Domestication of dogs and the culling of mammoths

Adjunct Professor at Penn State, Pat Shipman, believes that the abrupt appearance of large numbers of dead mammoths may have been caused by early humans hunting with the first domesticated dogs.

Spectacular archaeological sites yielding stone tools and extraordinary numbers of dead mammoths — some containing the remains of hundreds of individuals — suddenly became common in central and eastern Eurasia between about 45,000 and 15,000 years ago, although mammoths previously had been hunted by humans and their extinct relatives and ancestors for at least a million years.

A fragment of a large bone, probably from a mammoth, Pat Shipman reports, was placed in this dog's mouth shortly after death. This finding suggests the animal was according special mortuary treatment, perhaps acknowledging its role in mammoth hunting. The fossil comes from the site of Predmosti, in the Czech republic, and is about 27,000 years B.P. old. This object is one of three canid skulls from Predmosti that were identified as dogs based on analysis of their morphology. Photo credit: Anthropos Museum, Brno, the Czech Republic, courtesy of Mietje Germonpre.

A fragment of a large bone, probably from a mammoth, Pat Shipman reports, was placed in this dog’s mouth shortly after death. This finding suggests the animal was according special mortuary treatment, perhaps acknowledging its role in mammoth hunting. The fossil comes from the site of Predmosti, in the Czech republic, and is about 27,000 years B.P. old. This object is one of three canid skulls from Predmosti that were identified as dogs based on analysis of their morphology. Photo credit: Anthropos Museum, Brno, the Czech Republic, courtesy of Mietje Germonpre.

“One of the greatest puzzles about these sites is how such large numbers of mammoths could have been killed with the weapons available during that time,” Shipman said.

Surprisingly, Shipman said, she found that “few of the mortality patterns from these mammoth deaths matched either those from natural deaths among modern elephants killed by droughts or by culling operations with modern weapons that kill entire family herds of modern elephants at once.” This discovery suggested to Shipman that a successful new technique for killing such large animals had been developed and its repeated use over time could explain the mysterious, massive collections of mammoth bones in Europe.

The key to Shipman’s new hypothesis is recent work by a team led by Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, which has uncovered evidence that some of the large carnivores at these sites were early domesticated dogs, not wolves as generally had been assumed. Then, with this evidence as a clue, Shipman used information about how humans hunt with dogs to formulate a series of testable predictions about these mammoth sites.

Shipman’s research has been published in the journal Quaternary International and is entitled “How do you kill 86 mammoths?”

For more information about this research and related studies, read the full Penn State media statement.

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