By Anna Liesowska
30 May 2016
When Science journal earlier this year highlighted an ancient woolly mammoth with suspected spear wounds it provoked media interest around the world. Until now, the pictures of the remarkable prehistoric ‘injuries’ were not widely seen outside academic circles.
Today The Siberian Times is publishing the images which respected Russian scientists believe is clear proof of ancient man’s attacks on a creature preserved in the permafrost.
If true, the implications are enormous. It would mean, firstly, that man was present in the frozen Arctic wastes a full 10,000 years earlier than previously understood.
Yet it would also establish that early Siberians were just 2,895 miles (4,660 kilometres) from what was then a land bridge between modern Russia and Alaska. A long distance, for sure, but far from insurmountable, opening the possibility that Stone Age Siberians colonised the Americas at this early point.
The 15-year-old male mammoth died on the eastern bank of the giant Yenisei River in northern Siberia, and its remains were found by a 11 year old schoolboy in 2012. It is known variously as the Zhenya mammoth, after the boy who found it, and the Sopkarginsky mammoth, deriving from the location where it was found.
Forensic analysis of the remains – which included still-preserved soft tissue – found evidence that the animal, now long extinct, was hunted and killed by early man using primitive weapons and tools made of bone and stone.
Dr Vladimir Pitulko, lead author of the study published in Science, told The Siberian Times: ‘Most likely the hunters threw relatively light spears. It is a usual hunting tactic, in particular in elephant hunts, which is still practiced in Africa.
‘An elephant is bombarded with a large number of light spears. Then, pierced with such ‘needles’ like a hedgehog, the animal starts losing blood. Even a light spear can penetrate quite deep and injure the vital organs.
‘The mobility of the animal is seriously limited, and then it is soon possible to finish it with a strait blow. I think that the same happened to the Sopkarginsky mammoth.’
He said: ‘The most remarkable injury is to the fifth left rib, caused by a slicing blow, inflicted from the front and somewhat from above in a downward direction. Although it was a glancing blow, it was strong enough to go through skin and muscles and damage the bone.
‘A similar but less powerful blow also damaged the second right front rib. Such blows were aimed at internal organs and/or blood vessels.
‘The mammoth was also hit in the left scapula at least three times. Two of these injuries were imparted by a weapon, which went downwards through the skin and muscles, moving from the top and side. These markings indicate injuries evidently left by relatively light throwing spears.
‘A much more powerful blow damaged the spine of the left scapula. It may have been imparted by a thrusting spear, practically straight from the front at the level of the coracoid process. The weapon went through the shoulder skin and muscle, almost completely perforating the spine of the scapula.
‘Taking into account the scapula’s location in the skeleton and the estimated height of this mammoth, the point of impact would be approximately 1500 mm high, in other words, the height of an adult human’s shoulder.’
Another injury – possibly evidence of a mis-directed blow – was spotted on the left jugal bone. The blow was evidently very strong and was suffered by the animal from the left back and from top down, which is only possible if the animal was lying down on the ground.
Dr Pitulko, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St Petersburg, believes that it was ‘the final blow’, which was aimed to the base of the trunk.
Modern elephant hunters still use this method ‘to cut major arteries and cause mortal bleeding’. Yet in this case the prehistoric hunters obviously missed and struck the jugal bone instead.
Luckily the spear left the clear trace on the bone, making possible to learn what kind of weapon it was.
The bone was studied with X-ray computed tomography – a CT scan – by Dr Konstantin Kuper, from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk. He also created a 3D model of the injury in the bone. This led to the conclusion that the tip of the weapon was made of stone and had a thinned symmetric outline – and was relatively sharp.
Paleontologist Dr Alexei Tikhonov, from the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who lead the excavations, said: ‘It’s hard to say which blow was the mortal one, at least judging by the traces on the bones.
‘There was quite a strong blow to the scapula, yet I think it was rather the totality of wounds that caused the death. It is interesting that the most of the injuries are on the left side of the animal.
‘I would suppose that the hunters could attack the mammoth which was already lying on the ground. When we examined the skull, we noticed the abnormal development of the upper jaw.
‘We believe that this mammoth got a kind of injury at a very young age, which impacted on its left side. There was no left tusk and I presume that the left side was weak, so it could help the hunters kill the animal.’
The injuries found on the bones also gave clues what did the hunters with the mammoth after they killed it. The right tusk had the traces of human interference on the tip of the tusk.
They did not try and pull the entire tusk off the killed mammal but instead tried to remove ‘long slivers of ivory with sharp edges, which were usable as butchering tools’, said Dr Pitulko.
A butchery mark was also found on the fifth left rib, seen as evidence that the hunters cut meat from the carcass to take it with them. Ancient man also extracted the mammoth tongue, seen as a probable delicacy to these hunters.
Yet the theory that the animal was butchered does not convince all experts.
Dr Robert Park, a professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, wrote in an email to Discover, that the skeleton is not consistent with other evidence from early human hunters.
He wrote: ‘The most convincing evidence that it wasn’t butchered is the fact that the archaeologists recovered the mammoth’s fat hump. Hunter-gatherers in high latitudes need fat both for its food value and as fuel. So the one part of the animal that we would not expect hunters to leave behind is fat.’
But Dr Pitulko countered: ‘Yes, ancient man – and not so ancient, in fact – has used and uses animal fat as fuel and food, nothing to argue about here. Why in this very case they did not use their prey in full is impossible to say.
‘There may be dozens of reasons, for example – they could not – the carcass was lying at the water’s edge, and it was late autumn. Or they did not have time: the carcass fell into the water on thin coastal ice. Or it did not correspond to their plans – they killed the poor animal just to have a meal and replenish the supply of food for a small group.’
They might have killed another animal nearer to their camp, and so abandoned this one. He said ‘a thousand and one reasons’ might explain not purloining the fat.
The expert added: ‘I believe that the main reason for hunting mammoths were their tusks. Mammoth as a source of food wasn’t very necessary although I believe they were useful.
‘People needed tusks because they were living in landscapes free of forests, so called mammoth steppe. In the course of time, a technology to produce spears out of tusks was developed.’
On the significance for the New World, he told Discovery the human role in killing the mammoth ‘is especially important’ because ‘now we know that eastern Siberia up to its Arctic limits was populated starting at roughly 50,000 years ago’.