New Mexico mammoth bones from 37,000 years ago ‘subvert’ Clovis theory

A team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Texas has uncovered compelling evidence proving that humans settled in North America much earlier than once believed. This evidence comes from the excavated bones of a mammoth mother and her calf who were apparently killed and slaughtered by Native Americans living in the lands of modern New Mexico around 37,000 years ago.

So far, archaeological excavations have not produced any artifacts suggesting that human beings lived in this part of the world so long ago. In fact, the state of New Mexico has long been associated with the theory that the first settlers in North America belonged to the Clovis culture, which was created by people who arrived in the region no more than 16,000 years ago. year. A large cache of tools left over from the Clovis culture has been found near the town of Clovis in eastern New Mexico, and that’s why these ancient people were given a name that will forever connect them to the State.

But the latest discovery in New Mexico can be seen as yet another attack on the once-popular Clovis culture theory. In recent years, many archaeologists and anthropologists have reported finds in North, South, and Central America that indicate humans occupied the Americas long before the Clovis people are believed to have arrived, and the discovery of the bones of 37,000-year-old slaughtered animals adds more data pointing to this growing body of evidence.

The excavation site where the New Mexico mammoth bones, mostly ribs and spine pieces, were discovered. The most important fossil is part of an adult mammoth skull. (Timothy Rowe / The University of Texas at Austin )

New Mexico mammoth bones discovered on professor’s land

The researchers behind the discovery of the butchered mammoth bones and the revelation of their astonishing antiquity have just published the results of their analysis in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution . Amazingly – and most unusual – the ancient mammoth bones were discovered in 2013 on the property of the study’s lead author, Dr. Timothy Rowe, a University of Texas paleontologist who owns land in New York. Mexico.

A neighbor of Rowe’s spotted the remains of a tusk sticking out of the ground on a hill overlooking the professor’s house. When Rowe investigated, he found a large collection of broken and scattered mammoth bones, partly exposed and partly buried. He immediately suspected that the bones were from an animal or animals that had been killed and butchered by humans, but there was no way to be sure without much more analysis.

Eventually, a team of scientists (led by Dr. Rowe) was sent to the site to carry out a more thorough excavation. What they discovered was a unique amount of evidence of ancient human activity.

Many fossilized mammoth bones from New Mexico showed signs of blunt fractures, meaning they were intentionally broken into pieces. Other bones had been fashioned into knives for use in butchery activities, and the wear and tear on these bone flake utensils clearly indicated that humans had processed the mammoth remains to remove meat and hides. Puncture wounds were found in the vertebrae and ribs, meaning the humans who slaughtered the animals had drained them of their fat (it would have been used for cooking).

Butchery marks on New Mexico mammoth ribs.  The upper rib shows a fracture due to a blunt impact;  the middle rib shows a puncture wound, probably made by a tool;  lower rib has hash marks.  (Timothy Rowe et al./University of Texas at Austin)

Butchery marks on New Mexico mammoth ribs. The upper rib shows a fracture due to a blunt impact; the middle rib shows a puncture wound, probably made by a tool; lower rib has hash marks. (Timothy Rowe et al. / The University of Texas at Austin )

“What we have is amazing,” Rowe said, in a University of Texas press release discuss the results of the scientists’ analysis. “It’s not a charismatic site with a beautiful frame stretched out on the side. Everything is screwed up. But that’s the story. »

Scientists extracted collagen from some of the bones, for radiocarbon dating purposes. These tests proved that the mammoth mother and her young lived between 36,250 and 38,900 years ago, placing them right in the middle of the Upper Paleolithic period. This extremely early date represents a huge departure from traditional ideas about when the Americas might have been settled by the ancestors of Native Americans.

Some of the evidence for human bone weathering was obvious to the naked eye. But many of the most telling data came from CT scans performed at the University of Texas’ High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility. These precise examinations revealed networks of microscopic fractures in the bones that were entirely consistent with toolmaking and butchery activities, and not explainable by natural force.

“There are really only a few effective ways to skin a cat, so to speak,” Rowe explained. “The butchery bosses are quite characteristic.”

In addition to mammoth bones, the researchers also found strong evidence showing that the ancient inhabitants of the region used controlled fires to shape their landscape. A chemical analysis of the site’s sediments revealed the presence of fire particles from sustained and controlled burning, not an out-of-control forest fire.

The complex history of the colonization of the Americas

Anomalous discoveries in recent decades have put to rest the idea that the Americas were settled exclusively by the Clovis culture and had been unoccupied by humans until only 16,000 years ago. In addition to older artifacts recovered by archaeologists, geneticists studying the genomes of indigenous peoples of South America and Central America have found evidence to suggest that many are descended from an unknown people who lived in the region there. is tens of thousands of years old.

Based on such findings, many experts now propose that the Americas were settled by two founding populations, the Clovis people and another group that preceded them. The two groups have remained separate for the most part, with proponents of this thesis claiming to create two distinct genetic lineages that have left their imprints in the DNA of modern Indigenous peoples.

What can be said with certainty is that the history of the colonization of the Americas is more complex than was once believed. Details of the intricacies are only beginning to emerge, as more and more clues of human activity in the distant past emerge from archaeological and scientific explorations.

Top image: A close-up of 37,000-year-old New Mexico mammoth bones discovered during excavations at the site. This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, a molar, bone fragments and stone pebbles is a heap of trash from mammoth butchery. Source: Timothy Rowe / The University of Texas at Austin.

By Nathan Falde

Sharon D. Cole