The bone of a “sizeable” elephant that may have taken part in combat thousands of years ago has been uncovered in southern Spain.
Archaeologists found the carpal bone of an “elephant of large proportions” during excavations in the city of Córdoba on a hill known as Los Quemados, researchers told Spanish news outlet El País.
The bone is thought to date to between the end of the 4th century B.C. and the middle of the 1st century B.C., although experts have not been able to perform radiocarbon dating to determine a precise estimate of when the elephant died.
Researchers made the discovery in 2019, although it has been kept under wraps until now so that more information could be gathered.
The area where the bone was found, located in the heart of Córdoba, may have played host to a large-scale battle involving war elephants, according to researchers.
Seventeen projectiles designed to be fired by catapults as well as other weapons have been uncovered at the site, although it is not clear if these are associated with the elephant bone, Fernando Quesada, a world-renowned expert on pre-Roman weapons, told El País.
Whether the elephant died in battle or for another reason remains unknown. At present, it is too early to say in which ancient conflict the elephant may have been involved although there are several possibilities. But it is possible that it may have perished during the Punic Wars, or in the midst of later conflicts.
The Punic Wars were a series of three conflicts fought between the Roman Republic and the Empire of Carthage, a significant power in the Mediterranean region that became a major rival to Rome, between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C.
During the Second Punic War, the Romans conquered the Carthaginian territories in the south and east of the Iberian Peninsula—the stretch of land in southwestern Europe that is divided between Spain and Portugal—including Cordoba in 206 B.C.
In this war, the Carthaginian forces were commanded by Hannibal, considered to be one of the great military leaders of antiquity, who inflicted several notable defeats on the Romans.
Another possibility is that the bone came from an elephant that was used in battle during the Roman Republic’s second civil war between 49 B.C. and 45 B.C. in forces commanded by Julius Caesar.
“The reason why it is so interesting is that it is not a tusk, which was raw material for making crafts, but a hand bone. It could belong to the period of the Punic Wars. It could be the first of Hannibal’s elephants to be discovered. We can’t know for sure, but it was certainly a sizeable beast,” Rafael Martínez, a zoologist and assistant professor of prehistory at the University of Córdoba, told El País.
“This discovery is of enormous interest given the practical absence of remains of elephants from a pre-Roman context in Europe, excluding ivory objects, of course,” he said.
Aside from the 17 catapult projectiles, archaeologists with Arqueobética—the consultancy that carried out the excavations—also found a spear tip.
“But we have no evidence that a battle or siege took place at the site, so the discovery of these war items was a surprise,” Agustín López Jiménez, an expert from Arqueobética, told El País.