Home Archeology History Female Woolly Mammoth’s Lifetime Movements Tied to Ancient Alaskan Hunter-Gatherer Camp

Female Woolly Mammoth’s Lifetime Movements Tied to Ancient Alaskan Hunter-Gatherer Camp

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Female Woolly Mammoth’s Lifetime Movements Tied to Ancient Alaskan Hunter-Gatherer Camp

Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) in mainland Alaska overlapped with the region’s first people for at least 1,000 years. However, it is unclear how mammoths used the space shared with people. In new research, scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and elsewhere analyzed a 14,000-year-old female mammoth tusk found at the archaeological site of Swan Point in the Shaw Creek basin in interior Alaska to show that she moved nearly 1,000 km (621 miles) from northwestern Canada to inhabit an area with the highest density of early archaeological sites in interior Alaska; early Alaskans seem to have structured their settlements partly based on mammoth prevalence and made use of mammoths for raw materials and likely food.

This artwork shows three mammoths being watched by a family of ancient Alaskans from the dunes near the Swan Point archaeological site, a seasonal hunting camp occupied 14,000 years ago. Image credit: Julius Csostonyi.

The woolly mammoth at the center of the study, named Élmayuujey’eh by the Healy Lake Village Council, was discovered at Swan Point, the earliest archaeological site in Alaska, which also contained remains of a juvenile and a baby mammoth.

Mammoth remains have also been found at three other archaeological sites within 10 km of Swan Point.

In their study, University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Audrey Rowe and colleagues conducted a detailed isotopic analysis of a complete tusk and genetic analyses of remains of many other individual mammoths to piece together their subject’s movements and relationships to other mammoths at the same site and in the vicinity.

They determined that the Swan Point area was likely a meeting ground for at least two closely related, but distinct matriarchal herds.

“This is a fascinating story that shows the complexity of life and behavior of mammoths, for which we have very little insight,” said Dr. Hendrik Poinar, director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University.

The authors sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of eight woolly mammoths found at Swan Point and other nearby sites to determine if and how they were related.

They also performed isotopic analyses of the 14,000-year-old tusk of Élmayuujey’eh (or Elma) from Swan Point.

“Mammoth tusks grew like tree trunks, with thin layers marking steady growth and isotopes from different elements — oxygen and strontium, for example — provided information about the subject’s movement,” they said.

“The female mammoth was approximately 20 years old when she died, having spent much of her life in a relatively small area of the Yukon.”

“As she grew older, she traveled over 1,000 km in just three years, settling in interior Alaska and dying near a closely related baby and juvenile, for which she may have been the matriarchal lead.”

“Mammoths are presumed to behave much like modern elephants, with females and juveniles living in close-knit matriarchal herds and mature males traveling alone or in looser male groups, often with larger home ranges than the females.”

The team extracted and analyzed ancient DNA from the tusk of Élmayuujey’eh, which revealed the mammoth was closely related to the other mammoths from the same site and more distantly related to others from a nearby site called Holzman.

“Early human populations, with a deep understanding of mammoths and the technology to hunt them, took advantage of mammoth habitats, using scavenged and hunted remains as raw materials for tools,” the researchers said.

“In addition to the direct impact of hunting on mammoth populations, human activity and settlements may have also indirectly affected mammoth populations by curtailing their movements and their access to preferred grazing areas.”

“For early people in Alaska, those localities were important for observation and appreciation, and also a source of potential food,” Dr. Poinar said.

The collected data suggests that people structured their seasonal hunting camps based on where mammoths gathered and may have played an indirect role in their local extinction in Alaska, which was compounded by a rapidly changing climate and changing vegetation.

Such deprivations did not appear to have affected the subject mammoth, though.

“She was a young adult in the prime of life,” said Professor Matthew Wooller, director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and researcher at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Her isotopes showed 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.”

“This is more than looking at stone tools or remains and trying to speculate. This analysis of lifetime movements can really help with our understanding of how people and mammoths lived in these areas,” said Dr. Tyler Murchie, a postdoctoral researcher at McMaster University.

“We can continue to significantly expand our genetic understanding of the past, and to address more nuanced questions of how mammoths moved, how they were related to one another and how that all connects to ancient people.”

A paper on the findings was published this week in the journal Science Advances.

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Audrey G. Rowe et al. 2024. A female woolly mammoth’s lifetime movements end in an ancient Alaskan hunter-gatherer camp. Science Advances 10 (3); doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adk0818

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