Early Humans May Have Preyed On Elephant Ancestor Gomphothere
July 15, 2014

Early Humans May Have Preyed On Elephant Ancestor Gomphothere

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Gomphotheres, genetic relatives of the elephant, were thought to have roamed North America and became extinct long before humans reached the continent. But, according to a new study, researchers have uncovered evidence that North America’s earliest humans may have preyed on the ancient mammals.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, study researchers from the United States and Mexico found remains of gomphotheres intermingled with artifacts from the Clovis culture – considered to be a precursor for most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

While humans are known to have hunted the animals in Central and South America, the new study represents the first evidence of this activity taking place on North American soil. The remains and artifacts were both found at a site in northwestern Mexico.

"This is the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, and it's the only one known," said study author Vance Holliday, a professor of anthropology and geology at the University of Arizona.

The researchers said they were alerted to the site by farmers who reported finding mysterious bones in northwestern Sonora, Mexico.

"At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because the extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison," Holliday said.

After finding a jawbone in the dirt one year later, the researchers knew what kind of animal they had stumbled upon.

"We finally found the mandible, and that's what told the tale," Holliday said.

Gomphotheres are about the same size as modern elephants and were prevalent in North America. But until now it was thought they had vanished from the continent's fossil record prior to the arrival of humans, which occurred some 13,000 to 13,500 years ago, during the ending of the last Ice Age. However, an analysis by the study team revealed that the remains at the Mexican site date back 13,400 years, which makes them the last known gomphotheres in North America.

The study team also uncovered numerous Clovis artifacts at the study site – including projectile points and cutting tools. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers dated the entire site to 13,400 years ago – making it one of the two oldest sites in North America.

The position and distance of Clovis weapon pieces in relation to the gomphothere bones at the location show that humans did kill the two animals, the researchers said. Of the seven Clovis points discovered at the location, four were found among the bones, including one with bone and teeth particles above and below. The other three points had clearly worn away from the bone bed and were discovered dispersed nearby.

"This is the first Clovis gomphothere, it's the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, it's the first evidence that people were hunting gomphotheres in North America, and it adds another item to the Clovis menu," Holliday said.

The site where the remains were found was dubbed El Fin del Mundo – Spanish for The End of the World – as a hat-tip to its remote location.

Image 2 (below left): Archaeologists working in northwestern Mexico were not sure what kind of animal they had unearthed until they found this telltale jawbone, which belonged to a gomphothere. Credit: Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales/Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia

Image 3 (below right): These sculptures, made by Mexican artist Sergio de la Rosa, show three elephant ancestors: (from left to right) the mastodon, the mammoth and the gomphothere. Credit: Sergio de la Rosa


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