by Brian Handwerk
The remains of the
newly discovered structure.
(A. E. Dudin)
of such an
remains a big
A jaw-dropping example of
Ice Age architecture has been unearthed on Russia's forest steppe:
a huge, circular
structure built with the bones of at least 60 woolly mammoths.
But exactly why
hunter-gatherers enduring the frigid realities of life 25,000 years
ago would construct the 40-foot diameter building is a fascinating
"Clearly a lot of
time and effort went into building this structure so it was
obviously important to the people that made it for some reason,"
Alexander Pryor, an
archaeologist at the University of Exeter (U.K.).
He is the lead author of
a new study (The
Chronology and Function of a New Circular Mammoth-bone structure at
Kostenki 11) published this week in the journal Antiquity describing
the find at
Kostenki, a place where many
important Paleolithic sites lie clustered around the Don River.
The ancient builders did leave some clues.
Fires once burned within
the structure and food scraps, including vegetables, remain.
Several pits containing
mammoth bones lie just outside of the bone circle and may suggest
"You obviously get a
lot of meat from a mammoth," Pryor said, "so the idea that there
were food processing and food storage activities going on at the
site is something that we want to investigate more."
To some, though, the
grandeur of the structure suggests more than practical significance.
"People have also
speculated a lot about a likely ritual element to this and it's
really hard to say what that might have been," Pryor adds.
"Ritual is embedded
in human lives in all sorts of ways.
The fact they might have
designed a structure of this type as part of both their ritual
and their sustenance activities is very reasonable."
Location of the mammoth bone structure
in modern-day Russia
(Courtesy of Pryor et. al.)
Mammoth-bone buildings are well-known to archaeologists.
Similar structures have
been found across Eastern Europe, albeit on a much smaller scale, a
few meters in diameter. These sites, including others found at
Kostenki during the 1950s and '60s, date back as far as 22,000
generally considered them to be dwellings or "mammoth houses" that
helped their builders cope with frigid temperatures near the nadir
of the last Ice Age.
The new structure (first
discovered at Kostenki in 2014) is 3,000 years older.
"What a site!" says
Penn State University anthropologist Pat Shipman, who wasn't
involved in the research.
"I am completely
intrigued as these remarkable finds differ meaningfully from
previously discovered ones and can be more carefully and fully
studied with modern techniques."
The site stands out most
obviously for its scale.
"The size of the
structure makes it exceptional among its kind, and building it
would have been time-consuming," says
Marjolein Bosch, a
zoo-archaeologist at the University of Cambridge.
"This implies that it
was meant to last, perhaps as a landmark, a meeting place, a
place of ceremonial importance, or a place to return to when the
conditions grew so harsh that shelter was needed," Bosch was not
involved with the new research on this 'truly exceptional find'
but has personally visited the site.
Indeed, the structure's
sheer size makes it an unlikely everyday home.
"I cannot possibly
imagine how they would have roofed over this structure," Pryor
The smaller mammoth
houses feature more definite cooking hearths, and they contain the
remains of reindeer, horse and fox, which suggests the people in
them were living on whatever they could find in the area.
The new mammoth bone
structure lacks evidence of other animal remains.
woolly mammoth remains and that is one of the
interesting things about it," Pryor said.
"With no other animal
bones, this doesn't look much like a dwelling where people lived
for a while," Shipman added.
Close up of the structure,
featuring long bones,
jaw (top middle) and
articulated vertebrae (pointed out by excavator)
Intriguingly, the new
structure is the first of its kind to yield evidence that its
occupants burnt wood inside and not just bone.
"It's the first time
anyone's found large pieces of charcoal inside one of these
structures. So it does show that trees were in the environment,"
Tree ring widths in the
charcoal are narrow, suggesting the trees probably struggled to
survive in that landscape.
suggested that even on the Ice Age's arid steppes, coniferous trees
would have endured in forests stretching along riversides like those
close to Kostenki - a draw for people looking to survive.
Still, if people weren't living in the structure, then why did they
"Fire in the past can
be seen as a tool much the same as chipped stone implements and
worked bones are," Bosch says.
Fires provided heat and
light, barbecued and roasted food, dried meat for storage and
processed glues for stone-tipped tools.
"Here, the fires were
lit inside a structure and its use as a light source seems
intuitive," she says. "If the authors are correct in their
assumption of its use as a place for food storage, it may also
have been used to dry meat."
There may be ways to test
Finding drops of fat on
the floor, for example, could show that meat was dried over the
flames. The local diet also appears to have featured a smorgasbord
By using water and sieve
flotation techniques, the team discovered pieces of plant tissue
among the charcoal.
"This is the first
time we have a plant food component discovered in any of these
structures," Pryor says.
His team hasn't
identified specific species yet but notes that the tissues are like
those found in modern roots and tubers such as carrots, potatoes or
The new structure seen from above
The astounding assemblage of bones from more than 60 mammoths raises
Where did they all
Scientists aren't sure if
the animals were hunted, scavenged from sites of mass deaths or some
combination of the two.
"There must be
something about the topography of the site that makes it a place
where, over and over, herds of mammoths are coming through and
can be killed or will be killed naturally, like at a river
crossing," says Penn State's Pat Shipman.
"I can imagine no way
[these] people could possibly kill 60 mammoths at a time,
proboscideans (the order of
mammals to which both mammoths and living elephants belong) are
smart and catch on if members of their herd are being killed,
even with modern automatic weapons."
Further studies of the
mammoth bones will yield more clues about their source.
Some were arranged in the
same order and position as they were in the skeleton.
"This means that the
bones were brought to the site as body part which some soft
tissue (skin, muscle, and tendons) still attached," Bosch said.
"Therefore, they must
have been transported before carnivores had the chance to eat
and clean the bones. This implies that the builders had early
access to the mammoth remains."
Pat Shipman adds:
"I want to know if
the bones have been processed or transported or if we are
looking at whole skeletons or carcasses piled up for future use.
Moving a dead mammoth
cannot have been easy even if it was largely de-fleshed."
However the mammoths got here, their presence was crucial to the
humans living in the area.
Lioudmila Lakovleva of the
French National Centre for Scientific Research notes that,
settlement shows several mammoth bone dwellings, walls,
enclosure, pits, working areas, hearths, dumping areas and
butchering areas," she says.
Kostenki was a focus for
human settlement throughout the last ice age, Alexander Pryor
"It's a huge
investment in this particular place in the landscape."
His team has some
theories as to why.
that there were natural freshwater springs in the area which
would have remained liquid throughout the year," he says.
"That warmed water
would have drawn animals, including mammoth, and in turn
attracted humans to the same spot."
While the site raises
many intriguing questions, Pryor said that it already tells us
something certain about the people who built it.
"This project is
giving us a real insight into how our human ancestors adapted to
climate change, to the harshest parts of the
last glacial cycle,
and adapted to use the materials that they had around them," he
"It's really a story
of survival in the face of adversity."