Mammoths, Humans, Neanderthals and Hunting

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25,000-year-old mammoth tusk ivory sculpture

Archaeological evidence from 30,000 to 10,000 B.C. shows that early homo sapiens built 40-foot-long and 12-foot-wide animal skin dwellings in southern Russia. Winter dwellings found in Czechoslovakia that back to 10,000 B.C. had round plans, animal-skin rugs, beds and hearths made with bones and animal dung.

Modern humans generally didn't live in caves, it is thought, because they were too dark although cave mouths may have been used for shelter. Caves, archaeologist contend, were used primarily for religious and artistic purposes.

It has been theorized that modern human families lived in small settlements made up of moss-covered huts during the winter and carried reindeer skin tents with them when they followed game during the summers. Families may have slept under bearskin bedding and children may have been rocked to sleep in reindeer-skin cradles. Their equivalent of hot chocolate may have reindeer fat mixed with boiling water. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

A 15,000-year-old modern human hut was excavated in the Ukraine southeast of Kiev at the junction of two Dnieper River tributaries. About eight feet high and the size of a small bedroom, it was held up with a retaining wall made of stacked mammoth bones. This is the oldest example of human's living in a shelter other than a cave. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986].

Four 15,000-year-old huts made from mammoth bones and tusks near the village Mezhirich in Ukraine were quite sophisticated. The walls were made of leg bones and skulls piled one another. The roof was made of tusks likely covered by hide. They contained the mandibles or more than a hundred mammoths, probably taken from a nearby mammoth "graveyard." Some have described them as proto yurts. Pits were dug in to the permafrost nearby may have been used to store frozen meat for a year-round meat supply. The site is viewed by some as an early village.

Mammoth Meat Barbecues 30,000 Years Ago

Archaeology magazine reported: The people of the Upper Paleolithic settlement at Predmostí in the Czech Republic: ate a lot of mammoth, according to a new study, and gave their dogs reindeer and musk ox meat. The work, which examined isotopes in bone collagen for clues to the diet of the Gravettian people 30,000 years ago, shows that carnivores, such as bears and wolves, also ate mammoth meat. Dogs, however, did not, which is a surprise, considering how much mammoth meat the people had around. This suggests that the dogs were restrained, and likely used more for transportation than hunting. [Source: Archaeology magazine, March-April 2015]

In 2009, archaeologists announced that they had found evidence of a 31,000-year-old old “well-equipped kitchen” where a gigantic mammoth was among the last animals roasted. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “The site, called Pavlov VI in the Czech Republic near the Austrian and Slovak Republic borders, provides a homespun look at the rich culture of some of Europe’s first anatomically modern humans. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, June 3, 2009 *]

“While contemporaneous populations near this region seemed to prefer reindeer meat, the Gravettian residents of this living complex, described in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity, appeared to seek out more super-sized fare. “It seems that, in contrast to other Upper Paleolithic societies in Moravia, these people depended heavily on mammoths,” project leader Jiri Svoboda told Discovery News. *\

“Svoboda, a professor at the University of Brno and director of its Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues recently excavated Pavlov VI, where they found the remains of a female mammoth and one mammothcalf near a 4-foot-wide roasting pit. Arctic fox, wolverine, bear and hare remains were also found, along with a few horse and reindeer bones. The meats were cooked luau-style underground. Svoboda said, “We found the heating stones still within the pit and around.” Boiling pits existed near the middle roaster. He thinks “the whole situation — central roasting pit and the circle of boiling pits — was sheltered by a teepee or yurt-like structure.” It’s unclear if seafood was added to create a surf-and-turf meal, but multiple decorated shells were unearthed. Many showed signs of cut marks, along with red and black coloration. The scientists additionally found numerous stone tools, such as spatulas, blades and saws, which they suggest were good for carving mammoths.*\

“Perforated, decorative pebbles, ceramic pieces and fragments of fired clay were also excavated. The living unit’s occupants left their fingerprints on some of the clay pieces, which they decorated with impressions made from reindeer hair and textiles. Some items might have held “magical” or ritualistic significance, according to the scientists. One such artifact looks to be the head of a lion. “This carnivore head was first modeled of wet clay, then an incision was made with a sharp tool, and finally the piece was heated in the fire, turned into some kind of ceramic,” Svoboda explained. “We hypothesize that this may be sympathetic magic.” “Sympathetic magic” often involves the use of effigies or fetishes, resembling individuals or objects, and is meant to affect the environment or the practitioners themselves. Archaeologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University supports the new study, saying the site was “excavated meticulously” by Svoboda and his team. “This is one more example, in this case from modern detailed excavation and analysis, of the incredibly rich human behavior from this time period,” Trinkaus told Discovery News. *\

Mammoth Cliff Kills

About 350 pairs of antlers, 5,000 reindeer molars, thousands of vertebrae and foot bones, and part of a mammoth skeleton were found in a huge fire pit under a 100-foot-cliff in southern France. These remains are offered as proof that modern humans hunted entire herds of animals by driving them off cliffs. It is also believed that modern human hunters ambushed animals at narrow passes, attacked prey vulnerable during river crossings and ambushed prey at water holes during the dry season. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The bones of 1,000 mammoths have been found in Czechoslovakia and the remains of 10,000 wild horses that were driven over a cliff at various times have been found near Soultré-Pouilly in Burgundy, Solutré, France. The bones under the cliffs at Soultré-Pouilly are three feet thick and cover 2.5 acres.

It had previously been suggested that Neanderthals drove mammoths off a cliff on what is now the British island of Jersey. Research published in 2014 said that new evidence makes the case that it would have been impossible to stampede mammoths to their deaths at site in Jersey.Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: ““Heaps of mammoth and woolly rhino bones found piled up at the foot of a cliff were thought to be the grim results of Neanderthals driving the beasts over the edge. The piles of bones are a major feature at La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey, one of the most spectacular Neanderthal sites in Europe. But the claim that they mark the remains of mass slaughter has been all but ruled out by a fresh investigation. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 28, 2014 \^^/]

“Researchers have found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that mammoths and other weighty beasts would never have ventured up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom. "I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place." \^^/

“Hundreds of thousands of stone tools and bone fragments have been uncovered at the Jersey site where Neanderthals lived on and off for around 200,000 years. The site was apparently abandoned from time to time when the climate cooled, forcing the Neanderthals back to warmer territory. Scott and her colleagues drew on a survey of the seabed that stretches away from the cliff to reconstruct the landscape when the Neanderthals lived there. The land, now submerged under higher sea levels, was cut with granite ravines, gullies and dead-end valleys – a terrain perfect for stalking and ambushing prey. "The site would have been an ideal vantage point for Neanderthal hunters. They could have looked out over the open plain and watched mammoths, woolly rhinos and horses moving around. They could see what was going on, and move out and ambush their prey," said Scott. Details of the study are published in the journal Antiquity. |=|

“The researchers have an alternative explanation for the bone heaps. Neanderthals living there may have brought the bones there after hunts, or from scavenged carcasses, and used them for food, heating and even building shelters. Older sediments at the site are rich with burnt bone and charcoal, suggesting the bones were used as fuel. The heaps of bones were preserved when Neanderthals last abandoned the site, and a fine dust of silt blew over and preserved the remains. |=|

Spear Point Still Embedded in a Mammoth's Rib 25,000 Years Later

About 25,000 years ago, ice age hunters in what is now Poland threw a spear at a mammoth and it became embedded in animal’s rib. Before this discovery researchers weren’t totally sure how modern humans killed mammoths, Among the theories were that they drove them into pits or off cliffs.Or maybe they went weak, young or sick mammoths. But now, "we finally have a smoking gun, the first direct evidence of how these animals were hunted," Piotr Wojtal, an archaeozoologist at the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals at the Poland Academy of Sciences in Kraków, told Science. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, January 19, 2019]

Laura Geggel wrote in Live Science,: Researchers initially found the mammoth rib in 2002, at a mammoth hotspot in Kraków, where scientists, over the years, have discovered the remains of at least 110 mammoths that lived between 30,000 and 25,000 years ago, the researchers said. "Among tens of thousands of bones, during a detailed analysis of the remains, I came across a damaged mammoth rib," Wojtal told Science in Poland. "It turned out that a fragment of a flint arrowhead was stuck in it."

During an examination, scientists found the 0.3-inch-long (7 millimeters) fragment of the flint tip, which likely broke when a hunter drove the spear into the mammoth's body. "The spear was certainly thrown at the mammoth from a distance, as evidenced by the force with which it stuck into an animal," Wojtal told Science in Poland. "The blade had to pierce 2-centimeters-thick [0.7 inches] skin and an 8-centimeter [0.04 inches] layer of fat to finally reach the bone." This blow probably didn't kill the mammoth, but if the hunt involved several armed hunters, it's likely that strikes from other weapons, "probably directly into soft tissues and one of the organs," killed the giant, Wojtal said.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have found mammoth remains containing human-made weapons at two sites in Siberia, but "I believe this is the first find of a weapon embedded in a mammoth bone in Europe," said Adrian Lister, a professor of vertebrates and anthropology at the Natural History Museum in London. "It is important because it proves beyond reasonable doubt that mammoths were hunted," Lister told Live Science. Until now, there was only circumstantial evidence that ice age people in Europe hunted mammoths. For instance, the Polish site of Kraków Spadzista Street contains burnt bones involved in supporting the tongue, indicating that ancient people feasted on roasted mammoth tongue, Lister said. "But you can never be absolutely sure that such animals were actually hunted rather than scavenged," Lister said. Or, if the mammoths did appear to be hunted, it remained a mystery what weapons were used against them, such as spears or traps.

45,000-Year-Old Woolly Mammoth Found in the Arctic with Spear Wounds

In 2012, a 15-year-old male Woolly mammoth was found on the eastern bank of the giant Yenisei River in northern Siberia. Known variously as the Zhenya mammoth, after the boy who found it, or the Sopkarginsky mammoth, deriving from the location where it was found, it was hunted and killed by early hunters using weapons and tools made of bone and stone according to forensic analysis of the remains – which included still-preserved soft tissue.[Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “In August of 2012, an 11-year-old boy made a gruesome discovery in a frozen bluff overlooking the Arctic Ocean. While exploring the foggy coast of Yenisei Bay, about 2000 kilometers south of the North Pole, he came upon the leg bones of a woolly mammoth eroding out of frozen sediments. Scientists excavating the well-preserved creature determined that it had been killed by humans: Its eye sockets, ribs, and jaw had been battered, apparently by spears, and one spear-point had left a dent in its cheekbone—perhaps a missed blow aimed at the base of its trunk. [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, January 14, 2016 ^]

“When they dated the remains, the researchers got another surprise: The mammoth died 45,000 years ago. That means that humans lived in the Arctic more than 10,000 years earlier than scientists believed, according to a new study. The find suggests that even at this early stage, humans were traversing the most frigid parts of the globe and had the adaptive ability to migrate almost everywhere. ^

“Most researchers had long thought that big-game hunters, who left a trail of stone tools around the Arctic 12,500 years ago, were the first to reach the Arctic Circle. These cold-adapted hunters apparently traversed Siberia and the Bering Straits at least 15,000 years ago (and new dates suggest humans may have been in the Americas as early as 18,500 years ago). But in 2004, researchers pushed that date further back in time when they discovered beads and stone and bone tools dated to as much as 35,000 years old at several sites in the Ural Mountains of far northeastern Europe and in northern Siberia; they also found the butchered carcasses of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, reindeer, and other animals. The Russian boy’s discovery—of the best-preserved mammoth found in a century—pushes back those dates by another 10,000 years. A team led by archaeologist Alexei Tikhonov excavated the mammoth and dubbed it “Zhenya,” for the child, Evgeniy Solinder, whose nickname was Zhenya. ^

“The big surprise, though, is the age. Radiocarbon dates on the collagen from the mammoth’s tibia bone, as well as from hair and muscle tissue, produce a direct date of 45,000 years, the team reports online today in Science. This fits with dating of the layer of sediments above the carcass, which suggest it was older than 40,000 years. If correct, this means the mammoth was alive during the heyday of woolly mammoths 42,000 to 44,000 years ago when they roamed the vast open grasslands of the northern steppe of the Siberian Arctic, Pitulko says. Researchers also have dated a thighbone of a modern human to 45,000 years at Ust-Ishim in Siberia, although that was found south of the Arctic at a latitude of 57° north, a bit north (and east) of Moscow. “The dating is compelling. It’s likely older than 40,000,” says Douglas Kennett, an environmental archaeologist who is co-director of the Pennsylvania State University, University Park’s accelerator mass spectrometry facility. However, he would like the Russian team to report the method used to rule out contamination of the bone collagen for dating—and confirmation of the dates on the bone by another lab, because the date is so critical for the significance of this discovery. ^

“Mammoths and other large animals, such as woolly rhinoceros and reindeer, may have been the magnet that drew humans to the Far North. “Mammoth hunting was an important part of survival strategy, not only in terms of food, but in terms of important raw materials—tusks, ivory that they desperately needed to manufacture hunting equipment,” Pitulko says. The presence of humans in the Arctic this early also suggests they had the adaptive ability to make tools, warm clothes, and temporary shelters that allowed them to live in the frigid north earlier than thought. They had to adapt to the cold to traverse Siberia and Beringia on their way to the Bering Strait’s land bridge, which they crossed to enter the Americas. “Surviving at those latitudes requires highly specialized technology and extreme cooperation,” Marean agrees. That implies that these were modern humans, rather than Neandertals or other early members of the human family. “If these hunters could survive in the Arctic Circle 45,000 years ago, they could have lived virtually anywhere on Earth,” says Ted Goebel, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, College Station.” ^

Evidence of Mammoth Hunting in the Arctic 45,000 Years Ago

Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “The injuries reminded Tikhonov of more modern human hunting practices. Elephant hunters in Africa, for example, often target the base of the trunk to cut arteries, causing the animal to bleed to death. The mammoth also had injuries to its jaw that suggest the tongue was cut out. Pieces of the tusk were removed, perhaps to get ivory to produce tools. “This is a rare case for unequivocal evidence for clear human involvement,” says lead author Vladimir Pitulko, also of the Russian Academy of Sciences. [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, January 14, 2016 ^]

“The injuries also fit with the pattern of damage seen on another butchered mammoth in Yana, also in Siberia, according to the authors. “One can almost see the blow-by-blow battle between people and mammoth fought on those frozen plains,” says Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University, Tempe, who was not involved with the study. “The impact wounds on the bones with embedded stone fragments is conclusive evidence that people slayed this mammoth.” ^

“Dr Pitulko told The Siberian Times: “Most likely the hunters threw relatively light spears. It is a usual hunting tactic, in particular in elephant hunts, which is still practiced in Africa. “An elephant is bombarded with a large number of light spears. Then, pierced with such ‘needles’ like a hedgehog, the animal starts losing blood. Even a light spear can penetrate quite deep and injure the vital organs. The mobility of the animal is seriously limited, and then it is soon possible to finish it with a strait blow. I think that the same happened to the Sopkarginsky mammoth.” [Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

“He said: “The most remarkable injury is to the fifth left rib, caused by a slicing blow, inflicted from the front and somewhat from above in a downward direction. Although it was a glancing blow, it was strong enough to go through skin and muscles and damage the bone. A similar but less powerful blow also damaged the second right front rib. Such blows were aimed at internal organs and/or blood vessels. The mammoth was also hit in the left scapula at least three times. Two of these injuries were imparted by a weapon, which went downwards through the skin and muscles, moving from the top and side. These markings indicate injuries evidently left by relatively light throwing spears. /~\

““A much more powerful blow damaged the spine of the left scapula. It may have been imparted by a thrusting spear, practically straight from the front at the level of the coracoid process. The weapon went through the shoulder skin and muscle, almost completely perforating the spine of the scapula. Taking into account the scapula’s location in the skeleton and the estimated height of this mammoth, the point of impact would be approximately 1500 mm high, in other words, the height of an adult human’s shoulder.” /~\

Anna Liesowska wrote in the Siberian Times: “Another injury – possibly evidence of a mis-directed blow – was spotted on the left jugal bone. The blow was evidently very strong and was suffered by the animal from the left back and from top down, which is only possible if the animal was lying down on the ground. Dr Pitulko, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St Petersburg, believes that it was ‘the final blow’, which was aimed to the base of the trunk. Modern elephant hunters still use this method “to cut major arteries and cause mortal bleeding”. Yet in this case the prehistoric hunters obviously missed and struck the jugal bone instead. /~\

“Luckily the spear left the clear trace on the bone, making possible to learn what kind of weapon it was. The bone was studied with X-ray computed tomography – a CT scan – by Dr Konstantin Kuper, from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk. He also created a 3D model of the injury in the bone. This led to the conclusion that the tip of the weapon was made of stone and had a thinned symmetric outline – and was relatively sharp. /~\

“Paleontologist Dr Alexei Tikhonov, from the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who lead the excavations, said: “It’s hard to say which blow was the mortal one, at least judging by the traces on the bones. There was quite a strong blow to the scapula, yet I think it was rather the totality of wounds that caused the death. It is interesting that the most of the injuries are on the left side of the animal. I would suppose that the hunters could attack the mammoth which was already lying on the ground. When we examined the skull, we noticed the abnormal development of the upper jaw. We believe that this mammoth got a kind of injury at a very young age, which impacted on its left side. There was no left tusk and I presume that the left side was weak, so it could help the hunters kill the animal.” /~\

Butchering 45,000-Year-Old Mammoth Found in the Arctic

Anna Liesowska wrote in the Siberian Times.“The injuries found on the bones also gave clues what did the hunters with the mammoth after they killed it. The right tusk had the traces of human interference on the tip of the tusk. They did not try and pull the entire tusk off the killed mammal but instead tried to remove “long slivers of ivory with sharp edges, which were usable as butchering tools”, said Dr Pitulko. A butchery mark was also found on the fifth left rib, seen as evidence that the hunters cut meat from the carcass to take it with them. Ancient man also extracted the mammoth tongue, seen as a probable delicacy to these hunters. [Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

“Yet the theory that the animal was butchered does not convince all experts. Dr Robert Park, a professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, wrote in an email to Discover, that the skeleton is not consistent with other evidence from early human hunters. He wrote: “The most convincing evidence that it wasn’t butchered is the fact that the archaeologists recovered the mammoth’s fat hump. Hunter-gatherers in high latitudes need fat both for its food value and as fuel. So the one part of the animal that we would not expect hunters to leave behind is fat.” /~\

“But Dr Pitulko countered: “Yes, ancient man – and not so ancient, in fact – has used and uses animal fat as fuel and food, nothing to argue about here. Why in this very case they did not use their prey in full is impossible to say. “There may be dozens of reasons, for example – they could not – the carcass was lying at the water’s edge, and it was late autumn. Or they did not have time: the carcass fell into the water on thin coastal ice. Or it did not correspond to their plans – they killed the poor animal just to have a meal and replenish the supply of food for a small group.” /~\

“They might have killed another animal nearer to their camp, and so abandoned this one. He said “a thousand and one reasons” might explain not purloining the fat. The expert added: “I believe that the main reason for hunting mammoths were their tusks. Mammoth as a source of food wasn’t very necessary although I believe they were useful. “People needed tusks because they were living in landscapes free of forests, so called mammoth steppe. In the course of time, a technology to produce spears out of tusks was developed.”

Did Hunters Make Woolly Mammoths Go Extinct

The last Woolly mammoths died out only 3,800 years ago (700 years after the pyramids) on the Wrangel island north of Siberia. The Woolly mammoths that lived on the island were smaller than other Woolly mammoths. They stood only six feet at the shoulder. Animals that evolve on islands are usually smaller than their mainland counterparts.

In 2010, AP reported, “During the last Ice Age, shaggy mammoths, woolly rhinos and bison lumbered across northern Siberia. Then, about 10,000 years ago - in the span of a geological heartbeat, or a few hundred years - the last of them disappeared. Many scientists believe a dramatic shift in climate drove these giant grazers to extinction. But two scientists who live year-round in the frigid Siberian plains say that man - either for food, fuel or fun - hunted the animals to extinction. [Source: AP, November 29, 2010 ^^^]

"Paleontologists have been squabbling for decades over how these animals met their sudden demise. The most persuasive theories say it was humanity and nature: Dramatically warming temperatures caused a changing habitat and brought a migration of men armed with deep-piercing spears. No one knows for sure what set off global warming back then - perhaps solar activity or a slight shift in the Earth's orbit. But, in an echo of the global warming debate today, Sergey Zimov, director of the internationally funded Northeast Science Station, and his son Nikita say man was the real agent of change. ^^^

"For the Siberian grasses to provide nutrition in winter, they needed to be grazed in summer to produce fresh shoots in autumn. The hooves of millions of reindeer, elk and moose as well as the larger beasts also trampled choking moss, while their waste promoted the blossoming of summer meadows. As the ice retreated at the end of the Pleistocene era - the final millennia of a 1.8 million-year- long epoch - it cleared the way for man's expansion into previously inaccessible lands, like this area bordering the East Siberia Sea" ^^^

Study Says Climate Change Not Humans Killed Off Woolly Mammoths

A decade-long DNA study published in Nature in October 2021 said climate change not humans was reason whooly mammoths became extinct. In the “large-scale environmental DNA metagenomic study of ancient plant and mammal communities,” led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, researchers used advanced technology and sequencing to examine prehistoric DNA in “535 permafrost and lake sediment samples from across the Arctic spanning the past 50,000 years.” [Source: Michael Walsh, Nerdist, October 22, 2021]

The Nerdist reported: “The samples came from a 20 year collection in that region where woolly mammoth remains have been found. While the study gets deep into the scientific weeds, the conclusion is far too accessible for all of us. The genetic evidence points to melting icebergs as the leading cause of the animals extinction 4,000 years ago. The increase in water all but eliminated the vegetation they survived on. That was enough to kill them off after they survived for nearly five million years on this planet.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFPand various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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