16 May 2016 will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of the so-called “Hansaplatz Elk”. The fully preserved skeleton of a giant elk was discovered and excavated during the building of the G line (today’s U9) of the Berlin U-Bahn system, near Hansaplatz in the Tiergarten district of the city. The skeleton was reconstructed at the Museum of Prehistory and Early History; since the re-opening of the Neues Museum in 2009, it has been among the biggest and the most popular exhibits in the museum’s Stone Age gallery.
The elk’s discovery in sediments laid down during the late Ice Age is an indication of its considerable age. It has large palmate antlers, 1.5 meters across at the widest point, and weighing some 20 kg. In other species of deer, the base of the antler – called the “burr” – points upwards, but in the giant elk it is pointed to the side. The elk’s body length, reaching 2.7 meters, is quite short in relation to its long legs. These long legs, as well as hooves with widely-splayed toe bones, prevented the elk from sinking into damp ground or deep snow. Both anatomical features were adaptations to life in the northern forests.
The discovery has been of considerable significance in reconstructing the flora, fauna and climate of the Berlin region around the end of the last Ice Age. The Younger Dryas period, about 11,000 years ago, saw considerable climactic changes, leading to the formation of beech and pine forests in the north-German tundra, which by then had long been free of ice. These forests, around what is now Berlin, were in turn settled by hunters of the Ahrensburg culture.
These hunters produced one notable artefact held by the museum: a sharpened reindeer antler, 28cm in length, presumably used as a thrusting weapon. To mark the anniversary of the discovery of the “Hansaplatz Elk”, this antler will also be exhibited, along with illustrations of the “Amber Elk of Weitsche”, found during excavations at Hitzacker in northern Germany, and drawings from the caves of Gargas in France. Other exhibits include the molar tooth of a mammoth and the shell of a pond turtle, both unearthed close to the elk skeleton in 1956.