Notable: Mammoth hunters in the Arctic 45,000 years ago

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Notable paper: Pitulko, V. V., Tikhonov, A. N., Pavlova, E. Y., Nikolskiy, P. A., Kuper, K. E., Polozov, R. N. 2016. Early human presence in the Arctic: Evidence from 45,000-year-old mammoth remains. Science 351:260-263. doi:10.1126/science.aad0554

Synopsis: Vladimir Pitulko and colleagues excavated an exceptionally well-preserved mammoth skeleton with characteristic damage from human hunting, from the northernmost end of the Yanisey River in Siberia. The bone is radiocarbon-dated to more than 45,000 years ago, making this the earliest evidence of human activity above the Arctic Circle. They also report on fauna from a site further east, Bunge-Toll, at around the same age, including a wolf with forelimb trauma that they interpret as a result of an injury from a human hunter.

Grisly detail: The hunters seem to have broken up the mammoth’s tusk in an effort to create sharp-edged ivory flakes that they could use to butcher the animal.

Not said: Were these Neandertals or modern humans? Neither find includes any artifacts. At least one high-latitude site further to the west and later in time, Byzovaya, has been interpreted as a terminal Mousterian that may have been made by Neandertals some 30,000–35,000 years ago, while a somewhat earlier site, Mamontovaya Kurya, has a marked piece of mammoth tusk, and has been likened to Szeletian (my earlier posts: “Who colonized the European Arctic?”, “Neandertals of the North”). The Ust’-Ishim femur shows that a modern human population without substantially greater Neandertal ancestry was present in the Ob drainage by 45,000 years ago (The Ust’-Ishim genome”), and a very early Upper Paleolithic was present in the Altai by 43,000 radiocarbon years ago, for example at Kara Bom. In light of this, it seems likely that one or more modern human populations had developed cultures with the logistical wherewithal to use the mammoth steppes, perhaps 20,000 years earlier than the mammoth hunters of Eastern Europe. The question about whether Neandertals were using the northern parts of the European Arctic remains unresolved.