New evidence shows how humans hunted mammoths 15,000 years ago
The skeletal remains of some 14 woolly mammoths have been discovered in Mexico. More than 800 mammoth bones were distributed in two round pits – apparently traps used to house the mammoths. The remains were found in Tultepec to the north of Mexico City.
It's thought that the discovery could shed new light on how humans hunted mammoths, with archaeologists surmising that groups of 20 to 30 human hunters would have used torches and branches to separate individual mammoths from the herd, and steer them into the traps.
The trap pits are 1.7 m (5.6 ft) deep and 25 m (82 ft) in diameter. Over the last 10 months, the excavation team from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has uncovered 824 bones, which are thought to correspond to a minimum of 14 individual mammoths, both male and female, and of different sizes and age.
It is believed that there could be more pits arranged in a line, which would have made it more likely for the trappers to succeed. The finds include eight skulls, five jaws, 100 vertebrae and 179 ribs. However, the lack of some bones suggests that humans may have conducted rites or rituals, perhaps to honor the mammoths themselves. Of the six scapulae discovered, all are from the right side of the mammoths.
The apparently deliberate arrangement of some of the bones also suggests certain rites or rituals may have taken place. There is additionally evidence that mammoth ribs were used to cut mammoth meat, and that their ulnas were used as polishing tools, perhaps to remove fat from skin. The fact that many of the skulls were found inverted suggests that the mammoths' tongues were eaten, along with other organs.
Archaeologist Luis Córdoba Barradas goes so far as to suggest that the hunters may have prized particularly fierce individuals, as evidenced by apparent recovery from what was probably human-inflicted injury.
Study of European mammoth sites had already suggested human methods to control and kill mammoths, due to the concentration of remains and a lack of evidence of carnivore toothmarks. It's thought that, in Europe, such hunting could have become possible thanks to the domestication of dogs. Though the ancient people of prehistoric Mesoamerica are known to have hunted with domesticated dogs, there's no suggestion from the INAH team that they were used to hunt mammoths.
The traps date to the end of the Pleistocene era – an unstable time for Earth's climate, when freezing ice caused by cooling poles lowered global sea levels, and exposed expansive plains in the Tultepec region. The traps also date to around the time of the eruption of the volcano Popocatepetl (14,700 years ago), which mobilized both humans and animals towards the north of the Basin of Mexico. Indeed, volcanic ash has been discovered between the excavated mammoth bones.
However, other mammoth remains in the area, discovered among the remains of aquatic vegetation, point to continued mammoth activity as water returned to what became Lake Xaltocan. INAH now argues that the Basin of Mexico qualifies alongside the mammoth "megasites" of Europe.