The chemical fingerprints in the tusk, combined with DNA analysis of the bones of two young mammoths found in the area, create a compelling case that the people who lived in Pleistocene-era Alaska hunted the giant animals, according to research led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists. The findings are detailed in the journal Science Advances.
The mammoth was discovered in 2009 and named Élmay?ujey’eh, or Elma for short. The name, bestowed by the Healy Lake Tribal Council of Interior Alaska, translates to something not beautiful but very striking in appearance.
Found along with Elma’s tusk were remains of two juvenile mammoths – the ribs that held meat known to be used elsewhere by ancient humans. They died near a spot along the Tanana River known as Swan Point, which is the earliest confirmed human habitation site in Alaska. Isotope analysis of the tusk shows a life’s journey that began in the vicinity of ancient human settlements in Canada.
Though there is not a “smoking gun” showing that Elma was killed by hunters, there is a “preponderance of data” supporting that conclusion, said Matthew Wooller, a coauthor and director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at UAF, where the chemical analysis was conducted. Elma’s journey started in the vicinity of known sites of ancient human habitation in Canada and ended abruptly in the vicinity of a known human habitation site in Alaska, where campsites hold evidence of hunting in general, such as remains of other animals and blades typically used in hunting. “So it’s just uncanny to us,” Wooler said.
“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 senior author Matthew Wooller, who is director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and a professor at UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
The era in which Elma lived may have compounded the challenges posed by the relatively recent appearance of humans. The grass- and shrub-dominated steppe landscape that had been common in Interior Alaska was beginning to shift toward more forested terrain.
“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.