One of the least onerous parts of my job used to be to run an archaeology and anthropology field trip to southern Kenya. The reason I am thinking about Kenya is because I am going to Ormskirk next Friday. I am giving a talk about Neanderthals to the West Lancs Archaeology Society and I decided to draw on something I saw out there to explain a debate about Neanderthal behaviour.
I do this kind of personal experience based pop-ethnology much too much. Colleagues and students have learnt to their cost that there is almost no anthropological debate that I don’t think is usefully enlivened by the phase well, in Kenya the Maasai/Chagga/Wataita (delete as appropriate) have an interesting practice… Often the insight offered is not revolutionary. For example, Julia and James demonstrate the traditional Maasai method of lighting a rollie using a firestick and dried cattle dung as tinder. Neanderthals almost certainly did not light their fags like this.
In this particular case, the (possibly) relevant thing I learnt from going to Kenya concerns elephants. At Lynford in Norfolk, about 67 000 years ago a vast quantity of mammoth remains ended up in a swampy river channel alongside many stone tools made by Neanderthals. The Neanderthals were clearly eating the mammoths, but as is often the way in these cases, there is a lively debate about whether they were hunting them or scavenging mammoth carcases. Mark White has suggested that the mammoths were being deliberately driven into the swamp to, as he phrases it, ‘disadvantage’ them and allow the Neanderthals to attack sick or weak elephants in the group. The sheer quantity of mammoths at the site requires some explanation beyond just accidental drowning. The idea being, I assume, that lumbering great elephants are much easier to attack when they are stuck in the mud then when they are roaming freely about the steppe.
Except, as this group of modern African elephants up to their tusks in water in Amboseli National Park shows, they don’t seem the slightest bit disadvantaged by being in a swamp. They look a lot happier than any group of Neanderthals struggling to keep their heads in the air would in the same place. I think, as with the later example of the Poulton Elk, the Lynford mammoths were probably trying to escape active human hunters by making for the water. However, in this case a lot of them didn’t make it.
I once asked James, thinking about this very problem, how you go about killing an elephant with a spear. (The Maasai are well-known to have a prohibition on eating bush-meat and can therefore be seen to know this sort of thing without attracting too much suspicion from the Kenya Wildlife Service). Admittedly he was talking about the modern Maasai spear, which is a 2 metre long mild steel javelin with a head like a carving knife on steroids, but he said that you need to throw the spear at a weak spot at the base of the trunk. This is not something that I would care to try to do personally: apart from anything else, elephants are such cool beasts. However, I think it is safe to assume that every Neanderthal who ever lived was both harder and less squeamish than me. If mammoths were hunted using the methods James described then almost all the damage would be to soft tissues rather than bone, which might explain why positive evidence for hunting injuries is so scarce.