The butchered remains of a 14,550-year-old mastodon in Florida have blown apart our understanding of how and when mankind first conquered the American landscape. Not only does this finding push back the start-date of humanity’s American dream, but it also provides new insights into how humans and mastodons co-existed, suggesting they shared their territory for at least 2,000 years before this ancient relative of modern elephants became extinct.
Until recently, it had been assumed that the first people to set foot in the Americas were members of the Clovis complex, which are thought to have arrived on the continent around 13,000 years ago. However, a number of archaeological sites – such as the Paisley Caves in Oregon and Monte Verde in Chile – have yielded stone artifacts and other remains that appear to predate the Clovis.
Tantalizingly, evidence for this earlier peopling of the Americas remains somewhat thin on the ground – literally, as many of the most ancient artifacts are now underwater, thanks to the rise in sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age.
One such site is Page-Ladson, which lies submerged beneath 9 meters (30 feet) of water in Florida. When researchers originally explored the area back in the 1980s, they discovered stone tools buried in the sediment, as well as a mastodon tusk covered in markings that appeared to have been man-made.
However, according to anthropologist Jessi Halligan of Florida State University, these findings were made at a time when “you were a quack if you thought there was anything pre-Clovis” in the Americas. Yet by returning to the site and conducting radiocarbon dating, Halligan and her team have provided some pretty compelling evidence that man was in the area around a millennium and a half before the Clovis arrived in the New World.
The tools, which include a biface knife and a flake, were made of chert obtained nearby, indicating that the owners of these artifacts had been in the region long enough to know where to acquire raw materials for making utensils. They were found sealed between undisturbed layers of soil, which, when radiocarbon dated, turned out to be 14,550 years old.
Image in text: The tusk, which was found at Page-Ladson in Florida, is covered in man-made markings. DC Fisher, Univ. Michigan Museum of Paleontology
The tools found at Page-Ladson are unlike anything discovered at Clovis sites. Image courtesy of CSFA
Aside from the fact that these tools are clearly too old to be Clovis, study co-author Michael Waters told reporters that “the artifacts themselves cannot be compared to Clovis,” as they “do not have any of the characteristics of Clovis technology.”
This, he says, “provides unequivocal evidence of human occupation that predates Clovis by over 1,500 years,” adding that because the site is the same age as Monte Verde in Chile, we can now conclude that “people were living in both hemispheres of the Americas by at least 14,500 years ago.”
Publishing their study in the journal Science Advances, the researchers are as yet unable to determine whether the mastodon found at Page-Ladson was actually killed by humans or just scavenged. Regardless, however, the finding hints towards the idea that humans in some way fed on the giant animals, possibly by extracting nutrients from the inside of their tusks.
Even more fascinating is that the team also found what they think is the tooth and jawbone of a dog at the site, suggesting that man’s best friend may have accompanied these ancient people when hunting or scavenging the mastodon.
Finally, the researchers found the remains of bacterial colonies that lived on mastodon dung. By dating these remains, they were able to discern that levels of mastodon poo peaked at Page-Ladson around 13,700 years ago, before disappearing completely 12,600 years ago.
As such, they conclude that man co-inhabited the area with mastodons for at least 2,000 years before the animals died out. Exactly what role humans played in driving them to extinction, however, remains unclear.