Humans visited Arctic earlier than thought

Weapon marks found on mammoth bones dating to 45,000 years ago

mammoth bones

EARLY ARCTIC HUNTERS  Mammoth remains (left) dating to 45,000 years ago and found in Arctic Siberia show signs of hunting injuries (right) perimortem (red arrows) and postmortem (blue arrows). The discovery puts humans in the Arctic earlier than previously thought.

V. Pitulko et al/Science 2016 

A frozen mammoth carcass in Siberia hints that humans roamed the Arctic earlier than researchers had thought.

Cuts and scrapes on the mammoth’s bones came from human hunting weapons. And dating of the bones puts humans well north of the Arctic Circle 45,000 years ago, scientists report in the Jan. 15 Science. Researchers had assumed that humans didn’t reach the Arctic until between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.

The find shows that humans worked out how to cope with the Arctic’s extreme cold and sunless winters much earlier than experts thought, says Robin Dennell, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Sheffield in England who wasn’t involved in the work.

At about 66.5° N latitude, the Arctic Circle skims the top of Canada and Russia.

FATAL THROW A gash on one of the mammoth’s rib bones likely came from a hunting spear and caused a lethal injury. V. Pitulko et al/Science 2016
Except for one site in eastern Siberia, also reported by the team in the new paper, other far-north archaeological sites 40,000 years or older sit around 55° N, just south of the Arctic Circle.

“The mammoth is almost 72° North,” says paper coauthor Vladimir Pitulko, an archaeologist at the Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. That’s a huge latitudinal difference between the old human habitation sites south of the Arctic Circle and the new mammoth find well north of it — about 1,700 kilometers, he says.

The team pulled the mammoth, a 15-year-old male, from a frozen coastal bluff in the central Siberian Arctic. Carbon dating of the surrounding sediment and of a leg bone pinned the mammoth’s age at 45,000 years old.

Marks on one of the animal’s tusks and slices on many of its bones were similar to patterns on mammoth bones from a younger Siberian archaeological site where humans hunted mammoths, the researchers found. Human weapons such as spears probably caused the damage that killed the mammoth.

Humans entering the Arctic by 45,000 years ago is “a mighty, impressive achievement,” Dennell says. “What we don’t know is whether this was a successful long-term adaptation or a short-lived heroic failure.”

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