The elephant in the gloom

A major break-through on prehistoric hunting in North America is confirmed by a study of Sequim's Manis mastodon bone and spear point.

A major break-through on prehistoric hunting in North America is confirmed by a study of Sequim's Manis mastodon bone and spear point.

Quentin Mackie has the scoop on the Manis Mastodon breakthrough at his website Northwest Coast Archaeology, an enigma, as he puts it, he can contemplate with a single malt in his pajamas as he gazes across the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward Sequim, where elephants once roamed and Northwesterners once hunted them.

The find, published in Science, confirms that humans were hunting mastodons in North America almost 14,000 years ago, nearly 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. And they were using pre-Clovis technologies, in this case evidence of a bone projectile tip embedded in a mastodon rib has been confirmed.

According to The Guardian, researcher Michael Walters of Texas A&M confirmed early observations with more sophisticated tests:

Waters placed the mastodon in an industrial-grade CT scanner at the University of Texas. "It's more powerful than a hospital one. They're taking slices every 0.06mm, half the thickness of a piece of paper," he says. "The 3D rendering clearly showed that the object was sharpened to a tip. It was clearly the end of a bone projectile point."

Waters analysed collagen protein from the mastodon's rib and tusks to confirm that the animal died about 13,800 years ago. ... He also extracted DNA from the rib and the spear point. Analysis showed that both belonged to a mastodon, suggesting the animal had been killed with a weapon fashioned from the remains of its own kind.

Mackie has some questions, details, and archaeological context about the new study. One is that the tests confirm that the mastodon died after being wounded; there is no sign of recovery, which supports the idea that the Manis mastodon was killed and butchered by hunters. Another interesting bit: could such narrow projectile points really penetrate such a massive amounts of meat (a foot of it, covered by hair and hide). Evidence, Mackie says, suggests yes, indeed they can. 

Ancient hunters were known to use spear-throwers (atlatls). A few years ago, I had a chance to learn how to use one during a cultural resources training, but I could not throw a projectile hard enough to penetrate Jell-o. Still, prehistoric hunters were adept, the atlatl deadly in other hands. It was known to be able to pierce Spanish armor. Researchers believe the point may have been from a lance that was thrust into the beast, perhaps from above, a known method of hunting large game.

The findings suggest not only that there was earlier and more widespread hunting than some previous theories have suggested, but also that the destruction of pre-historic mega-fauna might not have been due to, as The Guardian phrases it, a ""Clovis blitzkrieg," but rather to more extensive hunting with earlier technologies than previously supposed.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.