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Discovery in paleontologist’s backyard reveals clues to early humans of North America

Butchering marks can be seen on the mammoth ribs. The top rib shows a fracture from blunt force impact, the middle rib shows a puncture wound and the bottom rib shows chopping marks.
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Battle marks can be seen on the mammoth ribs. The upper rib shows a blunt force fracture, the middle rib shows a puncture wound and the lower rib shows cut marks. (Timothy Rowe et al., University of Texas at Austin)

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AUSTIN, Texas – The surprise discovery of mammoth fossils in a paleontologist’s backyard has led to an even more unexpected find.

The roughly 37,000-year-old remains of a female mammoth and her calf show clear signs of slaughter and provide new evidence that humans may have arrived in North America much earlier than thought.

Paleontologist Timothy Rowe first learned about the fossils in 2013, when a neighbor noticed something sticking out of a mound on a property Rowe owned in New Mexico.

Upon closer inspection, Rowe found a tusk, a crushed mammoth’s skull, and other bones that appeared intentionally broken. He believed it was the spot where two mammoths had been slaughtered.

“What we have is amazing,” Rowe said in a statement. “It’s not a charismatic place with a beautiful skeleton lying on its side. It’s all broken. But that’s the story.”

Rowe, a professor at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences at Austin, is an expert in vertebrate paleontology and doesn’t typically study mammoths or early humans. However, based on where it was found, he couldn’t help but work on the research.

Two six-week excavations took place at the site in 2015 and 2016, but analysis in the lab has taken much longer and is ongoing, Rowe said. He is the lead author of a new study that provides an analysis of the site and its impact, published in the journal Frontiers in ecology and evolution in July.


What we have is amazing. It’s not a charismatic place with a beautiful skeleton lying on its side. It’s all broken. But that’s the story.

–Timothy Rowe, paleontologist


“I have yet to fully process the cosmic coincidence of this page showing up in my backyard,” Rowe wrote in an email.

Analyzing the site

Several finds at the site paint a portrait of what took place there thousands of years ago, including bone tools, evidence of a fire, broken bones and other evidence of human slaughter of animals.

Long mammoth bones fashioned into disposable blades were used to dissect the animal carcasses before a fire helped melt their fat.

According to the study, fractures caused by blunt force trauma can be seen in the bones. There were no stone tools at the site, but researchers did find bone flaking knives with worn edges.

A chemical analysis of the sediment around the mammoth bones showed that the fire was sustained and controlled and was not caused by wildfire or a lightning strike. There was also evidence of powdered bones, as well as burnt remains of small animals, including birds, fish, rodents, and lizards.

Close-up of the pile of bones during the excavation.  This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, a molar, bone fragments, and chunks of rock is a heap of rubbish from the slaughtered mammoths.  It was kept under the skull and tusks of the adult mammoth.
Close-up of the pile of bones during the excavation. This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, a molar, bone fragments, and chunks of rock is a heap of rubbish from the slaughtered mammoths. It was kept under the skull and tusks of the adult mammoth. (Photo: Timothy Rowe, University of Texas at Austin)

The research team used CT scans to analyze the bones at the site and found puncture wounds that would have been used to drain fat from ribs and vertebrae. The people who slaughtered the mammoths were thorough, Rowe said.

“I’ve unearthed dinosaurs that were eaten, but the pattern of bone deformity and fracture from human slaughter was unlike anything I’d seen,” Rowe said.

The most surprising detail about the site is that it’s in New Mexico — and previous evidence suggests humans didn’t get there until tens of thousands of years later.

Retracing early human steps

Collagen from the mammoth bones helped researchers determine that the animals were slaughtered at this site between 36,250 and 38,900 years ago. That age range makes the New Mexico site one of the oldest created by ancient humans in North America, researchers said.

Scientists have debated for years when early humans first arrived in North America.

A recent study of the butchered remains of a mammoth mother and baby shows that humans lived in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than traditionally believed.
A recent study of the butchered remains of a mammoth mother and baby shows that humans lived in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than traditionally believed. (Photo: National Park Service)

The 16,000-year-old Clovis culture is known for the stone tools they left behind. But accumulating evidence suggests that older North American sites were home to a pre-Clovis population that had a different genetic ancestry. The older sites have other evidence, such as surviving footprints, bone tools, or animal bones with cut marks that are more than 16,000 years old.

“Humans have been in the Americas more than twice as long as archaeologists have claimed for many years,” Rowe said. “This site indicates that humans reached global distribution much earlier than previously thought.”


This page indicates that humans reached global distribution much earlier than previously thought.

–Timothy Rowe, paleontologist


The location of the site, which is far to the western interior of North America, suggests the first humans arrived well over 37,000 years ago, according to the study. These early humans probably traveled overland or along coastal routes.

Rowe said he plans to take samples from the site next to look for signs of ancient DNA.

“The team has done excellent and thorough work that represents frontier research,” said retired Texas State University professor Mike Collins in a publication. “It’s about following a path that others can learn from and follow.”

Collins was not involved in the study. He led research at the Gault archaeological site, which contains both Clovis and Pre-Clovis artifacts, near Austin, Texas.

“I think the deeper meaning behind the early human achievements of global spread is an important new question to explore,” Rowe said. “Our new techniques have provided nuanced evidence of a human presence in the archaeological record, and I suspect there are other sites of comparable age, or even older, that have gone unrecognized.”

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