On January 18th, 2016 we learned about

Marks on mammoth revise model of human activity in the ancient Arctic

Ancient humans likely ventured into the Siberian Arctic over 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, at least according to one mammoth. No human bones or artifacts were found near the carcass, but the wounds on a frozen woolly mammoth most likely came from human tools, requiring their presence in the cold terrain some 45,000 years ago. This kind of indirect evidence faces different levels of scrutiny than a carved tool would, as all other possible explanations need to be ruled out before the conclusion can be accepted.

The first cause of the mammoth’s death was one that we all potentially face— old age. Like many living animals, researchers checked the recovered teeth to determine that the mammoth was only 15 years old when it died, well short of the estimated 60 year life-span an animal of that size would have had. Since the mammoth had been partially preserved in the Arctic ice, researchers were able to find some soft tissues, like fat in the animal’s hump. The quality and quantity of such tissues indicated that there were no lethal illnesses, infections or malnutrition at play.

What was left were some very specific wounds across the body. A symmetrical hole in the mammoth’s skull, as well as similarly shaped dents in the legs and shoulders were judged to match a carved spear more than any claw or tooth mark. These marks not only matched a known attack pattern still used by elephant hunters in Africa, but was also considered the cause of death as each wound was found to be made before the animal died. To top it all off, a stripped trunk and damage from butchering were also found, all pointing to early humans being behind the mammoth’s demise.

Determining the date

Any partially preserved mammoth is of interest, but what really set this find apart is the date of it’s death. 31,000-year-old hunting tools had already been found in other parts of Siberia, but this butchered mammoth was dated at 45,000 years old, a fact backed up by other plant tissues and debris found with the body. This means that humans had been hunting in the Arctic thousands of years earlier than previously known, which may require new models of human migrations, right down to when people first reached geological bottlenecks like the Bering Straights.

Source: A Mammoth, a Spear, and a New Timeline for Humans in the Arctic by Cari Romm, The Atlantic

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