This is one of the largest Ice Age structures made of mammoth bones

Hunter-gatherers in what’s now Russia constructed the massive ring around 25,000 years ago

mammoth bone structure

Bones from at least 60 mammoths went into constructing this giant ring, one of the oldest and largest Ice Age structures made of the animals’ bones, a study finds.

A. Pryor et al/Antiquity 2020

Ancient people took on a mammoth project, in more ways than one.

Excavations at Russia’s Kostenki 11 site have uncovered one of the oldest and largest Ice Age structures made of mammoth bones. Hunter-gatherers assembled bones from at least 60 mammoths into an imposing ring around 25,000 years ago, say archaeologist Alexander Pryor of the University of Exeter in England and colleagues.

Building this structure, which measures about 12.5 meters across, required a huge investment of time and energy, the scientists report in the April Antiquity. Bones may have come from hunted mammoths or from carcasses of animals that died of natural causes. Sieving of soil samples identified charred wood from fires set inside the ring, but it’s unclear how its makers used the structure, Pryor’s team says.

Kostenki 11 site excavation in Russia
Excavations at Russia’s Kostenki 11 site have uncovered the extensive remains of this ancient mammoth-bone structure.A. Pryor

Circular mammoth bone structures, most dating to no more than 22,000 years ago, previously have been found across eastern Europe and western Russia (SN: 12/13/86). Researchers have often assumed that these constructions, including two others found at Kostenki 11 in the 1950s and 1960s, housed people during harsh winters.

The new discovery challenges that idea. A large, open space in the bone ring appears unsuitable for long-term occupation, in part because it would have been difficult to roof, Pryor’s group says. And only a few stone tools were found. Ice Age hunter-gatherers may have stored food or conducted ritual ceremonies in their mammoth creation, the researchers speculate.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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