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This frozen mammoth’s injuries place humans in the Arctic 45,000 years ago

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

A recently unearthed woolly mammoth has rewritten the timeline for humans in the Arctic. In fact, we might’ve been there 10,000 years earlier than we once thought.

The frozen carcass of a young male woolly mammoth discovered in 2012 in Siberia shows signs that it died from an attack by human hunters, according to a study published in Science today. Thanks to radiocarbon dating — a technique that uses the properties of carbon to assign a date to organic materials inside bone — scientists were able to narrow down the timing of the attack. They concluded that the mammoth lived and died at a latitude of 72 degrees north, about 45,000 years ago. And that's surprising because scientists previously thought that humans from that period hadn't made it past 55 degrees north — a latitude that isn't far north enough to be considered part of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

(Pitulko et al., Science, 2016)

By examining the skeletons of woolly mammoths buried underground in places like Michigan and Siberia, scientists have been able to demonstrate that humans and mammoths did in fact interact in sometimes very bloody ways. And this one is no exception.

"The mammoth was attacked by humans who used some projectiles."

In the study, the researchers show that one of the mammoth’s ribs displays butchery marks similar to ones found on other mammoth carcasses killed by humans. The marks are likely the result of a blow aimed at the mammoth’s internal organs. The researchers also found a deep lesion on its skull, beneath the cheekbone’s surface, as well as marks on its right tusk and its left shoulder blade. Sharp weapons made of stone or ivory are probably the culprits, says Vladimir Pitulko, an archeologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and a co-author of the study.

"These damages [tell] me that the mammoth was attacked by humans who used some projectiles, like spears," Pitulko says. Humans "probably either [threw projectiles] into the mammoth or just hit it from a short distance."

(Pitulko et al., Science, 2016)

Because the study is based on mammoth bones alone, it doesn't tell us a lot about how humans lived back then. But it does show that they were expanding into the Arctic earlier than we thought. Pitulko thinks that improvements in our ability to kill mammoths — large animals with lots of meat on their bones — may have made that expansion possible.

Now that we know humans hunted in that region over 40,000 years ago, scientists might want to look for archeological sites dating back to that period in the Arctic, Pitulko says. The region likely has a lot more to reveal about human history.

Video by Miriam Nielson and Kimberly Mas.

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