Injuries on Mammoth Skeleton Put Humans in the Arctic 45,000 Years Ago

Artist unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Artist unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Artist unknown via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There’s a lot of debate about what killed off the woolly mammoths. Some scientists believe climate change was to blame; some say bone disease. Others point to human hunters. The cause of the species' extinction remains unknown, but the cause of one mammoth’s death is plain as day. In a paper published today in the journal Science, archaeologists say the injuries they found on a woolly mammoth skeleton in Siberia suggest that humans were there 45,000 years ago.

If they're correct, they've moved the timeline of human habitation in the Eurasian Arctic back 10,000 years. Archaeologist Vladimir Pitulko, a lead author on the paper, has been in this situation before. In 2004, when scientists believed that humans had first entered the region 15,000 years ago, Pitulko and his team discovered a cache of hunting tools dating back 31,000 years. Speaking to National Geographic News, Pitulko said the find “demonstrates that humans were adapted to the harsh, unforgiving arctic environment much earlier than we might have thought."

That might be true all over again. In 2012, a team led by Alexei Tikhonov excavated the carcass of a male woolly mammoth from a cliff in the Siberian Arctic. The remains were unusually intact; the researchers were able to recover a near-complete skeleton as well as the soft remains of the mammoth’s hump and penis. Tikhonov brought the remains back to the laboratory, where he, Pitulko, and their colleagues took a closer look.

Pitulko et al., Science (2016)

There was no doubt about the mammoth’s cause of death. Its bones were peppered with injuries: three on the left shoulder, one on its skull, and two on its ribs, and part of one tusk had been broken off. The mammoth had clearly been hunted. X-ray scans of the bones showed that the outline of the wounds were the same shape as the point of a spear.

The beast didn’t go down easy, the researchers say. They paint a picture of an intense attack at close range, with hunters stabbing, slicing, and throwing their spears at the mammoth.

After the animal died, the hunters appear to have broken its jaw and removed part of a tusk. The researchers speculate that the hunters broke the mammoth’s jaw to get at its massive tongue; previous studies have suggested that humans of that period regularly ate mammoth tongue.

The hunters then used their tools to break off the tip of one tusk, most likely so they could use it to make tools.

The researchers performed radiocarbon dating on the mammoth’s tibia and a sample of the cliff where it was found. The results of both tests indicated that the mammoth’s body had been there at least 45,000 years. “This is a rare case of unequivocal evidence for clear human involvement, even if there is no artifact association,” they conclude in their paper. “Apparently, humans’ ability to survive in the Arctic environment, and their spread within the region as early as [45,000 years ago], represents an important cultural and adaptational shift.”