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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Early signs of elephant butchers
Elephant being excavated (<I>Image: Gill Robertson</i>)
The tusks of the elephant stick out of the clay
Bones and tusks dating back 400,000 years are the earliest signs in Britain of ancient humans butchering elephants for meat, say archaeologists.

Remains of a single adult elephant surrounded by stone tools were found in northwest Kent during work on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Scientists believe hunters used the tools to cut off the meat, after killing the animal with wooden spears.

The find is described in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

The first signs of the Stone Age site were uncovered by constructors at Southfleet Road in Ebbsfleet, Kent.

There does seem to be increasing evidence that they were focusing on hunting only the larger animals with more meat
Dr Francis Wenban-Smith

Excavations revealed the skeleton of an extinct species of elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) lying at the edge of what would once have been a small lake.

Flint tools lay scattered around, suggesting the animal had been cut up by a tribe of the early humans around at the time, known as Homo heidelbergensis.

"It is the earliest site of elephant butchery in Britain," Dr Francis Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton told the BBC News website.

"In fact it is the only such site in Britain and it is very rare to find undisturbed evidence of this kind."

Early hunting ground

Dr Wenban-Smith believes the elephant, which was twice the size of those living today, was probably brought down by a pack of hunters armed with wooden spears.

The elephant of Ebbsfleet

"They either hunted it or possibly found it in an injured state and then killed it," he explained.

"Then they got some flint tools from nearby and they would have swarmed all over it and cut off the meat.

"They would have been carrying off armfuls of meat to their local base camp."

Rhino feast

The elephant would have been eaten raw, as there is no evidence that fire was used for cooking at the time.

The hunter gatherers probably also feasted on other large mammals, as the bones of buffalo, rhino, deer and horse were also found nearby.

ELEPHANT-KILLERS
The elephant was a fully-grown male, weighing 10 tonnes
It was probably felled by spears, which early humans were using at the time
Stone tools would have been gathered nearby; chips suggest they were used to butcher the carcass

"There does seem to be increasing evidence that they were focusing on hunting only the larger animals with more meat and suggestions that they were living in larger groups than we've generally thought," said Dr Wenban-Smith.

The remains of the elephant - including parts of its upper torso, skull, fore-limbs, tusks and some teeth - have been taken to the Natural History Museum for further analysis.

The site itself has been covered over and now lies beneath a roundabout near the Channel Tunnel Rail Link car park.




SEE ALSO
Front garden yields ancient tools
20 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature
Brutal lives of Stone Age Britons
11 May 06 |  Science/Nature

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