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Mammoth Find Suggests Humans Inhabited the Arctic 45,000 Years Ago

Excavations of the carcass from channel deposits unit. In this photo Sergey Gorbunov is excavating the mammoth carcass. (Image: Pitulko et al., Science)
Excavations of the carcass from channel deposits unit. In this photo Sergey Gorbunov is excavating the mammoth carcass. (Image: Pitulko et al., Science)

The carcass of a frozen Woolly mammoth found in Siberia has revealed the earliest known evidence of humans in the Arctic 45,000 years ago, not 35,000 years ago, as previously thought.

An 11-year-old Russian boy, Evgeniy Solinder, first made the gruesome discovery back in August 2012, while sightseeing the coast of Yenisei Bay, around 1,242 miles (2,000 km) south of the North Pole. He stumbled upon the leg bones of the mammoth where the frozen sediments had worn away.

The researchers found that the woolly mammoth had signs of weapon-inflicted injuries, which suggests humans were present in the Eurasian Arctic 10 millennia earlier than previously thought. Because paleolithic records of humans in the Eurasian Arctic are rare, this may be the oldest known story of human survival in the Arctic region.

The researchers believe that advancements in hunting mammoths would have most likely allowed people to survive, and spread across northernmost Arctic Siberia around this time. (Image: Credit: Pitulko et al., Science)

The researchers believe that advancements in hunting mammoths would have most likely allowed people to survive, and spread across the northernmost Arctic Siberia around this time. (Image: Credit: Pitulko et al., Science)

“The site in Siberia is by far the northernmost sign of human presence in Eurasia before 40,000 years ago,” Vladimir Pitulko, senior research scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for the History of Material Culture in St. Petersburg, and lead author of the study, wrote. The study was published in the journal, Science.

The team, led by archaeologist Alexei Tikhonov, used radiocarbon dating of the animal’s tibia bone as well as surrounding materials. They named the mammoth “Zhenya,” the nickname of the boy who found it.

According to Science:

The people who endured the harsh Arctic conditions would have likely lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Mammoths being the largest land creatures in the region, would have been an important resource for them.

Pitulko told Discovery News:

The researchers believe that advancements in hunting mammoths would have most likely allowed people to survive, and spread across the northernmost Arctic Siberia around this time. Humans presence in this region also suggests they had the ability to make tools, warm clothes, and erect shelters, which would have allowed them to live so far north earlier than thought.

Mammoth ribs with hunting lesions collected at Yana RHS [(A) to (F)], showing the mechanism for the formation of bone injury on the fifth rib of the SK mammoth (G). (A) Mammoth rib with embedded lithic tool fragment. (B) Mammoth rib with two injuries that retain lithics. (C) View of the upper cut at (B). (D) View of the lower cut at (B). (E) Bone injury with no lithic in it but clearly left by the same action as for (A) and (B). (F) Bone injury that resulted from sliding of the lithic implement that removed part of the bone. (G) Hunting lesion on the fifth left rib of the SK mammoth; compare to (A) to (F) and note the same scale for all images. (Image: Credit: Pitulko et al., Science)

Mammoth ribs with hunting lesions collected at Yana RHS [(A) to (F)], showing the mechanism for the formation of bone injury on the fifth rib of the SK mammoth (G). (A) Mammoth rib with embedded lithic tool fragment. (B) Mammoth rib with two injuries that retain lithics. (C) View of the upper cut at (B). (D) View of the lower cut at (B). (E) Bone injury with no lithic in it, but clearly left by the same action as for (A) and (B). (F) Bone injury that resulted from sliding of the lithic implement that removed part of the bone. (G) Hunting lesion on the fifth left rib of the SK mammoth; compare to (A) to (F) and note the same scale for all images. (Image: Credit: Pitulko et al., Science)

This represents an important cultural shift, one that would have likely facilitated the arrival of humans close to the Bering land bridge, which would have provided them an opportunity to enter the New World before the Last Glacial Maximum, the researchers added.

Daniel Fisher, a mammoth expert at the University of Michigan who didn’t participate in the study, told Phys.org:

“The markings on the mammoth bone strongly indicate human hunting. It makes sense to conclude that the hunters were from our own species rather than Neanderthals.”

However, Robert Park, an archaeologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who has studied the bones of hunted animals in the far north, told Phys.org: “The evidence for human hunting is ‘pretty marginal.’

“The beast had been found with remains of its fat hump, while hunters would be expected to take the fat for food and fuel, he said. And the skeleton shows far less butchering than one would expect.”

According to Science, Ted Goebel, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University College Station, said:

“Surviving at those latitudes requires highly specialized technology and extreme cooperation. 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.”

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