Two items of news that have appeared over the last day or two, and which I’d otherwise have definitely submitted tomammoth femur DMNS the recent edition of Four Stone Hearth, concern analyses of mastodon and mammoth bones, the first of which leads a researcher to suggest he has good evidence that humans were inhabiting the Americas as far back as 33,000-50,000 bp, whilst the second story indicates that the mammoth may have survived in Britain as recently as 14,000 bp, about 7,000 years later than previously thought.

The first story concerns the vexed question of when the Americas were first occupied by humans, which as will have been apparent over recent times, has seen the Clovis First theory finally, if belatedly laid to rest. Archaeological and genetic evidence points to an occupation by at least 15,000 bp, but even these early dates may not tell the whole story, with researchers pointing to a variety of sites in places like Valsequillo in Mexico, where claims for 40,000 year-old footprints have been made, caves with shell middens in Baja California, the site at Topper and others to suggest a human presence tens of thousands of years before the immediate antecedents of Clovis were around.

Dr. Steven Holer, Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum of Natural History and Science,  has conducted extensive research into fractured mammoth and mastodon bones dated 20,000 bp and older, which he contends could only have been broken by humans wielding hammerstones, and although no artefacts or humans remains have been found in context, he’s convinced that he has proof of a very early human presence. Quoted recently in Indian Country Today, he explains his current theories:

“Several scientists, me included, are producing evidence of a much older Native American occupation of the continent,” he said, adding that, as has happened in the past, “the scientific establishment has underestimated the time depth of the Native American occupation of the Americas.”

A practitioner of experimental archaeology, Holen studies the patterns of breakage in mammoth bones, extrapolating and recreating the kind of instrument and force required to create such fractures and hypothesizing possible implements that could be made from the shattered remains.

“The only way these could be broken in the past as we see it is by humans using hammerstones.”  Although stone tools have not yet been found with the bones, “You don’t have to have stone tools – you have to have evidence of human technology.”

The uses of fractured bones may have varied, including that of the mammoth from Nebraska recently radiocarbon-dated at 33,000 before present (BP).

For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer readers to two papers he has authored, (here and here – both pdf), which add a great deal more background to the sites he’s excavated, and include embedded photos of various bones that appear to exhibit signs of human modification. Moreover, he makes a point of  explaining why he believes these bones were not gnawed by carnivores or trampled by other mammoths, quoting the observations of contemporary researchers who have examined African elephant bones that had been killed by humans and modified by scavengers.

The second story, covered in Science Daily, takes us to the county of Shropshire in Britain, where in 1986, the so-called Condover mammoths were discovered. With the advent of what are described as more accurate radiocarbon dating techniques, Professor Adrian Lister, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London, claims he has been able to establish that the mammoth survived in Britain until 14,000 years ago, long after the glacial maximum at around 21,000 bp, which was previously thought to have killed them off. This later date is believed to correspond with the theory that the warming climate and ensuing loss of habitat accounted for the demise of the mammoth, rather than their suffering an extinction event at the hands of overly enthusiastic Pleistocene hunters.

There are three related papers published in the current edition of the Geological Journal, all of which are free to access, and details of which appear below.

image: mammoth femur, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

References:

Holen, S. R., 2007. The Age and Taphonomy of Mammoths at Lovewell Reservoir, Jewell County, Kansas, USA (PDF | 790KB). Quaternary International (in press)

Holen, S. R., 2006. Taphonomy of Two Last Glacial Maximum Mammoth Sites in the Central Great Plains of North America: A Preliminary Report (PDF | 979KB). Quaternary International 142-143:30-43.

Late-glacial Remains of Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) From Shropshire, UK: Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Geochronology of the Condover Site (PDF) (p 392-413) J. D. Scourse, G. R. Coope, J. R. M. Allen, A. M. Lister, R. A. Housley, R. E. M. Hedges, A. S. G. Jones, R. Watkins Published Online: Jun 18 2009 7:22AM DOI: 10.1002/gj.1163

Palaeoenvironmental Context of the Late-glacial Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) Discoveries at Condover, Shropshire, UK (PDF) (p 414-446) J. R. M. Allen, J. D. Scourse, A. R. Hall, G. R. Coope Published Online: Jun 18 2009 7:22AM DOI: 10.1002/gj.1161

Late-glacial Mammoth Skeletons (Mammuthusprimigenius) from Condover (Shropshire, UK): Anatomy, Pathology, Taphonomy and Chronological Significance (PDF) (p 447-479) Adrian M. Lister Published Online: Jun 18 2009 7:22AM DOI: 10.1002/gj.1162

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