A well-preserved 500,000-year-old 2.5-meter-long elephant tusk has been discovered by archeologists and paleontologists near a kibbutz in the south of Israel.

It took experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, two weeks to excavate the complete fossilized tusk from a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) , in the appropriately named “Operation Elephant”.

The discovery, near Kibbutz Revadim, sheds new light on prehistoric life in Israel, when gigantic elephants roamed and grazed the country’s coastal plain alongside other large mammals such as wild cattle, hippopotami, deer, wild boars, and wild horses.

The fossil was first spotted by chance by Dr. Eitan Mor, a biologist from Jerusalem, who visited the area after reading about prehistoric elephants.

The fossil was spotted sticking out of the ground near Kibbutz Revadim. Photo by Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“To my surprise, I spotted something that looked like a large animal bone peeping out of the ground,” he said. “When I looked closer, I realized that it was ‘the real thing’, so I rushed to report it to the Israel Antiquities Authority.”

“This is the largest complete fossil tusk ever found at a prehistoric site in Israel or the Near East,” says IAA prehistorian Avi Levy, the director of the excavation.

“From our previous archaeological excavations at Revadim, we knew that the site was settled in the Late Lower Paleolithic period, as stone and flint tools as well as animal bone remains (including elephants) were retrieved but finding this half a million-year-old complete elephant tusk in such a good condition is something else.”

Extracting the tusk from the site sediments was a challenge for the experts.

“The fossilized tusk is extremely fragile, and it is likely to disintegrate when exposed to the air and sunlight, and to human touch,” explains Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from the Dan David Center for Human Evolution and Biohistory at Tel Aviv University.

Archeologists and paleontologists work together to excavate the elephant tusk. Photo by Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Remains of the straight-tusked elephant have only been found in a few areas, said IAA Archaeozoologist Dr. Lee Perry-Gal.

“The species apparently appeared in our region about 800,000 years ago, and by 400,000 years ago it became extinct. It was a gigantic elephant, larger than the present-day African elephant,” he said.

Questions about the elephant remain as the tusk was detached from the skull and the rest of the body, suggesting it might have had social or spiritual significance for the population at the time.

Elephants at this time were routinely hunted, but academics are still debating whether they were hunted for food or for special occasions.

Hunted for food, or for a spiritual reason? Experts will be examining the tusk closely for information. Photo by Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“We anticipate that the discovery of the new tusk in a clear archaeological context will shed light on this issue, said Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from the Dan David Center at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Omry Barzilai from the IAA.

The tusk is now being studied and conserved and once the work is complete the IAA plans to exhibit it  to the public at an exhibition hall on the National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel in Jerusalem.