Mammoth carcass reveals humans roamed the Arctic earlier than we thought

Humans may have roamed the Arctic up to 10,000 years earlier than previously believed, as the newfound carcass of a prehistoric mammoth shows evidence that the creature had been attacked by spears or arrows, according to a new study published Friday in the journal Science.

A team of Russian scientists working in the Siberian Arctic found the mammoth remains, which have been dated to 45,000 years ago, according to the AFP. Previously, most researchers thought that mankind had not started living in the region until between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.

Vladimir Pitulko, an archaeologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, wrote that the mammoth carcass his team discovered showed indications of both pre- and post-mortem injuries that had been inflicted by weapons—including gouges and dents on the ribs and damage to the right tusk and mandible consistent with a spear or arrow attack.

“Advancements in mammoth hunting probably allowed people to survive and spread widely across northernmost Arctic Siberia at this time,” they wrote, adding that this would have marked “an important cultural shift—one that likely facilitated the arrival of humans in the area close to the Bering land bridge, providing them an opportunity to enter the New World.”

Early Arctic peoples relied upon mammoth ivory for weapons

According to ScienceNews, the remains belonged to a 15-year-old male mammoth were recovered from a frozen coastal bluff in the central part of the Siberian Arctic at about 72 degrees North latitude (more than 1,500 km north of previously found human habitation sites in the area). A leg bone and nearby sediment were carbon dated to 45,000 years old.

People who lived in the unforgiving Arctic conditions at this time likely were hunter-gatherers, Pitulko told Reuters. Since mammoths were the largest land creatures in the area, they proved to be an important source of food, as well as fuel (from their dung, fat, and bones) and materials for tools (from their bones and ivory).

The ivory was particularly important, he explained to Popular Archaeology, because it “became a substitution for materials used for shafts and points long and strong enough for killing large animals, not necessarily the mammoth. Such tools are found elsewhere in the Upper Paleolithic, and this includes even full-size spears of ivory which are known from [the sites of] Sunghir, European Russia or from Berelekh, Siberia. This innovation became a really important discovery for humans and finally helped them in surviving and settling these landscapes.”

Breakthroughs in mammoth hunting may have made it possible for humans to survive and spread throughout Arctic Siberia during this time, the researchers noted, and could have helped facilitate the arrival of humans in territory near the Bering land bridge—meaning early humans could have had the opportunity to cross over into the New World prior to the Last Glacial Maximum.

“This is especially important for questions related to the peopling of the New World, because now we know that the eastern Siberia up to its arctic limits was populated starting at roughly 50,000 years ago,” Pitulko explained. “Until 15,000 years ago, sea-level (though changing) still remained low, which is clear from appropriate dates on terrestrial animals in the New Siberian islands. This presumes that the Bering land Bridge existed probably most or part of this time, so the New World gate remained open.”


Feature Image: V. PITULKO ET AL/SCIENCE 2016