A 15,000-Year-Old Trap For Catching Woolly Mammoths Has Been Discovered In Mexico

Mammoth skull and tusks found in the pitfall. (Image: Edith Camacho, INAH.)

Archaeologists working at a site near Mexico City have unearthed a 15,000-year-old trap built by humans to capture mammoths, in what’s the first discovery of its kind.

Early settlers of the Mexico Basin subdued giant mammoths by digging out deep, wide trenches and then driving the animals into the pits, according to a press release issued by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Scientists with INAH worked at these pits for the past 10 months, pulling out over 800 mammoth bones, some of which exhibited signs of hunting and possibly ritualistic rearrangement.

Two mammoth pits, and possibly a third, were found at the Tultepec II site, which is around 40 kilometres north of Mexico City. The bones were discovered this past January by a work crew digging out a municipal landfill. Dating of the sediment places the site to roughly 14,700 years ago. In total, the scientists pulled out 824 bones belonging to 14 individuals.

“These are two artificial mammoth traps,” INAH archaeologist and team leader Luis Córdova Barradas told the Yucatan Times. “This is a historic finding, not only [in] the country but in the world, because there have not been other traps of this kind found in any other parts of the world ever.”

By “artificial mammoth traps,” Córdoba Barradas is referring to deliberately constructed traps, as opposed to natural traps such as swamps or cliffs. This is the first recorded use of pitfalls to capture mammoths—a strategy known to have been employed by African hunters to trap elephants, as described in a 2018 paper published in the science journal Quaternary:

The use of pitfalls in elephant hunting is combined with the use of spears. Although the Khwe (Namibia) no longer hunt elephants, their forefathers did hunt them. One farmer quoted a story told by his forefathers, describing the use of pitfalls with sharp objects in them.

The use of pitfalls is also [documented among the] early Ghanzi bushmen, and...the Ituri forest pygmies in Congo [who] captured an elephant in a pitfall and killed it using short stabbing spears.

The mammoth hunters of the North American Pleistocene may not have hunted their gigantic prey in this exact manner, but these more modern accounts may not be too far off.

Artist’s depiction of a pitfall used to hunt elephants in Africa. (Illustration: Dana Ackerfeld/A. Agam et al., 2018/Quaternary)

The traps at Tultepec II were roughly 1.7 metres deep and around 25 metres in diameter. The walls were a sheer cliff, dropping off at a near 90-degree angle. The human hunters would have had no problem finishing off a mammoth trapped in such a hole.

Córdoba Barradas estimated that around 20 to 30 hunters were needed to separate a mammoth from its herd and steer it toward the pits, which the hunters could have done using torches and sticks. Theses pits were organised as a “line of traps,” a “strategy that would allow hunters to reduce the margin of error in capturing the specimen,” according to the INAH press release.

“There was little evidence before that hunters attacked mammoths. It was thought they frightened them into getting stuck in swamps and then waited for them to die,” Córdoba Barradas told reporters on Wednesday, as reported in the Guardian. “This is evidence of direct attacks on mammoths. In Tultepec we can see there was the intention to hunt and make use of the mammoths.”

Image: Edith Camacho, INAH.

Indeed, the discovery shows that the hunting of mammoths wasn’t just some chance encounter with a stray individual, as is often depicted in artistic recreations. In this case, it took social coordination and the manipulation of the environment to pull it off, according to the INAH.

The remains of eight mammoths were found in the first two pits and six in the suspected third pit. In total, the INAH archaeologists found five jaws, eight skulls, 100 vertebrae, 179 ribs, 11 shoulder blades, five humerus (the long leg bone), and many smaller mammoth remnants.

Some of the remains exhibited signs of hunting, such as a spear wound on the front of a mammoth skull. Evidence was also uncovered suggesting the ribs were used as cutting implements and that leg bones were used to shave off subcutaneous fat. Fascinatingly, the mammoth skulls were all positioned upside down, which may have been done to gain easy access to the delicious 12-kg (26-pound) brain inside, the INAH archaeologists speculated.

The Tultepec II site near Mexico City. (Image: Edith Camacho, INAH.)

Also, some of the mammoth bones seem to have been deliberately re-positioned, as if for a ritualistic purpose. One mammoth had its shoulder blade stacked and positioned to the left of its skull and a segment of its spinal column laid between its tusks, while the tusks of a second mammoth were carefully arranged nearby. Interestingly, one of this mammoth’s tusks was shorter than the other, suggesting it was growing back after a prior injury. The INAH archaeologists guessed the hunters had targeted this mammoth before, and this layout of its remains was a sign of respect or some kind of elaborate ritual.

That’s obviously a big inference to make, and we should point out that all of these findings and conclusions have yet to be scrutinised by peer reviewers and published to a scientific journal.

Weirdly, no left shoulder blades were recovered at the site—only the right ones. The archaeologists aren’t sure why, but a possible ritualistic or cultural explanation may account for this strange observation. The researchers also found evidence of a camel and a horse at the site, but with no direct evidence of hunting or butchering.

Córdoba Barradas and his colleagues say the geological evidence points to continuous usage of the site for over 500 years. If that’s true, more remains are likely in the area, which is a very exciting prospect indeed. Hopefully further evidence of these remarkable pitfalls will tell us even more about how the first settlers of North America managed to subdue these enormous beasts.

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