elephants have been found in Levantine post-Acheulian sites—i.e., this significant part of the Acheulian life and diet does not feature in post-Acheulian sites. Additionally, meat consumption has known and generally accepted ceilings, with fat contributing a compulsory component in the human diet to provide sufficient daily energy expenditure (with elephants constituting an outstanding package of fat, see [2
]).The habitual use of fire for roasting and cooking and the new lithic technologies practiced at that time in the Levant can be listed here as two of the important new cultural elements related to this transformative biological and socio-economic landscape [171
During the Middle Paleolithic in Europe, the picture is even clearer. The diet of Neanderthals was shown by stable isotope studies to include a substantial component of animal resources [45
], dominated by large and medium-sized herbivores, including mammoths, rhinoceroses, deer and horses [43
], along with a complementary exploitation of small animals [110
] and plant materials [174
]. It is not surprising therefore that evidence of the Neanderthals’ complex hunting abilities in general [175
], and their hunting of mammoths specifically [47
] is abundant. Furthermore, Rendu et al. [177
] identified the practice of communal hunting by Neanderthals and of storage strategies for future consumption. These findings indicate the existence of a social organization, including high technical and cognitive abilities, communication and cooperation. The findings from this study also demonstrate their ability to cope with the great quantity of meat and fat provided by mammoth carcasses by storing and preserving it for future use (although direct evidence of this remains to be demonstrated).
This study reviews the available archaeological evidence and the reported anthropological and ethno-historic observations regarding elephant-hunting strategies among ancient and contemporary societies. It also explores the possibility that proboscidean hunting was executed by Paleolithic groups. While acknowledging the fact that extinct elephants and mammoths existed in different landscapes, and in different climatic conditions, and thus were probably different to some extent, it is our contention that the significant similarities between them allow us to suggest the projection of the accumulated data on all species of ancient proboscideans.
Indeed, Carrington noted that although “the techniques employed by our early ancestors for hunting the mammoth, the mastodon, and the elephant can never be exactly known […] they probably resembled those of the […] elephant hunting tribes of the recent past” [124
] (p. 143). Notwithstanding the naivety and methodological flaws embedded in this statement, some similarities in hunting techniques might indeed exist. It is true that the Paleolithic archaeological record is limited in its ability to reflect hunting strategies. It is also true that only few findings can be clearly associated with such an activity. However, the ethnographic and ethno-historical data provide several cases and strategies of elephant hunting, presenting a set of abilities that we believe might existed in early humans as well, notwithstanding that certain materials (such as metals) were not available to these Paleolithic societies, and that some motivations (such as the ivory trade) are not relevant. As at least some of the items mentioned in the data provided above were also manufactured and used by prehistoric groups (e.g., spears and projectiles), and given the technological and cognitive abilities attributed to Lower and Middle Paleolithic populations, and as the profits which could have been yielded from an elephant carcass were abundant and significant, we strongly believe that at least some of the above-presented strategies were also applied by prehistoric people. Furthermore, although some claim that the hunting of large-sized prey was too costly in terms of cost-benefit, compared to that of small game, making such large prey “inefficient choices” [8
], it is our contention that elephants played a main role in the Paleolithic diet, providing an abundant supply of meat and fat, in a way unparalleled by any other prey [16
], and, hence, were hunted and procured when available and needed.
As Sikes [139
] describes it, hunting elephants in prehistory was probably an experience filled with “exhilaration, surprise, and frequent exhaustion felt by those who followed these strong, yet generally gentle, giants” [139
] (p. 225). It is not surprising, then, that such hunts are often accompanied by rituals, myths and taboos [51
]. It is our view that early humans possessed the necessary abilities to actively and regularly hunt elephants and, indeed, that they performed this unique and challenging task at will. However, it is our contention that the available data presented in this paper strongly supports the notion that the influence of hunting on elephant and mammoth populations must have been rather limited, due to the impression that past and present hunter-gatherers treated proboscideans as other-than-human-persons and hunted these mega-herbivores following a set of regulated behaviours and rituals, while taking into account the relationships people had with these animals. Moreover, it appears that a group of hunter-gatherers could have sustain to a relatively substantial period of time following the hunt of a single mega herbivore, and thus such hunt was not carried out rather frequently. Notwithstanding the probability that hunting might have contributed to other factors influencing the extinction of elephants and mammoths in Quaternary times, it is our view that it was not a dominant factor in this process.
When the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri forest hunt an elephant, they move their entire camp to the kill site, celebrating for weeks with singing and dancing—and no hunting ([50
] (p. 144), [179
] (p. 138)). Among prehistoric groups, as among recent hunter-gatherers, the successful hunting of a proboscidean was probably a significant event, a real cause for a celebration. While the effort, risk and time invested in such a complex activity were clearly considerable, we suggest that the nutritional, economic and social benefits of such hunting were greater still, making all the effort and exertion involved fully worth it.