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Where Woolly Mammoths Roamed, Humans Trailed Close Behind

The tale of one female woolly mammoth, written in the layers of her tusk, has shown researchers how the extinct megafauna species moved across Alaska with humans right on their heels.

By Jack Knudson
Jan 17, 2024 7:00 PMJan 17, 2024 7:01 PM
Three mammoths being watched by a family of ancient Alaskans
Artwork shows three mammoths being watched by a family of ancient Alaskans from the dunes near the Swan Point archaeological site, a seasonal hunting camp occupied 14,000 years ago. (Credit: Image by Julius Csostonyi)


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As Woolly Mammoths trekked across Alaska thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers followed their every step. New research on the journey of a 14,000-year-old mammoth named Élmayųujey’eh — Elma, for short — has further illustrated the travels of beast and human alike throughout this prehistoric expanse.

Researchers at the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility learned of Elma’s odyssey by analyzing isotopes from her tusk, which was first identified in 2009 at the Swan Point archaeological site in Interior Alaska. Her life and its connection to human activity have been described in a recent paper published in Science Advances

How do we Know the Mammoths' Migration Patterns?

Elma’s tusk, according to a press release, worked remarkably well as a gateway into her past. This is because tusks grow as the species ages; when a tusk is split lengthwise, researchers see visible layers that distinguish different slices in the chronology of a mammoth’s life.

Samples collected along the tusk contain isotopes, which provide chemical markers of an animal’s diet and location. The results from Elma’s tusk unraveled the extent of her lifelong trip, a roughly 1,000-kilometer endeavor across Alaska and northwestern Canada. Other mammoths — including one previously studied male that lived 3,000 years earlier — embarked on similar routes, giving insight on their long-term movement patterns. 

Read More: Lost Genes Show How Woolly Mammoths Evolved

Did Humans Kill Woolly Mammoths?

Elma and other mammoths, though, didn’t inhabit these lands alone. They caught the attention of itinerant humans who formed settlements in areas where mammoths gathered. At some point during her passage, Elma encountered these humans. 

“She wandered around the densest region of archaeological sites in Alaska,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Ph.D. student and lead author Audrey Rowe, in a press release. “It looks like these early people were establishing hunting camps in areas that were frequented by mammoths.”

When the tusk and the remains of two related juvenile mammoths were excavated in 2009, they appeared alongside evidence of campfires, the use of stone tools, and butchered remains of other game. The discovery of this evidence “indicates a pattern consistent with human hunting of mammoths,” noted archaeologist and UAF anthropology professor Ben Potter in a press release. 

Elma — otherwise healthy and 20 years old at the time of her death — likely met her end at the hands of hunters. 

“She was a young adult in the prime of life. Her isotopes showed she was not malnourished and that she died in the same season as the seasonal hunting camp at Swan Point where her tusk was found,” said director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and senior author Matthew Wooller in a press release. 

Read More: What Killed Off the Woolly Mammoths?

Did Climate Change Kill Woolly Mammoths?

During her life, Elma also experienced changing environmental conditions as the grassy steppes in Interior Alaska began to convert into more forested terrain. Blame for the extinction of woolly mammoths and other megafauna has fallen on both humans and climate change. Humans could have accelerated their extinction, but the warming of Earth that marked the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago played a central role. As icebergs melted, mammoths’ habitats shrunk and the vegetation they ate became scarce. 

“Climate change at the end of the ice age fragmented mammoths’ preferred open habitat, potentially decreasing movement and making them more vulnerable to human predation,” Potter said. 

Read More: Are Woolly Mammoths a Solution to the Hairy Problem of Climate Change?

When Did Woolly Mammoths Go Extinct?

The exact time of woolly mammoths’ disappearance continues to be discussed. They were commonly thought to have faced extinction upwards of 10,000 years ago, but some of the last remaining populations survived well into the Holocene — the current geological epoch that spans the last 11,700 years. A changing environment forced the mammoths to move to isolated places like Wrangel Island in Siberia and St. Paul Island in Alaska. 

A 2021 study published in Nature supported the idea of a more recent extinction. The study examined DNA evidence that indicated the presence of mammoths as recently as 4,000 years ago. 

Even though mammoths faded away after this point, they still draw endless attention in the world of science and entertain the imagination of so many people who admire the tusked, elephantine creature.

Read More: Will Woolly Mammoths Ever Make a Comeback?

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