The migration of the earliest peoples of Alaska was associated with the movements of the woolly mammoth

Julius Sotoni

An illustrator's rendering shows the relationship between a family of woolly mammoths now found in Swan Point, Alaska, with a family of hunters.

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Early human settlements in what is now Alaska were closely tracked with the movements of a female woolly mammoth that lived 14,000 years ago, according to a new study. During its lifetime, the animal ranged about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from northwestern Canada to interior Alaska.

The discovery sheds light on the relationship between the prehistoric giants and the first humans to cross the Bering Land Bridge, suggesting that humans may have known their seasonal hunting camps as gathering woolly mammoths.

Using a new tool for isotope analysis, an ancient tusk and a map of archaeological sites in Alaska, researchers from the US and Canada have established a link between the two species. The tusk belonged to a woolly mammoth, later named Élmayųujey'eh or Elma for short. This model was discovered in 2009 Swan Point Archaeological Site In central Alaska.

Lead author Audrey Rowe, a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the research began after the arrival of a “cutting edge” high-precision instrument at the institution. Alaska Stable Isotope Facility It breaks down samples to analyze strontium isotopes — chemical tracers that reveal details of an animal's life.

Rowe's consultant, Matthew Wooler, used the same method to identify the movements of adult male mammoths. Paper published in August 2021. Wooler, the study's senior study author, is a professor in the university's College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and director of the Isotope Facility.

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Karen Spalletta, one of the co-authors of the new study, took a sample from a mammoth tusk found at Alaska's Swan Point archaeological site. He is the deputy director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility.

Strontium is a stable isotope produced when the mineral rubidium breaks down, a highly reactive metal. It's a slow process with a half-life of 4 billion years, Rowe said. As rubidium decays, it changes first to radiogenic strontium 87 and, years later, to stable strontium 86.

Where the mammoths roamed, the rocks broke down into soil, plants grew, the animals ate those plants, and their tusks showed high levels of strontium in each layer of ivory.

Woolly mammoth tusks grew at a steady daily rate, and the earliest days of the animal's life were recorded on the tips of the tusks. Layers are clearly visible when a tusk specimen is sectioned lengthwise.

That analysis can be used to track mineral and strontium levels in rocks around Alaska.

“The US Geological Survey has done a good job of mapping rocks in Alaska,” Rowe said.

Wooler suggested to the team that local archaeological site locations be superimposed over Elma's movements.

“Look,” Rowe said, “you have a lot of overlap between the thickest areas of late Pleistocene archaeological sites in Alaska, Elma, over the areas that our mammoth used in its lifetime.”

The new isotopic data joins data sets generated from radiocarbon and DNA analysis and the discovery at Swan Point to create a more complete picture of life 14,000 years ago.

“She was a juvenile in the prime of life. Her isotopes showed that 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,” Wooler said in a statement.

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Other researchers agreed. “This study significantly advances our understanding of mammoth behavior and provides interesting clues about the relationship between humans and mammoths,” said Love Dalen, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden. Dalen was not involved in the new research.

These revelations may inspire more scientists to seek new combinations of research tools to improve their understanding of science and history.

“Overall, I think the paper is a good example of how using a combination of different molecular tools, such as isotope, DNA and radiocarbon analyses, can provide new and novel insights into prehistory,” Dalen said.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Scientific advances.

New evidence advances understanding of the early relationship between woolly mammoths and humans.

“(Elma) wandered through a dense area of ​​archaeological sites in Alaska,” Rowe said in a statement. “These early people seem to establish hunting camps in areas frequented by mammoths.”

The research also raised what Rowe, lead researcher, thought was the image that comes to mind when thinking of each species individually.

A study committee was appointed Natural history painter Julius Sotoni To create a digital image of the two species. The final image included the three woolly mammoths found in the Swan Point area, but instead of depicting humans as aggressive predators surrounding their prey, Rowe insisted that the artist show a family instead.

“These people were just like us, but we only see the aggressive hunting periods of their lives,” he said. Poachers had to use “sophisticated” technology to kill the mammals “and it really took a lot of skill.”

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Rowe wanted the image of a woman, man, and children looking at mammoths to demonstrate that “these people spend tons of time teaching their kids how to do everything.”

Jenna Schneier An Anchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer, editor, and audio producer who focuses (mostly) on science, art, and travel.

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