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Ice Age encounter: hippopotamus meets mammoth

New findings from the research project "Ice Age Window Upper Rhine Graben", funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation, revise previously held ideas about the living environment of the last Ice Age in the Upper Rhine region. It has been shown that hippos lived here until around 32,000 years ago.

This has been proven as part of this research project. For five years, scientists from the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums, the CEZA and the University of Potsdam have been jointly analysing hundreds of bone finds.

The Upper Rhine Graben is an important continental climate archive. Animal bones that have survived the millennia in the gravel and sand deposits are a valuable source for research. The finds open a window into the past and provide numerous new insights into the climatic and environmental development of the last glacial period in south-west Germany.

The Upper Rhine Graben stretches up to 40 kilometres wide and 300 kilometres long from Basel to Frankfurt/Main. The depression is rich in different sediment layers from various geological periods. The uppermost gravel and sand deposits in the central trench area, which are on average 30 metres thick, are referred to as the “Mannheim Formation” in the international geological classification and cover a period of around 400,000 years.

Pic. 1: Left lower jaw fragment of a female hippopotamus.
Age dating: Between 46,000 and 48,300 years before today. Photo: Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, R. Kind

The economic extraction of sand and gravel has brought and continues to bring to light animal bones from the Ice Age. The Klaus Reis family from Deidesheim amassed an important private palaeontological collection over decades. The Reis collection comprises almost 20,000 objects and includes a wide range of species – complete skulls of giant deer and steppe bison are represented here as well as skeletal remains of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, elk, wild horse, water buffalo and hippopotamus. The collection was brought to the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in 2016 via the Curt Engelhorn Foundation. Here it forms an important basis for science. Selected sample series were analysed using state-of-the-art methods as part of the interdisciplinary project “Ice Age Window Upper Rhine Graben”. For example, radiometric and bioarchaeological investigations such as 14C dating to determine age, the analysis of stable isotopes for dietary and environmental reconstruction and palaeogenetic investigations to clarify the relationships between different species are being carried out.

The analysis of hippopotamus finds as part of the research project led to a surprising result. It had long been known that these animals, which are now only found in Africa, once lived in Germany. However, it was assumed that the thermophilic species became extinct here at the end of the last interglacial period 116,000 years ago. The current dating of finds from various gravel pits in the Upper Rhine Graben disproves this assumption.

Pic. 2: Lifelike reconstruction of a hippopotamus in the special exhibition „Ice Age Safari“. Photo: Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, R. Kind

A total of 30 hippopotamus specimens were dated using the 14C method. The results were confirmed by a second laboratory. They show that hippos were still living in the Upper Rhine region between 48,000 and 32,000 years ago. This proves that hippos were indigenous to the region during the last glacial period at the same time as mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, cave lions and the like.

A further study supports the conclusion that the climate in the Upper Rhine Graben was milder than previously assumed. In addition to bones, wood finds were also analysed using the 14C method. This revealed that these were oak trees with a circumference of up to 80 cm, which grew in the Upper Rhine region around 40,000 years ago.

The latest research findings were also presented in the special exhibition “Ice Age Safari” at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums. The show invited children and adults on an exciting journey into the world of the last ice age between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago. Visitors not only encountered mammoths and the like, but also a hippopotamus. To mark the occasion, a lifelike reconstruction was made especially for the exhibition.