Palaeontology: When the mammoths were on the run - Triops Galaxy

Palaeontology: When the mammoths were on the run

When Elma was possibly struck by a deadly spear, she was in the prime of her life. She was about 20 years old, a proud and well-fed woolly mammoth female who had travelled far and wide. In the end, she provided prehistoric hunters with food for the days ahead and modern palaeoanthropologists with fascinating data, as her tusks have survived the 14,000 years since then in remarkable condition. These witnesses from times past speak of a close relationship between humans and animals, as a team of researchers led by Audrey Rowe and Matthew Wooller from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Clement Bataille from the University of Ottawa report in the journal Science Advances.

Mammoth routes existed for thousands of years

Using isotope analyses, the scientists have reconstructed the migrations of this single animal 14,000 years ago in Alaska – and found that people were always on the trail of Elma. The presence of humans at this time is shown by the remains of campfires, stone tools and worked animal bones. In contrast, the researchers were able to trace the routes of Elma and other mammoths using what is known as isotope analysis. These atomic species serve as chemical markers that can be used to determine the diet and whereabouts of animals and humans even after thousands of years.

Whether the mammoth was actually called Elma, short for Élmayųujey’eh, remains to be seen. This is what the members of the Healy Lake Village Council, the site where the mammoth skeleton was found 200 kilometres south-east of Fairbanks, have named it. However, the results presented by Rowe’s team are based on scientific research. According to this, Elma travelled around 1000 kilometres between Alaska and north-western Canada in her short life, always followed by Stone Age hunters and gatherers.

By analysing the specific isotopes in the mammoth tusk, which accumulate over the years at various points on the horn, the researchers were able to roughly estimate when the animals were where. It turned out that the humans followed the mammoths’ routes. Further analyses of other mammoths showed that Elma followed the same paths as a male specimen that had lived in the region 3,000 years earlier. Apparently, the mammoths’ routes persisted for thousands of years until humans appeared in Elma’s time and more trees grew at the same time.

“Climate change at the end of the Ice Age caused the open areas favoured by the mammoths to shrink,” explains co-author Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Under the protection of the growing forests, human hunters were able to approach the animals more easily and hunt successfully. It is therefore likely that Elma fell victim to a Stone Age weapon, particularly because it was found in a hunting camp. However, as is often the case in palaeontology, this cannot be said with absolute certainty.

Sladjan Lazic

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