An ancient mammoth found this week in a farmer’s field in Michigan could push back the date for human habitation in the region.
Paleontologists recovered about 20 percent of the animal’s bones, including the skull and two tusks, numerous vertebrae and ribs, the pelvis, and both shoulder blades.
“We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was certainly a lot bigger than a cow bone.”
The bones are from an adult male mammoth that likely lived 11,700 to 15,000 years ago, though the remains have not yet been dated. Further, the site holds “excellent evidence of human activity” associated with the mammoth remains, researchers say.
“We think that humans were here and may have butchered and stashed the meat so that they could come back later for it,” says Daniel Fisher, professor in Earth and environmental sciences and ecology and evolutionary biology departments at the University of Michigan.
Mammoths and mastodons—another elephant-like prehistoric creature—once roamed North America before disappearing about 11,700 years ago. Over the years, the remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been recovered in Michigan, Fisher says. “We get one or two calls like this a year, but most of them are mastodons.”
The paleontologists’ working hypothesis is that ancient humans placed the mammoth remains in a pond for storage. Caching mammoth meat in ponds for later use is a strategy that Fisher says he has encountered at other sites in the region.
Evidence supporting that idea includes three basketball-sized boulders that could have been used to anchor the carcass in a pond, that were recovered next to the mammoth remains.
The researchers also recovered a small stone flake that may have been used as a cutting tool next to one of the tusks. And the neck vertebrae were not scattered randomly, as is normally the case following a natural death, but were arrayed in their correct anatomical sequence, as if someone had “chopped a big chunk out of the body and placed it in the pond for storage,” Fisher says.
The first step toward confirming this hypothesis would be to wash the bones and look for cut marks that indicate butchering.
The date that humans arrived in the Americas is unclear and is the topic of heated debate among archaeologists. Depending on the age of the newly discovered mammoth and confirmation of the suspected links to human hunters or scavengers, this week’s find could help push back the date for human habitation in what is now Southeast Michigan.
The first bones were uncovered earlier this week when farmer and property owner James Bristle was installing drainage pipe at a low spot in a wheat field surrounded by soybeans. A backhoe digging a trench uncovered a roughly 3-foot-long bone that was later identified as part of a mammoth pelvis.
“We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was certainly a lot bigger than a cow bone,” Bristle says. “When my 5-year-old grandson came over and saw the pelvis, he just stood there with his jaw wide open and stared. He was in awe. So I think this was the right thing to do.”
Source: University of Michigan