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Figuring out why young elephants were part of the original Paleo diet

Diet can be the result of many things. What nutritional needs do you need to meet? What foods seem familiar to you? Maybe most importantly, what foods are even available? When studying the ancient past, some of these factors become harder and harder to pin down. In the case of Neanderthals in the Pleistocene epoch, we have a mixed bag of evidence. On the one hand, we have to consider the practical concerns of hunting and cooking in the Stone Age, but with creatures that are found to be more and more sophisticated with each discovery, it’s also hard to ignore things like cultural or culinary preferences.

Excavations of Neanderthal camps often have butchered bones of mammoths and other ancient elephants. Hunting such large animals would have carried some risks, but success would mean large amounts of meat, skins and bone to work with. However,┬ásome┬áNeanderthal sites have had a disproportionate number of young elephants, with unusual attention paid to the animals’ skulls in particular. Where the young elephants specifically targeted for some reason?

While young elephants would have been slightly easier to hunt, they wouldn’t necessarily be so much easier that it actually be more efficient than bringing home a larger, more filling adult. The opened skulls also raised the question of preferences- perhaps the young were somehow favored for the consumption of their brains? Perhaps all their meat was somehow more desirable?

The appeal of young pachyderms

Researchers, thankfully, did not run out to eat a baby elephant at this point (much less a baby and an adult for comparison’s sake). Instead, they looked for any historical records describing the eating habits of hunter-gatherers that would have already been eating elephants. Multiple records pointed to the idea that yes, elephants, especially young elephants, were sweet and fatty tasting. What’s more, the chemical composition of young elephant fat was found to be more nutritionally dense than adults. So while the Neanderthals probably weren’t aware of it, their palettes were guiding them to healthier hunting options.

Attributing motivation is very difficult though, and direct evidence of young elephants being the fad meat of 200,000 BC will probably never be found. But the combination of nutrition and flavor does at least support the idea that these elephants were a prized food-source, at last until the pigs and chickens were available.

Source: Ever Wonder What a Neanderthal Considered a Delicacy? by Erika Engelhaupt, Gory Details

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