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Friday, January 22, 2016

Mammoth bones scarred by weapons show humans lived in the Arctic 45,000 years ago

Written by Traci Watson

Forty-five thousand years ago, there were no space heaters or snowmobiles or waterproof boots. But there were people living in the Siberian Arctic, scientists have discovered, and they were living there millennia earlier and much further north than recent conventional wisdom would have it.

Mammoth and wolf bones unearthed in northern Siberia and dating from near the end of the Pleistocene were scarred by human weapons, scientists announced in this week’s Science. The next oldest evidence that humans survived in the Arctic dates to 35,000 years ago.

The new study shows prehistoric humans resided 70 degrees north of the equator, akin to the north coast of Alaska, said University of Toronto paleoanthropologist Bence Viola, who was not associated with the new study. By comparison, the more southerly part of Central Siberia where Viola has worked “is one of the most unpleasant places I’ve ever been,” he said. “Even in the summer, it’s cold, and there’s nothing but swamp and mosquitos. I don’t know why these people were there.”

Other research has shown that Homo sapiens wandered out of Africa, the birthplace of our species, all the way to Siberia by 45,000 years ago, but that evidence placed people only as high as 55 degrees north, about the same latitude as Edinburgh. Russian archaeologist Vladimir Pitulko thought humans must have pushed further northward the Arctic Circle, but conditions in Siberia tend to defeat scientific ambition. Travel is by helicopter, and frozen soils may force excavation crews to blast dig sites with hot water.

But luck was on Pitulko’s side. In 2012, a 12-year-old boy found a mammoth skeleton close to the northern coast of Siberia. The top of the mammoth’s great hump measured more than seven feet high, and its bones bore multiple cuts and holes, some of them made by spear points or similar weapons.

Part of the animal’s tusk had also been sliced away, which would’ve created long, sharp-edged slivers useful for cutting, said Pitulko, of the Russian Academy of Sciences. That ingenious technique may have been crucial for survival in the region, which lacks the kinds of stones that the first humans fashioned into knives and other tools.

A wolf skeleton found elsewhere in the Siberian Arctic amid a cache of bison bones also showed signs of damage from a sharp weapon, Pitulko says. The wolf survived the injury. Perhaps it had been hanging around a human campsite, “hoping for some leftovers, and somebody just wanted to make him go away,” Pitulko speculated.

The new finds add to evidence that humans settled northern Eurasia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, said John Hoffecker of Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“It turns out that settlement of the Arctic was nothing special,” Hoffecker says. “It came along with everything else, as modern humans spread out of Africa into an amazingly wide variety of habitats and climate zones over the course of a few thousand years.”

Pitulko noted his new findings put humans within striking distance of the Bering Land Bridge, the now-submerged finger of land that once connected today’s Russia and Alaska. Humans made their way to the Americas from Siberia across the bridge some time after 30,000 years ago.

“Finding them not too far from the open gate means they would probably use it,” said Pitulko, who hopes to find more evidence of human survival in the region. “This area is almost unexplored even now. … Someday we will find better material, definitely. But we have to look for it first.”

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