September 26, 2022

Butchering marks can be seen on the mammoth ribs. The top rib shows a fracture from blunt force impact, the middle rib shows a puncture wound and the bottom rib shows chopping marks.

Discovery in the backyard of paleontologists reveals evidence of early humans in North America

Signs of slaughter can be seen on the ribs of the mammoth. The upper rib shows a fracture from the impact of the blunt force, the middle rib shows a perforation wound and the lower rib shows chipping marks. (Timothy Rowe et al., University of Texas at Austin)

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AUSTIN, Texas – The surprising discovery of mammoth fossils in a paleontologist’s backyard has led to an even more unexpected discovery.

The remains of a 37,000-year-old female mammoth and her calf show distinctive signs of slaughter, providing new evidence that humans may have arrived in North America much earlier than previously thought.

Paleontologist Timothy Roe first learned about the fossils in 2013 when a neighbor noticed something emerging from a hillside on some of Roe’s New Mexico properties.

Upon closer examination, Roo found a tusk, a shattered giant skull and other bones that seemed to be deliberately broken. It was believed that it was the place where two mammoths were butchered.

“What we have is amazing,” Rowe said in a statement. “It’s not an attractive site with a beautiful skeleton on its side. Everything is broken. But that’s what the story is.”

Rowe, a professor at the University of Texas at the Jackson School of Earth Sciences in Austin, is an expert in vertebrate palaeontology and does not usually study mammoths or early humans. But he can’t help but work on the research because of the location of the find.

Two six-week excavations took place at the site in 2015 and 2016, but analysis in the lab took much longer and is still ongoing, Rowe said. He is the lead author of a new study providing an analysis of the site and its implications, which has been published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution in July.


What we have is amazing. It’s not an attractive location with a pretty skeleton on its side. Everything is set. But this is the story.

– Timothy Rowe, paleontologist


“I have yet to fully address the cosmic coincidence of this site appearing in my backyard,” Rowe wrote in an email.

Site analysis

Several finds at the site paint a picture of what happened there thousands of years ago, including bone tools, evidence of fire, bones bearing fractures, and other signs of animal slaughter by humans.

Long mammoth bones shaped into disposable blades were used to smash animal carcasses before the fire helped melt the fat.

According to the study, fractures from blunt force can be seen in the bones. There were no stone tools at the site, but researchers found peeling knives made of bones with worn edges.

A chemical analysis of the sediment around the mammoth bones showed that the fire was sustained and controlled and not caused by a wildfire or lightning strike. There was also evidence of broken bones as well as the cremated remains of small animals, including birds, fish, rodents, and lizards.

Close-up of a pile of bones during digging.  This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, molars, bone fragments, and gravel is a litter pile of a butchered mammoth.  It was preserved under the skull and tusks of an adult mammoth.
Close-up of a pile of bones during digging. This random mix of ribs, broken skull bones, molars, bone fragments, and gravel is a litter pile of a butchered mammoth. It was preserved under the skull and tusks of an adult mammoth. (Photo: Timothy Rowe, University of Texas at Austin)

The research team used computed tomography to analyze the bones from the site, finding puncture wounds that could have been used to drain fat from the ribs and vertebrae. Roe said the humans who slaughtered the mammoths were meticulous.

“I’ve excavated exhumed dinosaurs, but the pattern of bone disintegration and breaking from human slaughter was unlike anything I’ve seen,” Rowe said.

The most surprising detail about the site is that it’s in New Mexico – and previous evidence suggests that humans didn’t even exist tens of thousands of years later.

Trace the early human steps

Collagen taken from mammoth bones helped researchers determine that the animals were slaughtered at the site between 36,250 and 38,900 years ago. This age group makes the New Mexico site one of the oldest sites built by ancient humans in North America, researchers said.

Scientists have debated for years when the first humans arrived in North America.

A recent study of the remains of a butchered mother and baby mammoth shows that humans lived in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than traditionally believed.
A recent study of the remains of a butchered mother and baby mammoth shows that humans lived in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than traditionally believed. (Photo: National Park Service)

The 16,000-year-old Clovis culture is famous for the stone tools they left behind. But there is a growing amount of evidence to suggest that ancient sites in North America were home to pre-Clovis populations with a different genetic lineage. Ancient sites contain a different type of evidence, such as preserved footprints, bone tools or animal bones with cut marks older than 16,000 years.

“Humans have been in the Americas for more than twice as long as archaeologists have for many years,” Rowe said. “This site indicates that humans achieved global distribution much earlier than previously understood.”


This site indicates that humans achieved global distribution much earlier than previously understood.

– Timothy Rowe, paleontologist


The location of the site, located within the western interior of North America, indicates that early humans arrived 37,000 years ago, according to the study. It is possible that these early humans traveled over land or along coastal roads.

Rowe said he wanted to take samples from the site to look for signs of ancient DNA next.

Mike Collins, a retired professor at Texas State University in Release. “It constitutes a path that others can learn from and follow.”

Collins was not involved in the study. He led research at the Gault archaeological site, which contains both Clovis and pre-Clovis artifacts, near Austin, Texas.

“I think the deeper meaning of man’s early achievement of global distribution is an important new question to explore,” Rowe said. “Our new techniques have provided accurate evidence of human presence in the archaeological record, and I suspect there are other sites of similar or even older ages that have not been recognized.”

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