Russian scientists have recently made public sensational discoveries at the famous mammoth burial site of Lugovskoe in West Siberia. Their new findings include human-made stone objects, plus the first indisputable proof that humans hunted mammoths.
Excavating at Lugovskoe is difficult and sometimes dangerous. The Late Pleistocene animal bones come from a swampy depression associated with a nameless stream between the rivers Ob and Irtysh. Digging can only take place during a low-water period that lasts for one or two months each year. But even then, the wet viscous ground could engulf a careless archaeologist, dragging the unfortunate to a muddy grave.
Indeed, the swamp probably claimed the lives of the animals whose remains are found there. Many were buried during the last, and coldest, phase of the Pleistocene, 18-12 thousand years ago (or so the Russians extrapolate from radiocarbon dates obtained from mammoth bones). In addition to 27 mammoths, scientists found 13 other mammalian species including rodents, hare, polar fox, wolf, brown bear, cave lion, woolly rhinoceros, elk, bison, musk-ox, and horse.
Scientists suspect that herbivores, including mammoths, went to the swamp to eat the mineral-rich clay (as still happens today), and that the herbivores attracted carnivores, plus meat-hungry humans.
Archaeologists had already found tusks and bones with incisions and human-made stone instruments during previous excavations at Lugovskoe. However, the most recent expedition in Autumn 2002 has produced the most significant discoveries to date.
These include the 300 stone tools found in deposits on the bottom of the stream alongside crushed mammoth bones and teeth. These are made from a wide, and sometimes non-local, variety of stones, including jasper, chalcedony, quartzite and rock crystal. But the most interesting discovery was made by A.F. Pavlov and E.N. Mashchenko, who uncovered a mammoth vertebra pierced by a well made spear- or javelin-head made of thin plates of greenish quartzite inserted into cone-like bone base (fragments of the plates were preserved in the bone hole made by the weapon).
Modern popular culture images of the Stone Age tend to show fur-clad men, their hair on end and their eyes ablaze, hunting mammoths. Yet, until very recently, scientists doubted whether our forebears could actually kill these prehistoric giant woolly elephants using their relatively simple weapons. Many suspected that humans simply scavanged mammoths that had already died.
However, scientific analysis has confirmed that the spear definitely pierced the vertebra. Calculations indicate that the blow was applied with enormous strength, suggesting that a spear-throwing device was probably used. It seems to have been thrown from a close distance of about 5m. A human would not normally have been able to come so near to a mammoth, so in this case it is likely that the beast had been caught in the sticky mud and abandoned by its relatives.
Archaeologists have further concluded that the area probably attracted relatively long-term visits by people who wanted to make use of the rich-picking of the unfortunate victims of the swamp. The quantity of tools found at the site points to frequent visits by people, while the notion that they stayed in the area for long lengths of time turns on the remains of the fires they burnt. For in places where trees were scarce, as is the case here, people burnt bones instead of wood to keep them warm. Since bone-derived charcoal does not tend to survive at sites where people spent just several hours or days, it implies long-term settlements, as here.
Swamps, bone-fuelled fires, risk of death… it just goes to show what people will put up with for a good meal.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 4. Click here to subscribe