An archaeological excavation at a cave in southern France has seen the discovery of dozens of fragments of mammoth bones displaying blow marks, confirming that mammoths were hunted by humans living in the cave 30,000 years ago.
The mammoth bone fragments were discovered in a new excavation carried out at Isturitz cave in southern France by a group of some 20 archaeologists from different parts of the world.
The Isturitz cave has been well-known amongst prehistory experts since its discovery in 1988, as a mammoth scapula was found there, along with thousands of remains.
In the latest excavation, more mammoth bones were found, albeit only fragments. The archaeologists also found around 5,000 fauna and lithic remains in the same location.
Aritza Villaluenga, 39, professor and researcher at the Department of Geography, Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Basque Country, Spain, told Real Press that the remains from the cave belong to “medium-sized and large mammals such as reindeer, deer, horses, bison and mammoths”.
According to the professor, the presence of the mammoth remains is not coincidental, as “they were hunted and carried from the valley to the cave and, once there, they (the humans) broke it to take the bone marrow”.
It is the first time that it has been confirmed that homo sapiens in southern Europe hunted mammoths during the Upper Palaeolithic period. There was previously only evidence of mammoths hunted in the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure, in north-central France.
The professor explained that mammoths were not typical prey for humans due to their large size, with humans preferring to hunt deer or horses instead.
However, at that point in time, during the last glaciation, temperatures were low. The professor said that “humans had to hunt this food source due to the climate”.
Mammoths could weigh around four tons and were dangerous for small human groups during the Upper Palaeolithic. It is believed that the cave-dwelling humans had to start hunting them, but decided to select the young or smaller ones to hunt them more easily.
The hunting method is still unclear, but, according to Villaluenga, the mammoths were killed outside the cave and their remains were taken inside so that the bones could be broken and the marrow eaten.
The professor revealed that there were multiple fragments of burnt bones inside the cave, amongst them mammoth ones.
He added that “when they hunted an animal, they tended to take off the meat, break and open the bones in order to eat the marrow, and those bones were broken into small pieces until becoming a kind of net joined together by an outer skin, and they were burnt and used as fuel”.
There were advantages of using this kind of fuel. The professor said that “despite the fact this fuel illuminated less than wood and gave off less heat, it did not give off smell or smoke, which is very important in a cave”.
The professor explained that humans also hunted mammoths for this reason, as there was not enough wood in the forest in the surrounding valley during the period of cold temperatures.
In the cave, the archaeologists also found the remains of tools, especially flint ones, which were used by the humans to extract the marrow from the bones and to dismember the animals to eat their meat.
During the latest excavation, the archaeologists also found marine shells with holes in them, which “indicates that they went to the coast, located around 30 kilometres (19 mi) away, and took them back to the cave with them”. He said it is clear, therefore that marine sources were exploited by the humans living in the cave for thousands of years.
The professor explained that the cave is located in a strategic place, “like a roundabout, where humans moved from the north to the Pyrenees and other parts”. He also said that there might have been animal migrations through the area, and, from the cave, the animals could be seen easily to create strategies to hunt them.
Tests on the remains are still ongoing, as the archaeologists want to carry out radiocarbon dating on some of them, and the lab research could last around two more years.