First Humans in New England May Have Met and Hunted Woolly Mammoths

Did humans and woolly mammoths share the same territory near the end of the last Ice Age in what is now the Northeastern United States? A  new study  from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, has given scientists reason to believe they might have, at least for a short time. 

Dusting Off Woolly Mammoth Bone After 100 Years

A pair of Dartmouth anthropologists, Postdoctoral Fellow Nathaniel Kitchel and associate professor Jeremy De Silva, ordered  radiocarbon dating  tests on a sample of fossilized woolly  mammoth bone  that had been retrieved from a bog in Vermont and kept in storage for more than 100 years. 

The tests showed the woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius ) had lived and died approximately 12,800 years ago. This is very close to the time when the first humans were believed to have arrived in the area now known as New England, during a late post-glacial cooling period known as the  Younger Dryas .

“It has long been thought that  megafauna and humans in New England did not overlap in time and space and that it was probably ultimately environmental change that led to the extinction of these animals in the region,” said Kitchel .“But our research provides some of the first evidence that they may have actually co-existed,” he continued in  ScienceDaily.

The long-forgotten woolly mammoth rib bone was originally found near Mount Holly in New England. (Nathaniel R. Kitchel and Jeremy DeSilva)

The long-forgotten woolly mammoth rib bone was originally found near Mount Holly in New England. ( Nathaniel R. Kitchel and Jeremy DeSilva )

Forgotten Relic: The Mount Holly Woolly Mammoth

This surprising discovery was made possible by a stroke of good fortune. While sorting through a collection of forgotten relics stored in a warehouse that belongs to New Hampshire’s Hood Museum of Art, Kitchel found something unexpected. It was a fossilized, 12-inch (30 cm) fragment of a  woolly mammoth  rib bone, abandoned for many years but still carrying a label that identified it as belonging to the famous Mount Holly mammoth. 

Named after the central Vermont village located near its discovery site, the Mount Holly mammoth’s fossilized skeletal remains had been unearthed during an 1848 railroad construction project. Fossils of this type are rarely found in the New England soil, which is quite acidic to begin with and was put through the grinder following the final retreat of North America’s glacial cover approximately 18,000 years ago. The remains uncovered included a molar, two tusks, a fragment of a rib bone, and a mixed assortment of other broken and intact bone samples.

In subsequent years, the mammoth bones were divvied up and distributed to various scientific and educational institutions for display or analysis. Somehow, the Hood Museum had gotten ahold of the mammoth rib fragment, but had chosen not to keep it on continuous display. 

Could the Mount Holly mammoth analysis mean that humans and woolly mammoths coexisted in the Northeastern United States? (Daniel / Adobe Stock)

Could the Mount Holly mammoth analysis mean that humans and woolly mammoths coexisted in the Northeastern United States? ( Daniel / Adobe Stock)

Dating the Mount Holly Woolly Mammoth

When Kitchel found the bone, he recognized its significance right away. Only recently, he’d given a talk at the Mount Holly Historical Museum, and the Mount Holly mammoth had been referenced and discussed during that lecture. Among other things, he knew that the exact age of the mammoth fossil had never been definitively determined. 

Seizing the opportunity, he got permission to take the rib bone back to Dartmouth. He and De Silva removed a tiny one-gram sample and shipped it off to a laboratory in Georgia so thorough testing could be performed. Once Kitchel and De Silva got the results and realized the  mammoth had been alive around 11,000 BC, they understood the ramifications right away. 

The idea of  humans and mammoths coexisting  and interacting on the North American continent is not farfetched. In the region now identified as the U.S. Midwest, mammoths and humans roamed the landscape simultaneously. In fact, mammoths were common enough that humans living there frequently hunted them, and after a successful hunt they would store leftover mammoth meat in lakes or bogs to keep it fresh for later consumption.

The fact that the Mount Holly mammoth was found in a bog suggests that it could have been hunted and killed by  humans, and placed there for the purposes of storage. But with nothing more than radiocarbon dating data to work with, this idea can only be classified as pure speculation for now.

“The Mount Holly mammoth was one of the last known occurring mammoths in the Northeast,” explained DeSilva. “While our findings show that there was a temporal overlap between mammoths and humans, this doesn’t necessarily mean that people saw these animals or had anything to do with their death. But it raises the possibility now that maybe they did.”

The dramatic warming of temperatures that accompanied the termination of the last  Ice Age , plus the impact of human hunting practices, led to the  extinction of the woolly mammoth. Whether hunting played a factor in the disappearance of the mammoth in the region now identified as New England, however, remains unknown. 

Are More Mammoths Waiting to Be Discovered?

The Mount Holly mammoth  was discovered by accident, and unfortunately its unearthing was not followed by years of additional anthropological or archaeological surveys of the area. If mammoths and humans shared the same landscape, and if the latter hunted the former, it raises the possibility that more  woolly mammoth  remains are waiting to be found very close by, possibly at the bottom of nearby lakes or bogs of the Northeastern  United States

Should more fossilized mammal bones be found in the same area, and in similar environments, it would provide strong evidence to suggest that ancient humans were responsible for the disposition of the bodies. And if the remains of ancient human  hunting tools  were to be found nearby, it would prove the case conclusively.

Top image: The discovery of a long-forgotten woolly mammoth bone may prove that humans and woolly mammoths coexisted in the northeastern United States. Source: Thomas Quine /  CC BY 2.0

By Nathan Falde


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