Neanderthals’ mammoth building project
|Mammoth tusks [Credit: flickr]|
Mammoth-bone huts previously discovered at Homo sapiens sites in West Asia date to between 27,500 and 15,000 years ago. The new discovery comes from Molodova, a Ukrainian site first excavated in the 1950s. There, Neanderthals erected a mammoth-bone structure that’s unlike later mammoth-bone huts, suggesting that the two Homo species developed these practices independently, says study coauthor Stéphane Péan, also of France’s National Museum of Natural History.
Researchers have argued for decades about whether Molodova Neanderthals left mammoth bones scattered about or built something out of them.
“My own inclination is to assume that some type of mammoth-bone structure, maybe a wind break, was present at Molodova,” remarks archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado Boulder. A Czech Republic site of comparable age contains a similar circle of mammoth bones, Hoffecker says.
It’s hard to know whether Neanderthals or modern humans occupied Molodova, he cautions. African Homo sapiens reached Europe by 45,000 years ago, and discoveries in the last few years indicate that those early migrants made stone tools much like those found at Molodova and traditionally attributed to Neanderthals, Hoffecker says. No fossils have been unearthed at the Ukrainian site, leaving the identity of its occupants uncertain, in his view.
Demay’s team regards Molodova stone tools as typical of Neanderthals that lived in Europe and West Asia before modern humans showed up.
Neanderthals assembled the circular Molodova structure out of the largest and strongest parts of mammoth skeletons — mainly tusks, shoulders, ribs and hips, the scientists say. Weathering and water damage on the bones indicate that they were placed in a shallow trench.
Remains of at least 15 mammoths, all bearing stone-tool marks but few signs of chewing by nonhuman animals, were uncovered inside the bone enclosure. Excavations also produced bones of red deer, bison and other animals that contained butchery marks. Meat from these animals was cooked in 15 fire pits arrayed throughout the site.
Neanderthal groups consisting of no more than around 30 individuals, Péan proposes, periodically camped at Molodova while cutting up and consuming mammoth and other prey.
Author: Bruce Bower | Source: Science News [December 02, 2011]