An international team of archaeologists led by the University of Exeter has discovered a new circular mammoth-bone feature at the Paleolithic site of Kostenki 11 in Eastern Europe.
Circular structures made from mammoth bone associated with late Upper Paleolithic artifacts and dating to 22,000 years ago and later are found widely across Eastern Europe. About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the central East European Plain.
These features are characterized by a concentrated ring of mammoth bones several meters in diameter, and are almost always surrounded by a series of large pits that are interpreted variously as evidence for the storage of food or bone fuel, rubbish disposal or simply as quarries for loess used to construct the features.
Kostenki 11, which is adjacent to the Don River near Voronezh, is one of the best known sites associated with mammoth-bone structures.
Also known as Anosovka 2, this site was discovered by a team of Soviet archaeologists led by A.N. Rogachev in 1951.
Two mammoth-bone features were unearthed at the site during excavations in the 1960-70s.
“Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment,” said Dr. Alexander Pryor, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter.
“What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter — rare in this period of extreme cold.”
“These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last Ice Age.”
“Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water.”
Discovered in 2014, the third mammoth-bone structure is located approximately 20 m west and slightly upslope of the first structure.
Three further excavation seasons followed, exposing a well-preserved circular feature in association with three large pits.
The mammoth-bone circle is approximately 22,500 years old and is large, with a diameter of 12.5 m. The bones form a continuous circle that has no obvious entrance.
The researchers found a total of 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls as well as small numbers of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones.
They also found the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure.
This shows people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel, and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants during the Ice Age. The plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric.
More than 50 small charred seeds were also found — the remains of plants growing locally or possibly food remains from cooking and eating.
Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimeters in size, debris left behind the site’s inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.
“The last Ice Age, which swept northern Europe between 75,000-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23,000-18,000 years ago,” the scientists said.
“Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around minus 20 degrees Celsius or colder.”
“Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival. Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.”
“Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time.”
“Our new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.”
The findings were published in the journal Antiquity.
Alexander J.E. Pryor et al. The chronology and function of a new circular mammoth-bone structure at Kostenki 11. Antiquity, published online March 17, 2020; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.7
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