Cro Magnon diorama showing a mammoth bone shelter.

Did Man and Mammoth Ever Live in Harmony? Not Quite…

(Read the article on one page)

Humans and mammoths coexisted in Europe for about 30,000 years. As a result, it makes sense that humans would have used mammoths and their remains for food and possibly for making clothing and even weapons. It appears, however, that they also used the bones and skin of mammoths to make domiciles. Recent discoveries in Russia demonstrate that Early Modern Humans in the late Paleolithic (and possibly Neanderthals) made these tents.

Hunting Mammoth

In the high arctic and in climates characterized by tundra and glaciers, wood tends to be scarce. As result, bone is often used in place of wood by cultures that live in areas such as the far north of Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. For example, bone harpoons have been found at sites in Ice Age Europe dating to the Magdalenian epoch (20,000-11,000 B.P.) when Europe was mostly tundra and glaciers.

Mammuthus primigenius "Hebior Mammoth specimen" bearing tool/butcher marks.

Mammuthus primigenius "Hebior Mammoth specimen" bearing tool/butcher marks. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

During this period, Mammoths were present in much of Europe, including Eastern Europe in the Ukraine. Early Modern Humans appear to have been better at hunting mammoths than their Neanderthal forebears - who appear to have hunted mammoths much less often. Mammoths are found at kill sites associated with Homo Sapiens much more often than those associated with Neanderthals. One reason for this might be that Neanderthals did not use range weapons and probably wrestled their prey to the ground with knives and spears whereas humans used more long-ranged weapons. This would have made it easier and less dangerous to hunt a mammoth for Early Modern Humans than for Neanderthals. Semi-domesticated wolf-dogs may have also helped in hunting down and distracting the mammoth while the human hunters went in for the kill.

Mammal display in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada)

Mammal display in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria (Canada). ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Mammoth Use

Unlike Neanderthals, early modern Homo Sapiens appear to have hunted mammoths so often that they made dwellings out of their bones and skin. In the Ukraine, in the village of Mezhyric in 1965, some farmers came across a prehistoric site dating to 15,000 B.P. which turned out to contain numerous mammoth bones including skulls and tusks. From the arrangements of the bones and tusks, scientists determined that they were probably used as part of the dwelling.

"Mammoth House" as shown at the "Frozon Woolly Mammoth Yuka Exhibit" in Yokoyama, Japan in Summer 2013.

"Mammoth House" as shown at the "Frozon Woolly Mammoth Yuka Exhibit" in Yokoyama, Japan in Summer 2013. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Another site dating to 44,000 B.P. has also recently been found, which also contains mammoth tusks and skulls. It was found in Molodova in the eastern Ukraine and it consisted of 25 hearths surrounded by mammoth bones. The age of the site suggests that it was made by the Neanderthals, though this is not certain. An abundance of mammoth bones is after all something more associated with Homo Sapiens and 44,000 B.P. is within the margin of error for when humans first arrived in Europe. The older site could thus be the earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens in Europe, though we do only have one other instance of humans making mammoth bone tents 30,000 years later.

Why Undertake the Mammoth Task of Tent Building?

One thing that makes mammoth bone tents seem odd is that mammoths were difficult to kill and they probably were not the most common animals, though they were likely not uncommon during the Pleistocene. These two factors make it unlikely that mammoth bone tents were commonly used to make simple temporary shelters, even if they were portable. It is true that the population was much smaller in Europe during the Paleolithic, being not much more than a million across the entire continent, and most likely less. This, however, does not take away from the fact that mammoths were difficult to kill and probably less in number than humans.

Dwelling made from Mammoth Bones (reconstruction).

Dwelling made from Mammoth Bones (reconstruction). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is possible, as a result of these factors, that the mammoth bone tents had some sort of special function, for example, they may have been used for ceremonial or religious purposes. They may also have been used to indicate the status of the owners. Hunter-gatherer societies do not usually have inherited status but they do have ascribed status. A man may not be born with high status, but through a life time of impressive feats in battle, hunting, or perhaps as a shaman, he could gain status. There is also evidence from Paleolithic sites of graves being made with special goods such as tools, flowers, or carvings. These special grave goods imply a difference in status for the people buried in such graves.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

A soldier from the game Numantia. Credit: RECO Technology
The forgotten war between the Romans and the Celtiberians may not ring any bells with most people today, but many historians rank it as one of the most significant wars of the Roman era. RECOtechnology commemorated the 2150th anniversary of the Siege of Numantia by releasing a videogame that narrates the ancient conflict between Rome and the city of Numantia, in a war that lasted for more than two decades.

Myths & Legends

Human Origins

Adam and Eve (1640s) by Jacob Jordaens.
The common male and female ancestors of human beings are popularly known as “Genetic Adam” and “Genetic Eve.” A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sheffield claims all men can trace their origins to one male ancestor, ‘Adam’, who lived approximately 209,000 years ago. This places ‘Adam’ within the same time frame as ‘Eve’ - the ‘mother of all women’ – and provides evidence for the existence of a prehistoric ‘Adam and Eve.’

Ancient Places

The eerie mansion that is today known as Loftus Hall.
Driving along the isolated road that runs down the scenic Hook Peninsula in Ireland’s Ancient East, it is easy to spot the mansion that has earned itself the reputation as the most haunted house in Ireland. If ever a building fit the stereotype of a home haunted by its bloody and tragic past, this was it...

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article