Russian Mammoth Pushes Back the Timeline for Humans in the Arctic

Evidence shows humans killed the mammoth deep in the Arctic—45,000 years ago.
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(Photo: Elkit/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Elkit/Shutterstock)

Humans have been living in the Arctic for thousands of years. One recent study, in fact, suggests the ancestors of the earliest Americans may have lived for millennia on the far-north land bridge they took from Asia. But a paper out tomorrow in Science pushes the date much farther back than anyone had thought, to around 45,000 years ago.

In the early 2000s, researchers found some evidence that humans occupied sites above the Arctic Circle, one along the Usa River in the Ural Mountains and another along the Yana River in Western Siberia, both dating back more than 30,000 years ago (perhaps even earlier). Both discoveries were big surprises: Beforehand, archaeologists thought that humans had only ventured beyond 66 degrees North about 15,000 years ago.

"The mammoth kill confirms the presence of humans in the Arctic much earlier than previously suggested."

The stories behind those discoveries are a bit surprising too. "This is a very remote area, with low industrial activity, that doesn't get a lot of visitors," Russian Academy of Sciences researcher Vladimir Pitulko told National Geographic at the time. "Many of these sites become known as a result of amateur efforts or by occasional finds." The Yana River site, for example, was discovered by a wandering Russian geologist, who found part of a rhinoceros horn marked in a way consistent with human tools.

Now, Pitulko, Alexei Tikhonov, and their colleagues report they've found evidence of an even earlier human presence in the Arctic—once again, evidence they discovered largely by accident. This time, the story began when schoolboy Evgeny "Zhenya" Solinder, discovered a mammoth skeleton sticking out of the ground near the Sopochnaya Karga weather station at nearly 72 degrees North on Russia's Taymyr Peninsula. (Tradition apparently grants the discoverer naming rights, so this one is called the Zhenya mammoth.)

Upon inspection, the Zhenya mammoth bears what look very much like knife wounds—one on the skull, and a number of others elsewhere on its body, strongly suggesting humans killed the animal. Other signs of human involvement include substantial damage to the mammoth's left shoulder blade and spine and a sharpened tusk. "Thus, the SK [Sopochnaya Karga] mammoth bone remains provide well-supported evidence for human involvement in its death," Pitulko, Tikhonov, and their colleagues write.

But how old are the mammoth's remains? That part's relatively easy. Carbon dating of its tibia indicates it died about 45,000 years ago. Sediment layers just above the remains were dated to around the same time, providing further evidence of the date of the mammoth's death.

"The SK mammoth kill ... confirms the presence of humans in the Arctic much earlier than previously suggested," the researchers write, raising questions about what sorts of biological or cultural adaptations—including, possibly, the decision to start hunting mammoths—made possible the move north and eventually west into the Americas.

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