Neandertals are stumping for bragging rights as the first builders of mammoth-bone structures, an accomplishment usually attributed to Stone Age people.
Humanity’s extinct cousins constructed a large, ring-shaped enclosure out of 116 mammoth bones and tusks at least 44,000 years ago in West Asia, say archaeologist Laëtitia Demay of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues. The bone edifice, which encircles a 40-square-meter area in which mammoths and other animals were butchered, cooked and eaten, served either to keep out cold winds or as a base for a wooden building, the scientists propose in a paper published online November 26 in Quaternary International.
Mammoth-bone huts previously discovered at Homo sapiens sites in West Asia date to between 27,500 and 15,000 years ago. The new discovery comes from Molodova, a Ukrainian site first excavated in the 1950s. There, Neandertals erected a mammoth-bone structure that’s unlike later mammoth-bone huts, suggesting that the two Homo species developed these practices independently, says study coauthor Stéphane Péan, also of France’s National Museum of Natural History.
Researchers have argued for decades about whether Molodova Neandertals left mammoth bones scattered about or built something out of them.
“My own inclination is to assume that some type of mammoth-bone structure, maybe a wind break, was present at Molodova,” remarks archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado Boulder. A Czech Republic site of comparable age contains a similar circle of mammoth bones, Hoffecker says.
It’s hard to know whether Neandertals or modern humans occupied Molodova, he cautions. African Homo sapiens reached Europe by 45,000 years ago (SN Online: 11/2/11), and discoveries in the last few years indicate that those early migrants made stone tools much like those found at Molodova and traditionally attributed to Neandertals, Hoffecker says. No fossils have been unearthed at the Ukrainian site, leaving the identity of its occupants uncertain, in his view.
Demay’s team regards Molodova stone tools as typical of Neandertals that lived in Europe and West Asia before modern humans showed up.
Neandertals assembled the circular Molodova structure out of the largest and strongest parts of mammoth skeletons — mainly tusks, shoulders, ribs and hips, the scientists say. Weathering and water damage on the bones indicate that they were placed in a shallow trench.
Remains of at least 15 mammoths, all bearing stone-tool marks but few signs of chewing by nonhuman animals, were uncovered inside the bone enclosure. Excavations also produced bones of red deer, bison and other animals that contained butchery marks. Meat from these animals was cooked in 15 fire pits arrayed throughout the site.
Neandertal groups consisting of no more than around 30 individuals, Péan proposes, periodically camped at Molodova while cutting up and consuming mammoth and other prey.