Woolly Mammoth Skeleton May Revise Experts' Timeline of Early America

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At the peak of the last Ice Age (around 25,000 years ago), woolly mammoths lumbered across Michigan’s grassy fields and forested valleys. In October 2015, a local man stumbled upon one of the massive creatures’ skeletons while digging a gas line on a farm in Washtenaw County. Similar bones had been found in the region before, but this was one of the more complete sets, with 30 to 40 percent of the skeleton uncovered. Now, Nova Next reports, experts think the serendipitous find may yield new, early evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Daniel Fisher—a University of Michigan paleontologist who studies the extinction of mastodons and mammoths—led the excavation. He also spent the past year studying the skeleton, named the “Bristle mammoth” after its finder, James Bristle. The oldest documented evidence of humans arriving in Michigan is around 13,000 years ago, but Fisher believes he’s found evidence that the Bristle mammoth was butchered around 15,000 years ago.

Fisher estimated the skeleton’s age using preliminary radiocarbon dating, and he also noted that many of the bones illustrate “intentional breakage, targeted toward removal of nutritious tissues that humans might wish to harvest” (as quoted by PBS).

Plus, at the archaeological site, the mammoth bones were found embedded in pond sediments. Near the skeleton, excavators found three boulders that likely wouldn’t have been deposited there naturally. Fisher thinks that early hunters used the boulders as weights, and tied mammoth meat to them with ropes to store them in a cool body of water (an early refrigeration technique). Portions of the skeleton also appear to have been set in piles, suggesting that hunters arranged them that way for storage purposes.

If hunters did indeed kill it, the find could prove that Michigan was home to humans long before the Clovis—a Paleo-Indian culture that hunted large mammals with spears—arrived on the scene. According to Phys.org, only a few pre-Clovis archaeological sites have been documented in the Americas, including in Texas, the Pacific Northwest, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and South America.

Fisher and his team plan to return to James Bristle’s farm to excavate the site more extensively (they only had a day to remove the bones before construction on the gas line resumed), find more evidence, and conduct more tests on both the skeleton and its environment. Soon, they hope to submit their fleshed-out findings to a scientific journal.

As for now, the Bristle mammoth is on temporary display at the University of Michigan's Museum of Natural History until January 2018, when it will move to a more permanent location in the university’s new Biological Science building.

[h/t Nova Next]