Russian paleontologists were stunned by the discovery of an almost complete mammoth skeleton on Kotelny Island, located in the Arctic close to the Siberian coast, which had thousands of cut marks on it. These marks, as well as stone objects embedded within some of the fossils, indicate that the ancient beast might have been slain and butchered by human hunters.
The extraordinary mammoth skeleton came to the attention of Russian researchers completely by accident. In 2019, Innokenty Pavlov, a field worker and taxidermist, was on an expedition in the north of Kotelny Island — part of the New Siberian Islands in the eastern Arctic and home to a major Russian military base — to dig up the carcass of another known mammoth in the area. However, the melting snow flooded the site of the carcass, making excavations impossible. But as luck had it, they were informed by local fishermen that there was another mammoth site, just 10 kilometers away.
Indeed, the site proved to be genuine, and it is here that Pavlov, along with researchers led by Albert Protopopov, head of the Department for Study of Mammoth Fauna, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Yakutia, found the intriguing mammoth bones.
Immediately, the researchers noticed marks on the bones and began to wonder whether these were evidence of human hunting.
All of the bones from the almost complete skeleton bore marks on them, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they were made by human cutting tools. Scavengers biting the carcass, as well as natural processes such as the shifting of sediments and geological pressure may also explain the cut marks.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Olga Potapova, a paleontologist with The Mammoth Site in South Dakota and an associate researcher with the Academy of Sciences of Yakutia and the Russian Academy of Sciences, makes a case that these marks were anthropogenic. She says that the fossils have a large number of long and very thin cuts clustered in a parallel fashion. Cuts made by natural processes look more like random scratches.
Researchers also found embedded stone objects in the tusk, as well as a bone object lodged into the scapula (shoulder bone). These may have been the remnants of a weapon made from bone, Potapova says.
The skull of the mammoth was broken in a similar fashion to the skulls of 32 mammoths from a site in the Russian Plain known as the “Yudinovo” site. Previously, researchers concluded that the mammoth skulls were fractured by human hunters who consumed the animals’ brains for food.
But in the absence of adjacent human artifacts or some other kind of direct evidence of human intervention, the contention that the Kotelny mammoth was butchered by human hands is still speculative.
To learn more, the researchers hope to return to the island soon, where they hope to uncover evidence of Paleolithic hunters at the site.