A Mammoth-Sized Find: Humans Living in the Arctic 10,000 Years Earlier May Push Back Other Important Migration Dates Too
Evidence of an epic battle between a woolly mammoth and some hunters in the Arctic Circle about 45,000 years ago suggests that people lived there 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The hunt took place in Russia on a bluff overlooking the Arctic Ocean. A young boy discovered the carcass of the huge animal in 2012, and scientists have done scientific dating to determine its age.
“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,” says an article on ScienceMag.org.
Vladimir Pitulko, who is part of the team that studied the great beast, told the BBC that everything about the way the mammoth was killed demonstrates that the hunters were "very skilled and organized hunters and tool makers".
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In 2012, 11-year-old Evgeniy Solinder was exploring the coast of Yenisei Bay on the Arctic Ocean and found the mammoth. ScienceMag calls it the best-preserved woolly mammoth discovered in a century. The shores where Solinder was exploring lie about 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) south of the North Pole.
Sergey Gorbunov on site excavating Zhenya, the Siberian mammoth carcass. ( Pitulko et al., Science )
The team that excavated the mammoth carcass, dubbed Zhenya for the nickname of the boy who found it, was led by Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. The team flew the block of ice in which the carcass was encased by cargo plane back to St. Petersburg and began to study it and to do scientific dating.
Another researcher from the Russian Academy of Sciences told ScienceMag that hunting for large game may have been the reason that people migrated so 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 explained.
The fact that humans were in the Arctic says something significant about their ability to survive the brutal cold, though the Arctic was warmer at the time. It means they were making tools, warm clothing and shelters—technology they must have brought with them when they crossed the Bering land bridge to settle in the Americas.
A Wikipedia map showing the Yenisei Bay and river basin in the Siberian Arctic
The distance from the site of the mammoth carcass to the Bering area is about 4,000 kilometers or 2,500 miles—close enough to make archaeologists wonder if people used the land bridge that existed between Russia and Alaska that long ago. Pitulko told Smithsonian.com that is quite a distance, but people had thousands of years to make the journey.
Pitulko clarified that there is no archaeological evidence people crossed into the New World 45,000 years ago, but now scientists know people were in the general vicinity. “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.”
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Many scholars used to think people hunting big game first reached the Arctic Circle around 12,500 years ago. Prehistoric people left many stone tools there around that time. Researchers say they apparently traveled from Siberia to the Americas via the Bering Straits at least 15,000 years ago, but new research puts the human presence in the New World as long ago as 18,500 years.
Then, in 2004, researchers found stone and bone tools that dated back 35,000 years in Siberia and the Ural Mountains of northeast Europe. Along with those tools they found butchered remains of reindeer, woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths and other animals.
An exhibit titled ‘Woolly rhinoceros hunt’ in the Walk with Beasts exhibition - Horniman Museum, London. ( Jim Linwood /CC BY 2.0 )
But if the dating of the woolly mammoth carcass holds up, it means humans were way far north long before previously believed, and that may mean humanity left Africa longer ago than 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, Paleolithic archaeologist Leonid Vishnyatsky told Smithsonian. “Before getting so far north, they would have had to learn to survive in many different types of environments, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.