Today I came across an interesting share in a science group that I follow – an article about a “huge 25,000-yr-old hut” made of mammoth bones. Having really enjoyed Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, of course, I was going to read on.
But alas, the article was disappointing: the headline image didn’t match the story; the apparent construction certainly wasn’t anything resembling a ‘hut’; and (most annoying of all) it talked about researchers finding the remains of carrots, parsnips & potatoes in a 25,000-year-old living site in Russia, at a time before any of these plants had been domesticated¹.
So, what did the authors of the original paper really say?
Alexander Pryor and his colleagues were reporting on research at a site (called Kostenki 11) in Russia. There have been excavations at the site since the 1950s, and in 2014 surveyors found an extremely large circular structure made of mammoth bones, along with three big pits, which has since been excavated. Their paper (Pryor et al., 2020) describes the results of a flotation programme (I’ll explain that below) that was intended to:
Recover ancient plant or other organic remains, including any evidence of plant foods.
Investigate the fuel choices made by the occupants of the site.
Recover any evidence that might contribute to the identification of activity areas within the site, including lithic microdebitage and other cultural remains that would enhance our understanding of site function. [NB “microdebitage” = tiny flakes of stone, produced during the manufacture of stone tools.]
The researchers note that circular features constructed of mammoth bones, accompanied by a series of pits, are common in Eastern Europe, and there were already two such features at Kostnecki 11. While paleoanthropologists have put forward a range of possible functions for the pits, they’ve generally agreed that the circular arrangements of bone are the remains of dwellings.
The latest discovery at Kostnecki is big – about 12.5m in diameter², and there’s no obvious entrance; the bone ring (which includes 64 mammoth skulls and 51 lower jaws) is continuous. Presumably people got in, though, as the team reports a large deposit of burnt bone, charcoal, & soil (i.e. combustion deposits) in one area within the ring. The pits all contained large mammoth bones, and during a previous research season more than 1200 pieces of stone were collected around & within the structure. The new paper reports on what was found in sediment samples from a number of locations on the site, using a technique known as flotation to separate not only those tiny stone flakes but also a range of organic material from the actual sediments.
So, what did they actually find?
The “lithic microdebitage” – 338 pieces <10 mm long, plus a few larger chips (<20 mm). They’d been produced by a combination of knapping using a hammerstone and (probably) retouching of larger pieces using hammers of wood or antler. Most of the tiny flakes were found within the circle, although apparently at much lower densities than has been recorded at other sites. The researchers comment that this relative scarcity of minute flakes is “incongruous” if the big bone circle had been a living site. In fact, they note that this & other features of the site, including “a large-diameter internal area that would have been difficult to roof, and a paucity of evidence for any prey species other than mammoth to provide food and hides for clothing,” suggest that the circle doesn’t mark a dwelling but a site with some other significance to the community that lived there.
There were also small (1-15 mm) pieces of burnt bone & ivory, comprising just over 4 litres in volume, with the largest amounts found in samples from the combustion deposits. There was also a small amount of charcoal. Taken together, Pryor & his colleagues suggest that the bone was being burnt deliberately, either as fuel or as a way to dispose of waste.
They were also able to use the charcoal to identify at least some of the trees that had been burned at the site: they came from a range of coniferous trees, including Pinus species. There were no charcoals from deciduous trees. Also in the charcoal were some interesting pieces whose appearance led the researchers to a tentative identification: “parenchymous plant tissue (cells specialised in the storage of starch).” While subsequent examination using a scanning electron microscope found about a quarter of these pieces to be from conifers of some sort, some of the remainder had vessel elements – parts of the xylem (water-conducting) tissue that are found in flowering plants, but not in conifers. So Pryor & his team suggest that it’s possible that the pieces were the burnt remnants of starchy plant structures that had been ground or mashed for eating³.
The presence of conifer charcoal on the site, and so by inference of conifers growing in the near vicinity, provides information about the environment there during the last glacial cycle: there must have been microhabitats there that allowed conifers to survive.
All in all, a much more complex and nuanced tale than the one told in the piece that originally caught my attention. And one based on a technique, which – to use the authors’ own words,
has the potential to provide the spatially resolved data necessary to clarify how humans actually used these spectacular mammoth-bone sites, making them less enigmatic and more accessible to archaeological investigation.
¹ This was annoying because it’s unlikely that any of those vegetables would have been domesticated 25,000 ya, & potatoes are native to the Americas, with no evidence I’m aware of that they were grown in Eurasia at the time when Kostnecki 11 was occupied.
² So, waaaay bigger than the one pictured in the original Vintage News article.
³ And that, my friends, is where the claim of potatoes seems to have arisen for the Vintage News article about this research. Potatoes, indeed!
Pryor, A., Beresford-Jones, D., Dudin, A., Ikonnikova, E., Hoffecker, J., & Gamble, C. (2020). The chronology and function of a new circular mammoth-bone structure at Kostenki 11. Antiquity, 94(374), 323-341. doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.7