Humans were hunting large mammals in North America about 800 years earlier than previously thought, new analysis of a controversial mastodon specimen – with what appears to be a spear tip in its rib – seems to confirm.
The find suggests humans were hunting mastodons using tools made from bone about a thousand years before the start of the “Clovis culture”, reputedly the first human culture in North America. Other evidence points to mammoth hunting using stone tools around this time, but the notion of pre-Clovis hunting has remained highly controversial.
The mastodon was found in 1977 by a farmer called Emanuel Manis. He contacted archaeologist Carl Gustafson, who excavated the skeleton and noticed a pointed object embedded in its rib. Gustafson took a fuzzy x-ray and interpreted the object as a projectile point made of bone or antler.
By dating organic matter around the fossil, he estimated that it was about 14,000 years old. Other archaeologists challenged Gustafson’s dates and his interpretation of the fragment as a man-made point.
Decades later Professor Michael Waters from Texas A&M University contacted him about re-examining the specimen using modern technology. His analysis was published on Thursday in the journal Science…
Waters analysed collagen protein from the mastodon’s rib and tusks to confirm that the animal died about 13,800 years ago, almost exactly as Gustafson predicted…
Two other sites in Wisconsin appear to show people were hunting woolly mammoths and using stone tools between 14,200 and 14,800 years ago. The Manis specimen suggests they also hunted mastodons and used bone tools.
Together, the three sites provide strong evidence for pre-Clovis hunting. “They’re incontrovertible,” said Waters. “Clearly, people were hunting mammoths and mastodons again and again, playing a part in their ultimate demise…”
Waters does not credit alternative hypotheses. “Ludicrous what-if stories are being made up to explain something people don’t want to believe,” he said. “We took the specimen to a bone pathologist, showed him the CT scans, and asked if there was any way it could be an internal injury. He said absolutely not…”
Archaeologists can be as inflexible as politicians. Facts transmute into ideology and even when the ideology is disproven by new facts, advancements in analyzing evidence, those who are committed to their original understanding find it difficult to move on.
Waters said it best – describing what-if stories made up to explain something people don’t want to believe.