Upper Palaeolithic mammoth mega-sites: a dog’s dinner?

The discovery and excavation of Palaeolithic sites with vast quantities of mammoth material is a source of both wonder and considerable academic debate. In particular, the large Upper Palaeolithic localities from eastern Europe with structures made from mammoth bones. However, despite a long history of research the actual process of how these remains were acquired remains controversial; explanations include, and range, from specialised hunting to scavenging to natural deaths or bone beds. New work published in Quaternary International seeks to provide a statistical approach to understanding how these mammoth remains accumulated.

The author compiled a list of sites with significant quantities of mammoth material and excluded those sites with Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) below 25, leaving a total of 8 sites. This study focussed specifically on teeth and age profiles to explore differences in these profiles as an explanatory factor for site formation. Using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test the study compared the similarity in age profiles between these archaeological sites and with data from modern age profiles of African elephants. The study finds that there were differences between the sites. The author also notes that the studied sites form a chain from west to east perhaps representing the transmission of a specific behaviour focussed on systematic mammoth hunting. It is suggested that this spread of behaviour could have been facilitated by the development of complex weapon technology and, perhaps most interestingly, the use of semi-domesticated wolves. This is largely based on the current genetic data and previously reported on GPN.

Whilst this study offers an intriguing explanation there are several key drawbacks to this work, in its current form. Whilst the title mentions taphonomy this is not discussed at all in enough detail throughout the paper. For example an understanding of the ratio between cranial: post cranial material would help to understand the specific site formation processes and human influences. The limited discussion cannot help when discussing the taphonomy and preservation of other species, including wolves (wild/semi-domestic) at these sites. It is discussed early in the paper that the dating of some of these sites is contentious, particularly with regard to the development of new ultra-filtration methods. Thus, this questions the applicability of the behavioural transmission model as proposed. In addition, using the methodology developed by Mellars and French (2011) to discuss population growth is frought with problems (see Dogandzic and McPherron, 2013), and in particular ignores the specific taphonomy for each site. Finally, the concentration on one specific population of canids from Belgium ignores the debate and discussion about the morphology and earliest domestications of these animals, and it is remarkable how the wide body of literature on this topic (e.g. Larson et al. 2012) is not referred to. Thus, the hypothesis proposed appears, at present, to need further refinement and is built upon somewhat shaky foundations.

This research provides an interesting approach and hypothesis concerning these mammoth mega-sites. Further investigation is required to understand the post cranial taphonomy and the specific site formation processes particularly related to the perceived close relationship between human groups and semi-domesticated wolves.

Full reference: Shimpan, P. (in press) Ho do you kill 86 mammoths? Taphonomic investigations of mammoth megasites. Quaternary Internationalhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2014.04.048

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