An elephant butchering site from the Lower Paleolithic period in Megalopolis, Greece

In this article we present a summary on the exciting discovery of an elephant butchering site from the Lower Paleolithic period discovered in Megalopolis, Greece.

A new Lower Paleolithic elephant butchering site, Marathousa 1, has been discovered in Megalopolis, Greece, by a joint team of researchers from the Ephorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology (Greek Ministry of Culture) and the Paleoanthropology group, University of Tübingen.


Marathousa 1 is located in an open-cast coal mine, on what was once the shore of a shallow lake. It has yielded stratified stone artifacts in association with a nearly complete skeleton of Elephas antiquus, as well as the exceptionally well-preserved remains of fauna (rodents, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks and insects) and plants (wood, seeds, fruit). The association of lithic artifacts with the elephant remains, as well as the discovery of cutmarks on elephant bones, indicate that Marathousa 1 is an elephant butchering site. Preliminary results suggest a Middle Pleistocene age (roughly between 300 and 600 thousand years before present). The researchers found stone tools, which the early hunters are likely to have used to cut the meat from the bones. “That makes Megalopolis the only site in the Balkans where we have evidence of an elephant being butchered in the early Paleolithic,” says Professor Katerina Harvati of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) at the University of Tübingen.


Marathousa 1 is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Greece. The region is one of the most likely routes for human migration into Europe and also likely acted as a refugium for fauna, flora and human populations during glacial periods.


“Despite this crucial geographic position, Paleoanthropological and Paleolithic research has been under-represented in the region due to a traditional focus on later prehistory and Classical times. As a result, very little information exists on the Lower Paleolithic of Greece. Marathousa 1 is of paramount importance for the understanding of human dispersal patterns into Europe, as well as the adaptations and behavior of early humans in the region,” says Harvati.

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The Marathousa 1 excavation is conducted by Dr. E. Panagopoulou (Ephorate of Paleoanthropology and Speleology) in collaboration with Professor K. Harvati (Paleoanthropology, University of Tübingen) within the framework of the ERC StG project ‘PaGE’ (‘Paleoanthropology at the Gates of Europe: Human Evolution in the Southern Balkans’) awarded to Professor Harvati. PaGE aims to help close the research gap in southeastern European Paleoanthropology.


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The PaGE Project survey of the Megalopolis Basin (Arcadia, Greece), conducted in 2012–2013 over a period of two field seasons, was an intensive, target-oriented surface survey of Pleistocene sediments. Implementing a modified version of field methods applied in our survey of cave systems and Pleistocene cave sediments, the main goal of this systematic research focused on the identification of intact stratified remains from either stratigraphic sections or on remnants of exposed ancient surfaces. The project area consisted of the active open-cast lignite mine of Megalopolis, where access to recently exposed sections were abundant, and of the alluvial fans in the surrounding uplands, where hominins exploited the commanding views of the ancient lake. This paper presents the survey results and applied field methods for conducting archaeological research within the remnants of an Early to Middle Pleistocene ancient lake system. The project succeeded in identifying at least five surface and stratified sites, the latter including the Lower Paleolithic remains of Marathousa-1. This site is currently under investigation, but has already yielded the oldest chronometrically dated archaeological remains in Greece. Therefore, PaGE has not only managed to place mainland Greece on the Lower Paleolithic map of Europe, but has also successfully tested a methodological corpus for survey research targeting the earliest phases of the Paleolithic period in a Mediterranean landscape.

(Source: “In search of Pleistocene remains at the Gates of Europe: Directed surface survey of the Megalopolis Basin (Greece)”, by Nicholas Thompson, Vangelis Tourloukis, Eleni Panagopoulou, KaterinaHarvati)

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Lower Palaeolithic evidence in Greece is sparse and consists of unprovenanced finds or sites with material deriving from secondary contexts (Tourloukis & Karkanas 2012). The basin of Megalopolis, Greece, has long been known for its Pleistocene fossiliferous sediments (e.g. Melentis 1961). Early human activity is suggested by a hominin tooth collected as a surface find (see Harvati et al. 2009), as well as by observations of lithic artefacts (Darlas 2003). Nevertheless, systematic archaeological research has been lacking to date. Here, we report the first results from the excavation of ‘Marathousa 1’, a primary-context open-air site from Megalopolis.

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‘Marathousa 1’ was discovered in 2013 during an archaeological survey conducted by a team from the Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology of southern Greece and the University of Tübingen. The site was located when stratified bones and artefacts were identified in a profile of the Marathousa Member.

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In 2013, our work focused on the cranium of an elephantid. Taxonomic identification, based on the craniodental morphology, attributes it to the species Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus. The expansion of excavation units in 2014 revealed numerous, well-preserved elephant skeletal elements in the same layer, including a femur, ribs, vertebrae, an astragalus, a patella and tusk fragments. Their stratigraphic and close spatial association with the cranium suggests that they belong to the same individual. Other faunal material from the site includes teeth, mandibular and postcranial remains of mammals, such as cervids and bovids, as well as micromammals, turtles and birds. Additional elephant elements, including the proximal end of a tibia, were found c. 50m from the main elephant-fossil accumulation (Figure 5). If they prove to belong to the same individual, they could indicate either bone dispersal by natural processes or, more likely, transport by hominins. The direct contextual association of artefacts and fossils (notably, elephant bones) encourages further research on the involvement of hominins in the exploitation of these animal carcasses.

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The lithic assemblage (n=122) is composed of flakes and flake fragments, core fragments and chunks. Retouched tools are rare. The main raw material is red and brown radiolarite, followed by grey and black flint, limestone and quartz. Platforms are mainly plain, cortical or dihedral, and they indicate hard hammer percussion. Technological traits suggest a relatively simple operational sequence, probably aiming at the production of flake blanks. Flakes might have been used directly for cutting, without further modification. Lacking bifacial elements, the lithic assemblage from Marathousa could be ascribed provisionally to a ‘core-and-flake’ techno-complex, although the sample is currently limited. Notably, many red radiolarite artefacts seem to derive from the same working piece of raw material, perhaps indicating an in situ and short-lived knapping episode. All artefacts are exceptionally well-preserved.

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‘Marathousa 1’ is an open-air site, situated on what would have been the shores of a palaeo-lake, where elephant and other faunal remains are found in association with stone tools. The site probably testifies to hominin activities that pertain to the exploitation of animal resources. The finds occur in a very fine-grained geological matrix that has fostered exceptional preservation. This is the first Middle Pleistocene archaeological site ever to be excavated in mainland Greece and, moreover, the first Greek, open-air Lower Palaeolithic site with both lithic and faunal remains to be examined by systematic excavation. Consequently, ‘Marathousa 1’ offers a unique opportunity to study early human behaviour in a region that has long remained virtually unexplored.

(Source: “Marathousa 1: a new Middle Pleistocene archaeological site from Greece”, by Eleni Panagopoulou, Vangelis Tourloukis, Nicholas Thompson, Athanassios Athanassiou, Georgia Tsartsidou, George E. Konidaris, Domenico Giusti, Panagiotis Karkanas & Katerina Harvati)

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We investigated the magnetostratigraphy of the Megalopolis basin in central Peloponnese, Greece, which encompasses a record of Pleistocene lacustrine and lignite-bearing sedimentation, where lithic tools stratigraphically associated with remnants of an almost complete skeleton of Palaeoloxodon antiquus were recently found at the Marathousa 1 site. A magnetic polarity reversal was observed within a ∼10 m-thick lignite seam at the base of the (exposed) stratigraphic sequence, and it was interpreted as a record of the Brunhes/Matuyama boundary (0.78 Ma). Assuming that lignite seams were deposited generally under warm and humid climate conditions, this finding is in agreement with data from the literature indicating that the Brunhes/Matuyama boundary occurs within warm Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 19. We then attempted to correlate the remainder of the lacustrine and lignite-bearing intervals above the Brunhes/Matuyama boundary to a standard oxygen isotope record of Pleistocene climate variability. Two age models of sedimentation were generated: according to preferred option #1, the artifact-bearing stratigraphic units of the Marathousa 1 site should have an age between ∼0.48 Ma and ∼0.42 Ma, while according to alternative option #2, the archaeological layers would have an age between ∼0.56 Ma and ∼0.54 Ma. Option #1 is at present considered the preferred option as it is in closer agreement with preliminary post-IR IRSL and ESR dates from the Marathousa 1 site. This age model has been exported to other areas of the Megalopolis basin, where additional archaeological and/or palaeontological sites could be present, by means of correlations to lithostratigraphic logs derived from commercial drill cores taken in the 1960s and 1970s for lignite exploitation.

(Source: “Magnetostratigraphic and chronostratigraphic constraints on the Marathousa 1 Lower Palaeolithic site and the Middle Pleistocene deposits of the Megalopolis basin, Greece”, by Vangelis Tourloukis, Giovanni Muttoni, Panagiotis Karkanas, Edoardo Monesi, Giancarlo Scardia, Eleni Panagopoulou, Katerina Harvati)

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In the Middle Pleistocene open-air locality Marathousa 1 (Megalopolis Basin, Peloponnese, Greece), lithic artefacts are spatially and stratigraphically associated with faunal remains. Among the latter, birds are known by over 120 skeletal elements and represent an important part of the vertebrate fauna. The majority of them are identified as anseriform birds of various sizes, from swan size (Cygnus olor) to teal size (Anas crecca). The next largest group is gruiform birds, while, at least one small-sized passerine is also present (cf. Cinclus cinclus). A number of taxa are recorded for the first time in the Pleistocene of Greece. The taphonomic analysis of the deposit points to a minimal transfer of the avian skeletal elements, accumulated possibly through the combined action of some raptors and natural transfer of unconsumed avian remains. The palaeoecological analysis reveals a rich lakeshore environment, under temperate climatic conditions, that would support large numbers of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates and small vertebrates. The avifaunal composition and its richness demonstrate the importance of the palaeolake system, which would have contributed to the development of habitats capable of supporting a variety of species including hominins.

(Source: “The ornithological remains from Marathousa 1 (Middle Pleistocene; Megalopolis Basin, Greece)”, by Dimitrios Michailidis, George E.Konidaris, Athanassios Athanassiou, Eleni Panagopoulou, Katerina Harvati)

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Exposures of Middle Pleistocene lacustrine sediments at the margins of an open-cast lignite mine at Marathousa near Megalopolis, western Arcadia, Greece yielded the partial remains of a Palaeoloxodon antiquus skeleton which exhibited signs of being butchered. Sedimentation occurred between ca. 400 and 480 ka. Lithic artefacts were found in close spatial and stratigraphic association with the elephant remains. A palaeobotanical investigation (involving carpological, phytolith and wood remains) as well as diatom analysis led to a detailed reconstruction of the local environment at the time of sediment deposition. The results of this study enabled the environmental context of the butchering of the Palaeoloxodon antiquus carcass to be established. Palaeobotanical data show that sediment deposition at the Palaeoloxodon antiquus site occurred in shallow water in front of a reed swamp with trees in the immediate surroundings (particularly Alnus and Salix) on a flat plain where the water table was at or just below the ground surface. Warm conditions prevailed at the time of sediment deposition allowing aquatic plants typically recorded in the climatic optima of European interglacial assemblages to occur (e.g. Brasenia schreberi) and palms (Palmae) to live close-by. This suggests that the organic-rich sediments that contain the archaeological finds represent a transition between the underlying clastic sediments deposited during colder conditions and the overlying lignite that was deposited during warm climatic conditions as reported in previous studies.

(Source: “A palaeoenvironmental reconstruction (based on palaeobotanical data and diatoms) of the Middle Pleistocene elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) butchery site at Marathousa, Megalopolis, Greece”, by M.H.Field, M.Ntinou, G.Tsartsidou, D.van Berge Henegouwen, J.Risberg, V.Tourloukis, N.Thompson, P.Karkanas, E.Panagopoulou, K.Harvati)

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The present study describes the sedimentology and formation processes of the archaeological site Marathousa 1, part of a Pleistocene lignite-bearing succession at the Megalopolis basin (Southern Greece). The sedimentary sequence of the site comprises about 4–5 m lacustrine and fluviolacustrine clastic deposits found between Lignite Seam II and III. The lower part of this sequence is characterized by relatively high rate subaqueous sedimentation of bedded sands and silts with local evidence of slumping and liquefaction attributed to a seismic event. This part of the sequence contains fluctuating but generally low organic and carbonate content probably associated with cold and arid conditions of a glacial period. The upper part of the sequence follows a major hiatus attributed to exposure and erosion. A series of erosional bounded depositional units are observed in this sequence suggesting important water-level fluctuations. The subaqueous emplacement of the deposits is attributed to subaerial flood-generated, organic- and carbonate-rich dilute mudflows and hyperconcentrated flows. Organic-rich sedimentation culminates with the formation of the overlying lignite seam. This change is interpreted as a gradual return to warmer and humid conditions of an interglacial period.

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The fossiliferous and cultural levels at Marathousa 1 are associated with the major erosional and exposed surface found in the upper part of the sequence. This surface was part of an extensive mudflat surrounding the lake shore at that time. The overlying mudflows have locally redistributed and buried the archaeological remains, thus preserving this very important butchering site.

(Source: “Sedimentology and micromorphology of the Lower Palaeolithic lakeshore site Marathousa 1, Megalopolis basin, Greece”, by Panagiotis Karkanas, Vangelis Tourloukis, Nicholas Thompson, Domenico Giusti, Eleni Panagopoulou, Katerina Harvati)

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The technological systems and subsistence strategies of Middle Pleistocene hominins in South-East Europe are insufficiently understood due to the scarcity of well-preserved, excavated assemblages. In this paper, we present first results from the study of the lithic and bone artifacts unearthed at the Lower Palaeolithic site Marathousa 1 (MAR-1), Megalopolis, Greece. The context of the site represents a depositional environment close to a lakeshore, where rapid burial in a very fine-grained matrix ensured extraordinary conditions for preservation. Lithic artifacts occur in spatial and stratigraphic association with remains of the elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus as well as other mammals. Bones, including those of elephants, show clear anthropogenic flaking scars, cut-marks and fracture patterns indicating deliberate breakage and modification by early humans. The MAR-1 lithic assemblage is composed of small-sized debitage, retouched tools, a few small and exhausted cores, as well as a large number of debris and retouch products, such as chips and resharpening flakes. Currently, there are no indications of Acheulean bifacial debitage, large cutting tools are missing, and a key aspect of the material refers to its ‘microlithic’ character. The scarcity of cores and primary flakes indicates a fragmented reduction sequence and complex discard patterns that require further investigation. On the basis of the on-going analysis of lithic material from three field seasons, we discuss aspects of assemblage composition and the role of raw material types, the main technological and typological traits of the industry, as well as the potential contribution of the MAR-1 assemblage in broader discussions about Middle Pleistocene lithic techno-complexes and subsistence strategies in Eurasia. Finally, we briefly present a small sample of bone artifacts, which suggest that hominin exploitation of the animal carcasses was not restricted to marrow extraction and bone processing for nutritional needs, but included also the knapping of bones, potentially with the aim of using the knapped products as tools. The MAR-1 archaeological record compares well with other important Eurasian sites yielding ‘small tool assemblages’, such as Ficoncella, La Polledrara, Bilzingsleben, Schöningen and Vértesszőlős, some of which, like MAR-1, have provided evidence of elephant or other mega-fauna exploitation.

(Source: “Lithic artifacts and bone tools from the Lower Palaeolithic site Marathousa 1, Megalopolis, Greece: Preliminary results”, by Vangelis Tourloukis, Nicholas Thompson, Eleni Panagopoulou, Domenico Giusti, George E.Konidaris, Panagiotis Karkanas, Katerina Harvati)

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Marathousa 1 is a Lower Palaeolithic open-air site located in the Megalopolis basin, an area in Southern Greece known for its fossiliferous sediments. Mining activities in the basin uncovered a thick sequence of Middle Pleistocene lacustrine deposits representing the environment of a palaeolake. Marathousa 1 was discovered in 2013 during a targeted palaeoanthropological survey and excavated subsequently by an interdisciplinary team from the Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology–Speleology of Greece and the University of Tübingen, Germany. This article presents results from the ongoing investigation and reviews the state of knowledge about the site.


Systematic excavations during five field seasons have exposed a total of 72 m² and revealed a partial skeleton of the elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus and remains of other large mammals in spatial and stratigraphic association with a “small tool” lithic assemblage. Faunal and taphonomic studies indicate the presence of cut-marks and percussion damage on elephant and other large mammal bones. The study of site formation processes, together with taphonomic and geostatistic spatial analyses confirm the association of fossil and hominin activity remains and the stratigraphic integrity of the site. Radiometric dating, geological and biostratigraphical evidence suggest that hominin activity at the site occurred between 0.5 and 0.4 Ma.

Marathousa 1 is the oldest currently known archaeological site in Greece and the only Lower Palaeolithic butchering site in the Southern Balkans. It is also a key site for documenting high resolution palaeoclimatic, palaeoenvironmental and cultural records of a geographical area that potentially acted as a refugium during the successive waves of hominin colonization of Europe.

(Source: “The Lower Palaeolithic site of Marathousa 1, Megalopolis, Greece: Overview of the evidence”, by Eleni Panagopoulou, Vangelis Tourloukis, Nicholas Thompson, George Konidaris, Athanassios Athanassiou, Domenico Giusti, Georgia Tsartsidou, Panagiotis Karkanas, KaterinaHarvati)

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NovoScriptorium: Paleontology, Paleoanthropology, Archaeology are based on Discovering and Dating Finds, which simply means that at any moment a new, single find may overturn an existing theory – whatever that may be.  Development of ‘absolute theories’ in the above fields of Science is simply unacceptable.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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