Mammoth bones bear witness to early humans in North America

The roughly 37,000-year-old remains of a female mammoth and her calf show distinct signs of butchery, providing new evidence that humans may have arrived in North America much earlier than previously thought.

Paleontologist Timothy Rowe first discovered the fossils in 2013 when a neighbor noticed something protruding from a hill on a New Mexico property owned by Rowe.

Upon closer inspection, Rowe found a tusk, a sunken mammoth skull, and other bones that appeared to be deliberately broken. He thought this was the site where two mammoths were slaughtered.

“What we have is amazing,” Rowe said in a statement. “It’s not a charismatic site with a beautiful skeleton laid out on the side. Everything is destroyed. But that’s what it’s all about.”

Rowe, a University of Texas professor at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, is an expert in vertebrate paleontology and doesn’t typically study mammoths or early humans. But he couldn’t help but work on the search due to the location of the find.

Two six-week digs took place at the site in 2015 and 2016, but lab analysis took much longer and is ongoing, Rowe said. He is lead author of a new study providing an analysis of the site and its implications, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution in July.

“I have yet to fully process the cosmic coincidence of this site appearing in my backyard,” Rowe wrote in an email.

Site analysis

Multiple discoveries at the site paint a picture of what happened thousands of years ago, including bone tools, evidence of a fire, bones with fractures and other signs of slaughter of animals by humans.

Long mammoth bones fashioned into disposable blades were used to break down animal carcasses before a fire melted their fat.

According to the study, fractures created by blunt force can be observed in the bones. No stone tools were found at the site, but researchers found splinter knives made from bone with worn edges.

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A chemical analysis of the sediments around the mammoth bones showed that the fire was sustained and contained rather than caused by a wildfire or lightning strike. There was also evidence of bones that had been pulverized as well as burnt remains of small animals including birds, fish, rodents and lizards.

The research team used CT scans to analyze the bones at the site, finding puncture wounds that may have been used to drain fat from the ribs and vertebrae. The humans who slaughtered the mammoths were thorough, Rowe said.

Butchery marks are visible on the mammoth ribs.  The upper rib shows a blunt impact fracture, the middle rib shows a puncture wound, and the lower rib shows cut marks.

“I’ve searched for dinosaurs that have been salvaged, but the pattern of disarticulation and bone breakage due to human slaughter was unlike anything I had seen,” Rowe said.

The most startling detail about the site is that it’s in New Mexico – and earlier evidence has suggested humans weren’t there until tens of thousands of years later.

Trace the first steps of man

Collagen taken from mammoth bones helped researchers determine that the animals were slaughtered at the site between 36,250 and 38,900 years ago. This age range makes the New Mexico site one of the oldest created by ancient humans in North America, researchers said.

Scientists have debated for years when the first humans arrived in North America.

This illustration shows what mammoths looked like thousands of years ago.
The 16,000 year old Clovis culture is known for the stone tools they left behind. But growing evidence suggests that older North American sites were home to a pre-Clovis population that had a different genetic lineage. The oldest sites show a different kind of evidence, such as preserved footprints, bone tools, or animal bones with cut marks dating back more than 16,000 years.
Fossilized footprints show humans arrived in North America much earlier than previously thought

“Humans have been in the Americas for more than twice as long as archaeologists have maintained for many years,” Rowe said. “This site indicates that humans reached worldwide distribution much earlier than previously thought.”

The position of the site, which is well inland in western North America, suggests that the first humans arrived well before 37,000 years ago, according to the study. These early humans probably traveled over land or along coastal routes.

Rowe said he then wanted to sample the site to look for signs of ancient DNA.

Humans may have arrived in North America much earlier than expected, new study suggests
“Tim has done excellent and thorough work that represents cutting-edge research,” Mike Collins, a retired Texas State University professor, said in a statement. “It’s about forging a path that others can learn from and follow.”

Collins was not involved in the study. He conducted research at the Gault Archaeological Site, which contains both Clovis and pre-Clovis artifacts, near Austin, Texas.

“I think the deeper significance of the early human achievement of global distribution is an important new question to explore,” Rowe said. “Our new techniques have provided nuanced evidence of a human presence in the archaeological record, and I suspect there are other sites of comparable age or even older that go unrecognized.”

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