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Mammoth Hunt: 14 000 Years Later


In September of the past year, Russian scientists made sensational findings on the famous mammoth’ burial site Lugovskoe in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. Particularly, about 300 human-shaped stone objects and a mammoth’s vertebra pierced by a spear or javelin head were found. The pierced vertebra is the first indisputable proof that men hunted mammoths. A site of human settlement that functioned about 14 000 years ago is discovered by the researchers. This is the northernmost settlement known in the West Siberia.

Although fiction writers don’t hesitate to describe ancient men as mammoth hunters, scientists have doubted until very recently, whether our forebears could kill those giant animals by their simple weapons or they just picked up mammoths that died because of other reasons. A sensational finding made by Russian scientists on the largest mammoth burial site in the West Siberia (Lugovskoe, Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area) has put an end to the doubts. Diggings on this site have been conducted since the 1960s. By 2002, the number of bones of mammoths and other mammals of the Late Pleistocene reached 4.5 thousands.

In September 2002, the Regional State Museum of Nature and Man in Khanty-Mansiisk organized an expedition, where worked specialists from the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow), Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Novosibirsk), and Tomsk State University. On the Lugovskoe site, they found many stone instruments made in the Late Paleolith and a mammoth’s vertebra pierced by a spear head. The findings and results of their subsequent study are reported by Evgeny Mashchenko (member of the Mammoth Committee Bureau at the St. Petersburg Science Centre and expert palaeontologist of the Ministry of Culture) at the 3rd International Mammoth Conference held in Canada in May 2003. The Conference materials are published in the Internet and in journal "Geologist" of the Geological Association of Canada (vol. 32, no. 2, p. 16); further publications will appear in journals of the Tomsk State University, Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, and in French magazine "Dossiers d’Archeologie". By the way, at that Conference scientists of the world expressed their concerns about conditions of storage and display of unique paleontological collections of the Glaciation Epoch, especially, in Russia. But we will better not discuss that sad subject.

Diggings in Lugovskoe are difficult and sometimes dangerous. Bones of mammoths and other animals of the Late Pleistocene are found within a depression associated with a nameless stream between the rivers Ob and Irtysh. Archaeological work in this swamped depression can be conducted only during the low-water period that lasts for one or two months a year. And a non-professional would hardly call that "diggings" - the processes of excavating bones from wet viscous ground that can even engulf a man.

That probably happened to animals, whose remains were found there. They were buried during the last and coldest phase of the Pleistocene, 18-12 thousand years ago (radiocarbon date obtained from mammoth bones). In addition to mammoths that numbered to 27, scientists found 13 other mammalian species both existing and extinct: rodents, hare, polar fox, wolf, brown bear, cave lion, woolly rhinoceros, elk, bison, musk-ox, and horse. Such a diversity of species and a very good preservation of buried objects are exceptional characteristics of the Lugovskoe site.

The bones are preserved so well due to the quality of burying deposit - viscous fine clay brought by surface and ground water flows. The scientists suppose that herbivores (including mammoths) came to this dangerous place for eating clay rich in mineral elements, like modern ungulates go to solonetzs. Carnivores came for dead or alive, but helpless animals and, sometimes, perished in that sticky ground too.

The game attracted men. Tusks and bones with incisions and man-shaped stone instruments were found on the Lugovskoe site before. However, the expedition in the autumn of 2002 made most significant discoveries. About 300 stone instruments used by ancient men were found in deposits on the bottom of the stream together with crushed bones and teeth of mammoths. These stone objects are studied now by doctor of historical sciences V.N. Zenin (Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Siberian Division, Russian Academy of Sciences). The rocks used by ancient men are rather diverse (from jasper and chalcedony to quartzite and rock crystal), and some of them are absent in the study area. So many instruments are never found on a hunting site, but only on sites of settlements. Another indicator of the settlement existence is charcoal fragments. The Late Paleolith men burned bones instead of wood in places poor in tree vegetation. As a rule, bone-derived charcoal is not preserved in points, where people spent just several hours or days, but is always indicative of long-term settlements.

Thus, it was established that the northernmost settlement of the Late Paleolith men within the West Siberia was located near aforementioned stream. No vestiges of the Paleolith Epoch were found in that area before. The materials from Lugovskoe had become first evidences for human life in those harsh climatic conditions as early as 14 thousand years ago.

Yet the most interesting discovery made in autumn of 2002 is a mammoth vertebra pierced by a spear or javelin by a man in the Late Paleolith. This object has been excavated by A.F. Pavlov (Regional State Museum of Nature and Man, Khanty-Mansiisk) and E.N. Mashchenko in the stream bed 120 meters from its mouth. At first, they doubted that such a finding was possible - comments E.N. Mashchenko. But laboratory studies and analysis of supplementary data confirmed that the spear head did really pierce the vertebra, when the weapon hit the mammoth female that was probably stuck in the clay. From now on, the fact our predecessors were "mammoth hunters" is unquestionable.

As was established by E.N. Mashchenko, the game was not very large for a mammoth: reached 220 cm in height and weighted 2.7-3.2 tons. Such a modest size is typical for last generations of this species that inhabited the West and East Siberia. The spear head was well made: thin plates of greenish quartzite inserted into cone-like bone base (fragments of the plates were preserved in the bone hole made by the weapon).

Calculations showed that the blow was applied with an enormous strength (probably, a spear-throwing device was used) and from a close distance (about 5 m). Of course, a man could not come up so closely to a mammoth, if the latter had not been caught by sticky mud and abandoned by relatives. (It is believed that mammoths, like modern elephants, migrated by family groups and in case of danger fought all together, which made the mammoth hunt rather risky). It is impossible to tell who was luckier: ancient people that found the mammoth engulfed by mud, or the modern scientists that found this priceless vestige of the prehistoric hunt.

Sergey Komarov | Informnauka
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