For four years now, Clement Bataille, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and several other researchers have been trying to learn more about the mammoths that lived several thousand years ago in Alaska.
“They're still a fascinating, majestic species, so they're fascinating to study,” admits Mr. Bataille in an interview with The Canadian Press.
After delving into the life of the male specimen, “Keck,” who lived 17,000 years ago, the researchers turned to “Elma,” a female whose age dates back to approximately 14,000 years.
What caught researchers' attention this time was that the Elma fossil was found in the same place where humans were supposed to set up camp at around the same time, raising the hypothesis that these humans were lured to North America on the trail of mammoths.
“We know that humans arrived in Alaska about 13,500 years ago. “The first site where there is absolutely conclusive evidence of humans is Swan Point, and that is where we find this tusk of this female, Elma,” Mr. Bataille notes.
“The interesting thing about how humans got to Alaska at this time is that all of their villages and settlements were located in places where there were a lot of mammoths,” he continues.
“These are areas with large numbers of mammoths. So, our hypothesis is that humans were probably attracted, as they were passing from Asia to North America by the Bering land bridge – which was emerging at that time – by all this large amount of mammoths that They were present in North America, especially in this region where their number was greater than anywhere else.
We know that humans hunted mammoths, because they already did so in Europe and Eurasia. Without being able to confirm this, researchers also put forward the hypothesis that Elma was killed by hunter-gatherers.
First, his fossil was found where there had also been a camp. Then, she was healthy when she died at the age of 20 — “which is still very young for a mammoth,” Mr. Bataille said. They were then found near the fossils of two baby mammoths, including a baby, who were part of the same herd.
“So there are still three very strong coincidences that tell us that it is very likely that this female and these two young mammoths were captured and brought back to the camp,” Mr. Bataille confirms.
Impact of climate change
The researchers also analyzed the impact of climate change on mammoths, which became extinct 11,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Americas.
Indeed, when comparing the lives of Keck and Elma, they notice many differences.
“What we saw was that this male mammoth moved dramatically over much greater distances than this female, sometimes with movements of up to 300 or 400 kilometres,” says Clément Bataille.
Keck's life occurred 17,000 years ago before the glacial meltdown. This makes Beringia, which separates Russia and Alaska, a “large tundra plain,” “a really ideal environment for mammoths,” according to the researcher.
But Elma, who lived 14,000 years ago, didn't have it that easy, because her life took place during the thaw, as valleys turned into wetlands.
“Our hypothesis would be that they are still very limited by climate. These are animals that have been highly adapted to open tundra environments. When tundra areas disappear or become fragmented, it is more difficult for them to move through that area, and it is likely that they will be more “Sensitive to hunting and more sensitive to extinction as well.”
Mr. Patai and his colleagues are continuing their work to better understand what happened at the end of the last ice age, when many species, including mammoths, became extinct.
Their research on Elma was published in the journal Advancement of science.
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