It might seem like an inhospitable and desolate landscape to us, but the Arctic can offer a way of life if you know where to look and how to exploit the resources. It was previously thought that humans didn’t manage this until roughly 35,000 years ago, when the first conclusive evidence of mankind’s habitation within the Arctic Circle has been dated to. But new evidence has come to light – in the form of a frozen mammoth carcass – that indicates people managed to survive in the icy landscape thousands of years earlier than was thought.
The frozen tundra of northern Siberia has offered up some extraordinary finds. From Lyuba, the baby mammoth found perfectly preserved in the permafrost, to the two cave lion cubs unveiled late last year, the dry and cold conditions are ideal for the preservation of organic matter. In 2012, a team of Russian scientists found the remains of a male mammoth sticking out the sediment, and dated it at around 45,000 years old. This in itself is not a particularly special event, as plenty of mammoths have been found in the past, but this one had some odd marks on the bones consistent with wounds inflicted by weapons, the researchers say.
The injuries, they claim, show clear evidence that they were caused by humans and, despite not finding any other evidence of humans in association with the carcass, are consistent with other marks found on bones that have also been attributed to man. This finding therefore means that the human occupation of the Arctic has been pushed back by 10,000 years. The conclusions are published in Science.
The carcass itself has some soft tissue preserved, including remains of its fat hump and penis. This not only gives conclusive evidence of the sex of the animal, but also indicates that it was in peak health and around 15 years old – a formidable foe. The skeletal injuries include some around the jaw and head, which the researchers suspect could have been sustained by attempts to sever arteries in the trunk not unlike how some hunter-gatherer tribes today hunt elephants. Other injuries inflicted include gashes and marks made on the ribs and shoulder blades, as if the hunters were aiming for internal organs. One seems to have hit the spine and fractured it.
Detail of the mammoth's ribs with bits of tool embedded. Pitulko et al., Science (2016)
This evidence suggests, according to the researchers, that the humans might have been aided in their migration into the Arctic by advancements in mammoth hunting skills. This would have meant that as the population of mammoths grew in size as the ice sheets retreated, humans were able to follow them and also expand in number as they exploited the growing prey base. It would therefore mean that the expansion of humans north could have been due to important culture shifts during that period, and could also help explain how and when humans started living near the Bering land bridge before moving into North America.
Top image in text: One of the researchers, Sergey Gorbunov, with the mammoth carcass discovered in Yenisei Bay, northern Siberia. Pitulko et al., Science (2016)