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For the first time, archaeologists in Mexico have found direct evidence that ancient humans actually engineered traps to hunt and kill woolly mammoths to butcher them for their meat and hides.
We already know that humans killed and butchered mammoths to survive during the Ice Age. But the question of how has been a subject of debate, and that’s why a new discovery south of the border is generating excitement.
In the town of Tultepec just north of Mexico City, archaeologists excavated two pits that humans dug 15,000 years ago. Herds of mammoths used to roam the area and humans apparently would force the massive beasts to fall into the pits to their deaths by using spears and fire to scare them over the edge.
This method was clearly successful as the team has found hundreds of bones from at least 14 mammoths so far.
Scoring a mammoth kill on a hunt would have been quite an achievement that would have provided food for a long period of time for the whole group, as well as hides to make clothes and blankets and bones from which to carve tools and weapons and other items for trade, all in an effort to survive the harsh conditions of the Ice Age.
Hunting mammoths would have been a dangerous activity, so digging pits would have reduced the risk to the lives of the hunters.
Up to now, no evidence of mammoth traps had ever been found, which makes this find all the more significant.
“(This) represents a watershed, a touchstone on what we imagined until now was the interaction of hunter-gatherer bands with these enormous herbivores,” Mexico National Institute of Anthropology and History archaeologist Pedro Francisco Sánchez Nava said in a statement.
“There was little evidence before that hunters attacked mammoths,” excavation leader Luis Córdoba Barradas added. “It was thought they frightened them into getting stuck in swamps and then waited for them to die. This is evidence of direct attacks on mammoths. In Tultepec we can see there was the intention to hunt and make use of the mammoths.”
Mammoths roamed the Earth for millions of years in Europe, North America and Asia before a shift in the climate started a warming trend that caused their decline. The last mammoths would become trapped on an Arctic island just north of where Alaska and Russia nearly meet. That small mammoth herd would persist for thousands of years until interbreeding and water contamination wiped them out just 4,000 years ago, which means mammoths were still living when the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid.
11,000 years prior, hunter-gatherers in Mexico executed the pit strategy, taking what they needed from the mammoth carcasses and leaving the rest of the remains for us to uncover 15,000 years later in 2019.
According to the press release as translated by Google Translate:
In three of the profiles exposed by this large excavation (40 by 100 meters and 8 deep), Córdoba observed different mammoth bones, but what caught his attention were vertical cuts in the arrangement of the strata or layers. These were two graves with walls of almost 90 degrees, 1.70 meters deep and 25 meters in diameter, which were used as traps for these proboscids.
The archaeologist said that the site called “Tultepec II”, where they have worked for almost ten months with the support of the town hall, 824 bones have been recovered, with no anatomical relationship, mostly corresponding to 14 mammoths. The remains of eight come from the first two excavation units located in the southwest corner of the land; while the vestiges of six others were rescued north of it, in the third excavation unit.
Within these pits, below 3.50 meters, eight skulls, five jaws, a hundred vertebrae, 179 ribs, 11 scapulae, five humerus have been recovered, in addition to ulnas (cubes of a long bone), pelvis, femurs, tibiae and other “small” bones.
In Mexico, too, climate change had an impact that resulted in a drier environment in the Mexico Basin.
To fully understand this discovery…at the end of the Pleistocene, a time of great climatic instability in which the poles were frozen causing the level to drop from the sea across the planet and drier environments in several regions, in the case of the Mexico Basin.
A volcanic eruption around 14,700 years ago also impacted the area and dropped the level of a lake enough for hunters to use the newly exposed plains to dig out their traps.
In that sense, the prehistoric traps of Tultepec, were excavated in the clay of the bottom of the Lake of Xaltocan, approximately 15 thousand years ago, when their levels descended and left great plains exposed. This global phenomenon coincided with a local one: the great eruption of Popocatepetl 14,700 years ago, which motivated a great mobilization of animals and human beings to the north of the Basin of Mexico, where the fall of volcanic ash was lower.
A team of around 20 to 30 hunters would then use fire, branches, and spears to separate a mammoth from the herd and direct it to a pit, where it would then be pushed in, which is different from how textbooks present mammoth hunting today.
At a press conference and on behalf of the anthropologist Diego Prieto Hernández, general director of the Institute, Sánchez Nava said that this finding changes that “random” and “eventual” scene that textbooks used to handle mammoth hunting: that of an animal who was attacked only when he fell into a swamp. On the other hand, the excavations in San Antonio Xahuento, demonstrate the use of the environment and social organization achieved by the first settlers of the Basin of Mexico to undertake this hunting activity.
In short, humans did not wait for a mammoth to get itself stuck by chance. They took the initiative and laid a special trap to actively hunt them.
This discovery changes our views of mammoth hunting by ancient humans.
The hunters would then descend into the pits to butcher their prize, but they also showed great respect to the animal, often arranging the bones in a way to honor it and give thanks for the subsistence it provided them. And they did not leave anything to waste. The team also found evidence that the hunters used the bones of the animal to butcher it.
Córdoba said that the ribs of these animals, as shown in the five marks, were used to cut the meat. The end of an ulna that served as a polishing tool was also found, possibly to remove the fat from the skin. Also, the organs were consumed, including the tongue that could weigh up to 12 kilos, which is why their skulls are often found inverted.
One such mammoth apparently had a more special meaning to the hunters than the others.
This specimen has an attack mark and it is noted that its left defense, shorter than the right, regenerated after a fracture; indications that hunter-gatherers watched him and tried to hunt him for years, “that’s why they had to consider him brave, fierce, and showed him his respect in this way, with this particular arrangement,” says Luis Córdoba.
The bones will likely be placed on display at various museums. The excavation site, meanwhile, is set to become a landfill, which is unfortunate.
However, the team believes there are more pits in the area to be found because just like trapping today, the hunter-gatherers would have been more successful setting multiple traps. So, it’s entirely possible that more pits will be excavated in the near future along with even more mammoth bones, adding more to the story of mammoths that continues to unfold after more than 15,000 years.
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