We May Have Met Mammoths in Vermont After All

A woolly mammoth rib lying in a museum since 1848 has been dated to 12,800 years old – and becomes the latest evidence that we met and maybe ate of the elephant in northeast America, too

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Artist's impression of a woolly mammoth
Artist's impression of a woolly mammothCredit: Flying Puffin
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Did we meet the woolly mammoth in North America after all? The thinking has been that mammoths went extinct in the Americas shortly before or around the time that humans reached the New World. We contributed to the extinction of megafauna in Eurasia and Africa but less so in the New World, based on the time lines.

But on Thursday a paper published in the journal Boreas, which is devoted to Quaternary research, dates a fragment of rib bone of one woolly mammoth found in Vermont to approximately 12,800 years ago, by when we are believed to have arrived.

It’s the latest support for the theory that we met and ate of the prehistoric elephant not only in Europe but in America, too – and not only in the Midwest, for which the argument of a fatal meeting between the two species has been reported before. (Fatal for the elephant, not us.)

That doesn’t mean humans are responsible for the elephantids’ extinction in the Americas. Climate change following the natural end of the last Ice Age almost certainly did that, acknowledges co-author Nathaniel Kitchel of Dartmouth College. But the age of this mammoth – whose remains were found in Mount Holly, Vermont, in 1848 during work on a railroad – suggests we may have coexisted in northeast America, too.

Specifically, in 1848 excavators found one mammoth molar, two tusks and several bones nestling in a hilltop bog. Yes, bogs can persist on hilltops, conditions permitting. The age of the remains has now been determined by radiocarbon dating.

Why were the mammoth’s bits tested only now? Because the curators of the Hood Museum’s off-site storage facility invited Kitchel to assess some of their artifacts, and he came across the 30-centimeter-long (12-inch) rib fragment, which he recognized as belonging to a prehistoric proboscid. The rest is prehistory.

When humans reached the Americas is a profoundly controversial topic, as is the manner of their migration – by foot over the Bering land bridge, by boat, both, with or without domesticated dogs; the questions go on. But there’s a general consensus that by 15,000 years ago they had arrived, and then these early Americans spread quite fast. Under this theory, humans could have reached Vermont by 12,800 years ago.

Photograph showing tags and 3D model of the Mount Holly mammoth rib fragmentCredit: Nathaniel R. Kitchel and Jeremy DeSilva

Some researchers contend that humans may have arrived in the Americas more than 30,000 years ago, but the evidence is controversial – what some see as stone tools others see as “just rocks.” By even by the conservative estimate of their arrival, early Americans could have met mammoths – which may indeed have been in their dying throes.

One reason for the murkiness is the paucity of evidence. Fossil evidence is always rare, and the researchers stress the Northeast’s relatively acidic soils, which are terrible for fossilization. They also note that glaciers descending with the Ice Age, and then retreating, ripped up whatever soil might have had fossils inside. Note that the mammoth in this story lived after the glaciers had retreated from that part of the world.

What happened to it? It may have been eaten. In the Midwest, evidence has been reported that humans hunted mammoths, or scavenged them (and by the way, separate studies suggest women hunted as much as men in prehistoric America). In South Dakota, a mother and baby mammoth were found from about 13,000 years ago near stone tools, which is interpreted as evidence of butchering. In Michigan, a mammoth was found in pond sediment and dated to 15,000 to 11,700 years ago – and may also evince signs of butchering. The early Americans may have even immersed the mammoth corpses in lakes to preserve their flesh longer, some think.

Or, the unfortunate elephantid may have starved. The team performed analysis of nitrogen isotopes in the bone, which can help analyze the protein composition of an animal’s diet. The nitrogen values were low compared with mammoths globally, and also were the lowest value recorded in the Northeast for a mammoth.

“The low nitrogen values could have been the result of these mega-herbivores having to consume alder or lichens (nitrogen fixing species) during the last glacial period when the landscape was denser due to climate warming,” the Dartmouth researchers say.

As a coauthor, anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, puts it, “The Mount Holly mammoth was one of the last known occurring mammoths in the Northeast. 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.”

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