Mammoth bones and 'ghost' footprints add to the heated debate about early humans in North America

Mammoth bones and ‘ghost’ footprints add to the heated debate about early humans in North America

Mammoth bones and “ghost” footprints of the elderly are the latest evidence in a scientific debate about when the first humans arrived in the Americas.

Fossilized bones, in particular, could indicate that people lived in North America tens of thousands of years before the generally accepted date of the arrival of the first Native Americans around 10,000 BC.

Researchers say radiocarbon dates of chemicals in mammoth bones, from a mother and her calf, indicate that the animals lived about 37,000 years ago in what is now New Mexico. The researchers added that the fracture patterns on the bones show that they were butchered by humans, and therefore they must have lived there at the same time. But some other scientists have questioned the findings, saying the fractures may be caused by nature.

Meanwhile, the latest “ghost” footprints were found a few weeks ago on Air Force missile range in a desert in Utah. Scientists believe they are about 12,000 years old, but this is only the second time such footprints have been found, and they support last year’s discovery of ghost footprints in New Mexico that are believed to be at least 21,000 years old – although these The outcome, too, is disputed.

A footprint is discovered at an archaeological site with a pin mark on the Utah Test and Training Range on July 18, 2022. (R. Nial Bradshaw/US Air Force)

Mammoth bones at the so-called Hartley site in northern New Mexico, on rocks high above a tributary of the Rio Grande, have been hailed as the most conclusive evidence yet of humans arriving in the Americas as long as 50,000 years ago walking on the “land of a bridge” between what It is now known as Siberia and Alaska.

The researchers say they are confident of their dating and explain that the fractures on them were caused by repeated collisions with sharp objects during their deliberate slaughter. They also say that there is evidence that fire was used selectively to cook many bones.

“I think it’s a solid radiocarbon date,” said paleontologist Timothy Rowe, a professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “Sceptics will put everything under a microscope, but I think we’ve checked every box.”

Rowe is the lead author of a study of mammoth bones published last month in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Broken bones and small chips from the slaughter process are also characteristic and can be seen at butcher sites from the same era in Europe and Asia, he said: “If this site was in northern Siberia, no one would blink.”

The upper rib shows a fracture from the impact of the blunt force;  The middle rib shows a puncture wound, possibly caused by an instrument;  The lower rib shows signs of chopping.  (Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin)

The upper rib shows a fracture from the impact of the blunt force; The middle rib shows a puncture wound, possibly by an instrument; The lower rib shows signs of chopping. (Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin)

The idea that mammoths were butchered by early humans is supported by other recent discoveries, including human footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico and what are said to be stone tools made 33,000 years ago in a cave in northern Mexico.

But the idea and the evidence are disputed by other scholars. The history of White Sands footprints has been questioned, and some scholars believe the objects from Mexico are not tools at all, but naturally pointed rocks.

They argue that fractures on mammoth bones can only be human-made. Alternatively, they may be caused by a landslide or other natural event.

“The fracture patterns on mammoth bones at that site could certainly be caused by humans,” said anthropologist Andre Kostopoulos, a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who published a detailed online examination of the latest research. “But they are not necessarily diagnostic of human existence.”

“We don’t have clear evidence yet, because there are other possible explanations that should be ruled out first, and they weren’t,” he said.

The lack of distinctive stone tools at the Hartley site is also a problem. The researchers say that the people who slaughtered the mammoths may not have used sophisticated stone tools, but only primitive tools that are indistinguishable from natural bones or rocks.

A mixture of ribs, fractured skull bones, molars, bone fragments and gravel belonging to a mammoth have been excavated in New Mexico.  It was preserved under the skull and tusks of an adult mammoth.  (Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin)

A mixture of ribs, fractured skull bones, molars, bone fragments and gravel belonging to a mammoth have been excavated in New Mexico. It was preserved under the skull and tusks of an adult mammoth. (Timothy Rowe/The University of Texas at Austin)

But other scientists say there is no evidence for this, and that even Neanderthals at this time would be expected to have had better tools.

Archaeologist Ben Potter, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said there is evidence from Africa, Europe and the Far East that Homo sapiens used complex stone tools around 47,000 years ago, so their absence at the Hartley site is significant.

He said in an email that he was not convinced by the latest research on mammoth bones and the idea that they show that people arrived in the Americas long ago. “Anything is possible. However, we just have to have evidence to support the claim.” “I don’t think they have enough evidence yet, and certainly not in this location.”

However, some other scientists are more convinced, suggesting that others may be reluctant to face the possibility that some humans arrived in the Americas 50,000 years ago.

“The research appears to be very comprehensive,” said Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. “At what point does the archaeological community wake up and smell the coffee? There is a lot of evidence,” he said.

“I am not saying that this is the last evidence… but you have White Sands footprints, and [Mexico] Location – there is all sorts of accumulating evidence pointing to human occupation of the New World 20,000 years ago, and I don’t understand why this idea is still worth arguing about.”

revision (August 4, 2022, 6:34 PM ET): An earlier version of this article misidentified Ben Potter at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is currently a professor there, not previously.

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