New Mexico mammoths are among the best evidence of early humans in North America

The remains of two mammoths discovered in New Mexico show that humans lived in North America earlier than previously thought. Credit: NPS.

About 37,000 years ago, the mammoth mother and her calf met their end at the hands of humans.

The bones of the slaughter site record how humans formed pieces of their long bones into disposable blades to smash their corpses, turning their fat on fire. But there is a key detail that distinguishes this site from others from this era. It’s in New Mexico – a place where most archaeological evidence doesn’t place humans until tens of thousands of years later.

A recent study led by scientists from the University of Texas at Austin found that the site offers some of the most conclusive evidence that humans settled in North America much earlier than traditionally thought.

Researchers have uncovered a wealth of evidence rarely found in one place. It includes digs with sharp fractures, bone peeling knives with worn edges, and signs of controlled fire. Thanks to carbon-dating analysis on collagen extracted from mammoth bones, the site also comes with a consistent age of 36,250 to 38,900 years, making it among the oldest known sites left by ancient humans in North America.

“What we got is amazing,” said lead author Timothy Rowe, a paleontologist and professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. “It’s not an attractive site with a beautiful skeleton on its side. Everything is broken. But that’s the story.”

Credit: The University of Texas at Austin

The results have been published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Roe does not usually search for mammoths or humans. He got involved because the bones appeared in his backyard, literally. A neighbor discovered tusks regenerating from a hillside at Roe’s estate in New Mexico in 2013. When Roe went to investigate, he found a smashed mammoth’s skull and other bones that appeared to be deliberately broken. It appears to be a slaughter site. But the suspected early human sites are shrouded in mystery. It can be difficult to determine what nature versus human hands constitutes.

This uncertainty has led to a debate in the anthropological community about when humans first arrived in North America. The Clovis culture, dating back 16,000 years, left behind elaborate tools made of stone. But at ancient sites where there are no stone tools, the evidence becomes more subjective, said Mike Collins, a professor emeritus from Texas State University who was not involved in this paper and who supervised the research at Gault, a well-known archaeological site near Austin. Clovis and pre-Clovis artifacts.

New Mexico mammoths are among the best evidence of early humans in North America

Close-up of a pile of bones during digging. This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, molars, bone fragments, and pebbles is a heap of mammoth altar waste. It was preserved under the skull and tusks of an adult mammoth. Credit: Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin.

Although the mammoth site lacks clearly associated stone tools, Rowe and colleagues discovered a body of supporting evidence by putting samples from the site through scientific analyses in the laboratory.

Among other discoveries, CT scans conducted by the University of Texas High Resolution X-ray Tomography Facility revealed bony flakes with microscopic fracture networks similar to those found in freshly knotted cow bones and well-placed hole wounds that could have aided the drainage of grease. of ribs and vertebral bones.

“There are only two effective ways to whip a cat, so to speak,” Rowe said. “The slaughter patterns are quite distinct.”

In addition, chemical analysis of the sediment surrounding the bones showed that the fire particles came from a continuous and controlled burn, not from a lightning strike or wildfire. The material also contained the crushed bones and cremated remains of small animals—mostly fish (although the site is more than 200 feet above the nearest river), as well as birds, rodents, and lizards.

  • New Mexico mammoths are among the best evidence of early humans in North America

    The excavation site mostly contained broken bones from the mammoth’s ribs and spine. The most notable fossil is part of the skull of an adult mammoth. Credit: Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin.

  • New Mexico mammoths are among the best evidence of early humans in North America

    Marks of slaughter on the ribs of a mammoth. The upper rib shows a fracture from the impact of the blunt force; The middle rib shows a puncture wound, possibly by an instrument; The lower rib shows signs of chopping. Credit: Timothy Rowe et al. / University of Texas at Austin.

Based on genetic evidence from indigenous peoples in South and Central America and artefacts from other archaeological sites, some scholars have suggested that North America had at least two founding groups: a Clovis and a pre-Clovis society with different genetic lineage.

The researchers suggest that the New Mexico site, with its age tools and bones rather than complex stone technology, may support this theory. Collins said the study adds to a growing body of evidence for pre-Clovis societies in North America while providing a toolkit that can help others find evidence that might otherwise have been overlooked.

“Tim has done an excellent and comprehensive job that represents groundbreaking research,” Collins said. “It constitutes a path that others can learn from and follow.”

Gault’s site search goes back to the history of the oldest North Americans

more information:
Timothy B. Rowe et al, Human occupation of the Colorado Plateau in North America 37,000 years ago, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.3389 / fevo.2022.903795

Presented by the University of Texas at Austin

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