Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of mammoths reveal clues about Ice Age

March 16, 2020

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths have revealed clues about how ancient communities survived Europe's ice age.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain.

New analysis shows the bones at one site are more than 20,000 years old, making it the oldest such circular structure built by humans discovered in the region. The bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards, and the circle was then hidden by sediment and is now a foot below current surface level.

The majority of the bones found at the site investigated, in the Russian Plains, are from mammoths. A total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior. Small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

Archaeologists from the University of Exeter have also found for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure, situated just outside the modern village of Kostenki, about 500km south of Moscow. This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric. More than 50 small charred seeds were also found - the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.

Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built. Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder. Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time. The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.
-end-


University of Exeter

Related Ice Age Articles from Brightsurf:

Ice discharge in the North Pacific set off series of climate events during last ice age
Repeated catastrophic ice discharges from western North America into the North Pacific contributed to, and perhaps triggered, hemispheric-scale changes in the Earth's climate during the last ice age.

Ice Age manatees may have called Texas home
Manatees don't live year-round in Texas, but these gentle sea cows are known to occasionally visit, swimming in for a 'summer vacation' and returning to warmer waters for the winter.

Sea ice triggered the Little Ice Age, finds a new study
A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.

How cold was the ice age? Researchers now know
A University of Arizona-led team has nailed down the temperature of the last ice age -- the Last Glacial Maximum of 20,000 years ago - to about 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

What causes an ice age to end?
Research by an international team helps to resolve some of the mystery of why ice ages end by establishing when they end.

New study results consistent with dog domestication during ice age
Analysis of Paleolithic-era teeth from a 28,500-year-old fossil site in the Czech Republic provides supporting evidence for two groups of canids -- one dog-like and the other wolf-like - with differing diets, which is consistent with the early domestication of dogs.

Did an extraterrestrial impact trigger the extinction of ice-age animals?
Based on research at White Pond near Elgin, South Carolina, University of South Carolina archaeologist Christopher Moore and 16 colleagues present new evidence of a controversial theory that suggests an extraterrestrial body crashing to Earth almost 13,000 years ago caused the extinction of many large animals and a probable population decline in early humans.

Dust in ice cores leads to new knowledge on the advancement of the ice before the ice age
Working with the ice core ReCap, drilled close to the coast in East Greenland, postdoc Marius Simonsen wondered why the dust particles from the interglacial period -- the warmer period of time between the ice ages -- were several times bigger than the dust particles from the ice age.

Ice-sheet variability during the last ice age from the perspective of marine sediment
By using marine sediment cores from Northwestern Australia, a Japanese team led by National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and the University of Tokyo revealed that the global ice sheet during the last ice age had changed in shorter time scale than previously thought.

What triggered the 100,000-year Ice Age cycle?
A slowing of ocean circulation in the waters surrounding Antarctica drastically altered the strength and more than doubled the length of global ice ages following the mid-Pleistocene transition, a new study finds.

Read More: Ice Age News and Ice Age Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.