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Mastodon discovery shakes up our understanding of early humans in the New World

An Ice Age paleontological-turned-archaeological site in San Diego, Calif., preserves 130,000-year-old bones and teeth of a mastodon that show evidence of modification by early humans. Analysis of these finds dramatically revises the timeline for when humans first reached North America, according to a paper to published in the journal Nature.

Mastodon discovery shakes up our understanding of early humans in the New World
A concentration of fossil bone and rock. The unusual positions of the femur heads, one up and one down, 
broken in the same manner next to each other is unusual. Mastodon molars are located in the lower
 right hand corner next to a large rock comprised of andesite which is in contact with a broken vertebra. 
Upper left is a rib angled upwards resting on a granitic pegmatite rock fragment 
[Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum]
The fossil remains were discovered by Museum paleontologists during routine paleontological mitigation work at a freeway expansion project site managed by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The bones, tusks, and molars, many of which are sharply broken, were found deeply buried alongside large stones that appeared to have been used as hammers and anvils, making this the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in the Americas.

Mastodon discovery shakes up our understanding of early humans in the New World
Unbroken mastodon ribs and vertebrae, including one vertebra with a large well preserved neural 
spine found in excavation unit J4 [Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum]
"This discovery is rewriting our understanding of when humans reached the New World. The evidence we found at this site indicates that some hominin species was living in North America 115,000 years earlier than previously thought," said Judy Gradwohl, president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum, whose paleontology team discovered the fossils, managed the excavation, and incorporated the specimens into the Museum's research collection. "This raises intriguing questions about how these early humans arrived here and who they were."

Mastodon discovery shakes up our understanding of early humans in the New World
Mastodon skeleton schematic showing which bones and teeth of the animal were found at the site 
[Credit: Dan Fisher and Adam Rountrey, University of Michigan]
Until recently, the oldest records of human sites in North America generally accepted by archaeologists were about 14,000 years old. But the fossils from the Cerutti Mastodon site (as the site was named in recognition of field paleontologist Richard Cerutti who discovered the site and led the excavation), were found embedded in fine-grained sediments that had been deposited much earlier, during a period long before humans were thought to have arrived on the continent.

"When we first discovered the site, there was strong physical evidence that placed humans alongside extinct Ice Age megafauna. This was significant in and of itself and a 'first' in San Diego County," said Dr. Tom Deme?re?, curator of paleontology and director of PaleoServices at the San Diego Natural History Museum and corresponding author on the paper. "Since the original discovery, dating technology has advanced to enable us to confirm with further certainty that early humans were here significantly earlier than commonly accepted."

Since its initial discovery in late 1992, this site has been the subject of research by top scientists to date the fossils accurately and evaluate microscopic damage on bones and rocks that authors now consider indicative of human activity. In 2014, Dr. James Paces, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, used state-of-the-art radiometric dating methods to determine that the mastodon bones -- which were still fresh when they were broken by strategically-placed blows from hammerstones -- were 130,000 years old, with a conservative error of plus or minus 9,400 years. "The distributions of natural uranium and its decay products both within and among these bone specimens show remarkably reliable behavior, allowing us to derive an age that is well within the wheelhouse of the dating system," explained Paces, a co-author of the paper.

The finding poses a lot more questions than answers: Who were these people? Are they part of an early -- but failed -- colonization attempt? Or is there a long, but as of yet, scarcely recognized presence of humans in this hemisphere?

"There's no doubt in my mind this is an archaeological site," said Dr. Steve Holen, director of research at the Center for American Paleolithic Research, former curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the lead author of the paper. "The bones and several teeth show clear signs of having been deliberately broken by humans with manual dexterity and experiential knowledge. This breakage pattern has also been observed at mammoth fossil sites in Kansas and Nebraska, where alternative explanations such as geological forces or gnawing by carnivores have been ruled out."

Digital 3D models of a selection of specimens pointing toward human association at this site can be viewed interactively at the University of Michigan Online Repository of Fossils. Animations featuring these models are also presented as supplementary information associated with the published version of this research.

For more information see the San Diego Natural History Museum's website.

Source: University of Michigan [April 26, 2017]

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  1. This would have been in the early stages of the last interstadial period. No reason the Bering land bridge would not be open - similar to today.

  2. The main problems with this is, of course, the lack of butchery marks and the mundane nature of the alleged "tools."

    If this were indeed a site where early Homo was cracking open bones for the marrow, what became of the meat? They didn't cut it off. And no creatures chewed it off. The authors stated in the paper that no signs of butchery were noted. They didn't mention signs of scavenging, but I'd assume they'd have mentioned it were it there.

    With the meat neither butchered or scavenged away, we're left to assume that these bones simply sat about waiting for the meat to naturally decay then the early Homo decided to crack them open? The only way I can imagine these bones not showing either type of taphonomy is if they were somehow inaccessible. Buried in sand/silt or underwater.

    And the "tools." The tools are simply not enough to go on. We're talking about rocks that were in a stream or river. Sure, it was likely a low-energy fluvial environment, but anyone who lives next to a gentle, meandering stream or river will tell you there are times when this otherwise calm body of water is a torrent of raging destruction.

    If they found a bifacially worked hand ax, I'd be the first to jump on the band wagon. I think the notion of Neanderthals or Denisovans in North America 130,000 years ago is pretty damned cool. But I'm not ready to buy in without some better evidence.


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