Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt
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Death at the lake

As soon as the forest elephant was discovered in Gröbern in 1987, it was noticed that there were stone artefacts among the bones, evidence of the presence of humans at this spot. In the excavation in the brown coal stripmine, the staff of the State Museum in Halle recovered a total of 27 stone tools. Some more were found later, for example when the skull was laid bare. These finds are all unworked flakes of flint. In their simplicity, they are typical of the known archaeological material from the last warm interglacial period. The Eemian interglacial period, which determined the climate in Central Europe around 125,000 years ago, is the last such period of warming known before the present one. The current Holocene epoch is a very favourable phase of the earth's history; during the Eemian period the temperatures were on average a couple of degrees warmer.


Recreation of the elephant butchery site at Gröbern in the State Museum.
Recreation of the elephant butchery site at Gröbern in the State Museum (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

The elephant in Gröbern was around 4.20 m tall and was a fully-grown bull around forty years old. What would the hunt for an animal like that have been like? Ethnographic parallels from elephant hunting in the rain forest of central Africa offer some suggestions. Some of the pygmy groups that live there pursued a traditional hunting method, using only stabbing spears, right into the 20th century. From cover, the hunters tried to injure the animal either in the bladder or stomach, which then leads to severe inflammation and finally to the animal's death. To sooth their pain, present-day elephants often seek out areas of water. Perhaps this behaviour is the reason why the forest elephant at Gröbern also died in the shallow shore-water of a lake.

In the exhibition, these dramatic possibilities are expressed through life-size reconstructions of a forest elephant faced by three neanderthals, which are linked together by a story told in pictures. Between them are the results of what actually happened back then, which ultimately must remain unknown to us: the tray of bones, remains of the natural environment at that time, and the butchery tools themselves.

These stone tools were produced without much effort. This gives us a fascinating glimpse of a single moment: the tools must have been created on the spot for just this one task, by flaking chips from flint cores, probably just a few metres from the elephant carcass; the tools were then at once used to hack off the flesh parts and afterwards were dropped beside the collapsing carcass; then the hunters moved on.