New Mexico mammoths among best evidence for early humans in North America – HeritageDaily

New Mexico mammoths among best evidence for early humans in North America – HeritageDaily

Bones from a mammoth butchery site record how humans fashioned pieces of their long bones into disposable blades to break down the carcasses and render their fat over a fire.

But one important detail distinguishes this page from others from this era. It’s in New Mexico—a place where most archaeological evidence places the first human activity tens of thousands of years later.

A recent study led by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin suggests the site offers some of the most conclusive evidence that humans settled in North America much earlier than previously thought.

The researchers uncovered a wealth of evidence rarely found in one place. It includes fossils with blunt force fractures, bone flake knives with worn edges and evidence of controlled fire. And thanks to carbon dating analysis of collagen extracted from the mammoth bones, the site also comes with a firm age of 36,250 to 38,900 years old, making it among the oldest known sites left by ancient humans in North America.

“What we have is amazing,” said lead author Timothy Rowe, a paleontologist and professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. “It’s not a charismatic place with a beautiful skeleton laid out on the side. It’s all broken. But that is the story.”

Rowe does not usually research mammoths or humans. He got involved because the bones turned up in his backyard, literally. A neighbor discovered a tusk weathering from a hillside on Rowe’s property in New Mexico in 2013. When Rowe went to investigate, he found a battered mammoth skull and other bones that looked deliberately broken. It appeared to be a butcher’s place. But suspected early human sites are shrouded in uncertainty. It can be notoriously difficult to determine what was shaped by nature versus human hands.

This uncertainty has led to debate in the anthropological community about when humans first arrived in North America.

Although the mammoth site lacks clearly associated stone tools, Rowe and his co-authors discovered a wealth of supporting evidence by putting samples from the site through scientific analysis in the laboratory.

Among other findings, CT scans taken by the University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility revealed bone flakes with microscopic fracture networks similar to those in freshly snapped cube bones and well-placed puncture wounds that would have helped drain fat from the ribs and vertebral bones.

“There’s really only a couple of effective ways to skin a cat, so to speak,” Rowe said. “The butcher patterns are quite distinctive.”

In addition, chemical analysis of the sediment around the bones showed that fire particles came from a sustained and controlled burn, not a lightning strike or forest fire. The material also contained pulverized bone and burnt remains of small animals – mostly fish (although the site is over 200 feet above the nearest river), but also birds, rodents and lizards.

Based on genetic evidence from indigenous peoples of South and Central America and artifacts from other archaeological sites, some researchers have proposed that North America had at least two founding populations: Clovis and a pre-Clovis society with a different genetic lineage.

The researchers suggest that the New Mexico site, with its age and bone tools rather than elaborate stone technology, may lend support to this theory. Collins said the study adds to a growing body of evidence for pre-Clovis societies in North America, while providing a toolkit that can help others find evidence that might otherwise have been overlooked.

“Tim has done excellent and thorough work that represents front-line research,” said Collins. “It is a path that others can learn from and follow.”

Co-authors include Jackson School professor Richard Ketcham and researchers Romy Hanna and Matthew Colbert, as well as researchers from the Gault School of Archaeological Research, the University of Michigan, Aarhus University and Stafford Research.

University of Texas at Austin

Header Image Credit: Timothy Rowe / University of Texas at Austin

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