The migration of early people in Alaska is linked to the movements of woolly mammoths

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A new study shows that early human settlements in what is now Alaska closely tracked the movements of female woolly mammoths that lived 14,000 years ago. The animal ranged about 620 miles (1,000 km) from northwestern Canada to the interior of Alaska during its lifetime.

The discovery highlights the connection between the prehistoric giants and some of the first people to make their way across the Bering Land Bridge, suggesting that humans set up their seasonal hunting camps where woolly mammoths were known to congregate.

Researchers from the United States and Canada have proven the relationship between the two species thanks to a new isotope analysis tool, an ancient tusk and a map of archaeological sites in Alaska. The tusk belonged to a woolly mammoth that was later called “Maesogia” or “Elma” for short. The sample was discovered in 2009 in Swan Point Archaeological Site In central Alaska.

Lead author Audrey Rowe, a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the research began after a “sophisticated” and highly accurate instrument arrived at the university’s laboratories. Alaska Stable Isotope Facility Which breaks down samples to analyze strontium isotopes – chemical traces that reveal details of an animal's life.

Rowe's advisor, Matthew Wooler, used the same method to determine the movements of adult male mammoths in a paper published in August 2021. Wooler is the study's lead author, a professor in the university's School of Fisheries and Oceanography, and director of the study. From the isotope facility.

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Strontium is a stable isotope created when rubidium, a highly reactive metal, collapses. It's a slow process with a half-life of 4 billion years, Rowe said. When rubidium decays, it first turns into radioactive strontium-87 and, after many years, into stable strontium-86.

Outside where the mammoths roamed, rocks broke down into soil, plants grew, animals ate those plants, their tusks showing the level of strontium in their diet in every layer of ivory.

The woolly mammoth's tusks grew at a constant daily rate, with the first days of the animal's life recorded at the tip of the tusks. The layers are clearly visible when the canine specimen is sectioned lengthwise.

This analysis can then be traced back to mineral and strontium levels in rocks around Alaska to map out where Elma was roaming.

“The USGS has done a very good job mapping rocks in Alaska,” Rowe said.

Wooler then suggested that the team cover the locations of local archaeological sites above Elma's movements.

“Surprisingly, there was a lot of overlap between the densest area of ​​archaeological sites in Alaska from the late Pleistocene, right above the areas that Elma, our giant, was using during her life,” Rowe said.

The new isotopic data join datasets generated from radiocarbon and DNA analysis of two related small mammoths also found at Swan Point to create a fuller picture of life 14,000 years ago.

“She was a young woman in the prime of life. Her observations showed that she was not malnourished and that she died in the same season as the seasonal hunting camp at Swan Point where her tusk was found,” Wooler said in a statement.

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Other researchers agreed. “This study greatly enhances our understanding of mammoth behavior, and also provides interesting clues regarding the interaction between humans and mammoths,” Löv Dahlin, a professor of evolutionary genomics at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, said via email. Dallin was not involved in the new research.

The discovery could also spur more scientists to seek out new sets of research tools to enhance their understanding of science and history.

“Overall, I think the research is a great example of how using a range of different molecular tools, such as isotope, DNA and radiocarbon analyses, can provide groundbreaking, new insights into prehistory,” Dallin said.

The results were published on Wednesday in the journal Advancement of science.

New evidence offers more than just understanding of the early relationship between woolly mammoths and humans.

“(Elma) was wandering through the densest area of ​​archaeological sites in Alaska,” Rowe said in a statement. “It appears that these early people were setting up hunting camps in areas frequented by mammoths.”

The research also upended what Rowe, the lead researcher, thought should be the image that comes to mind when thinking about each species independently.

The study team was assigned Natural history painter Julius Csotonyi To create a digital image of the two species. The final image includes all three woolly mammoths found in the Swan Point area, but instead of depicting humans as aggressive hunters surrounding their prey, Rowe insisted that the artist show a family instead.

“These people were just like us, but we only see aggressive hunting times in their lives,” she said. Hunter-gatherers had to use “sophisticated” technology to kill mammals to survive, “and it took a lot of skill.”

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Rowe wanted the photo, which shows a woman, a man and children watching a mammoth, to prove that “these people were spending a lot of time teaching their children how to do everything.”

Jenna Schnewer He's a freelance writer, editor, and audio producer in Anchorage, Alaska who focuses (mostly) on science, art, and travel.

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