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Dartmouth researchers find that mammoths may have overlapped with early humans in Northeast

  • A sculpture of woolly mammoths is seen in the Siberian town of Khanty-Mansiisk, east of Moscow, Russia, on June 28, 2008. According to a Dartmouth College study, the animals may have walked the landscape at the same time as the earliest humans in New England. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

  • Woolly mammoth bone

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2021 9:43:16 PM
Modified: 3/4/2021 9:43:13 PM

HANOVER — In 1848, bones belonging to a woolly mammoth were found in Mount Holly, Vt., during construction of a railroad line in Vermont’s Green Mountains southeast of Rutland.

More than 170 years after that discovery, Dartmouth researchers have found that the Mount Holly mammoth may have overlapped with the Northeast’s earliest human residents.

“The age of the last mammoth in New England is now closer to the age of the arrival of the very first humans,” said Nathaniel Kitchel, a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at Dartmouth and co-author of a study along with Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth, published Thursday in the journal Boreas.

“It’s now more possible to think that the very first humans to live in the Northeast had seen the very last elephants (to live there).”

The age was determined using radiocarbon dating, a process in which a gram-sized piece from part of a mammoth rib bone was analyzed to determine how many years a living thing has been dead. The Dartmouth researchers sent the piece to the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, which determined the mammoth was 12,800 calendar years old. Humans arrived in the region between 12,700 to 12,900 years ago, Kitchel said. At the same time, the small bone piece underwent a stable isotopic analysis, which helped find that the mammoth likely fed on spruce and alder, among other plants.

How the Mount Holly mammoth bone made its way to Dartmouth is an interesting story in itself: After the bones were discovered in 1848, researchers from Harvard came up to help aid in their extraction alongside Vermonters. Some of the bones ended up back at the university in Massachusetts, going on a sojourn to the Museum of Natural History in New York City before being returned to Cambridge. (They are now at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Mount Holly Community Historical Museum.)

At some point through the years, William Bacon, a lawyer from Ludlow, Vt., donated an approximately 18-inch rib fragment from the mammoth to Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, which is where Kitchel stumbled across it in a storage facility in 2019. Strangely, he had recently given a talk at the Mount Holly museum.

“That was one of the more fascinating aspects of the study, seeing what happened to these remains as they were moved around the country and how that has impacted their research potential,” Kitchel said. “The trouble arises — at least for research arises — because at some point in that journey it looks like the Mount Holly remains got mixed up with remains of elephants from somewhere else.”

That’s the case at Harvard, where those mammoth bones are mixed in with those from mastodons. By having radiocarbon-dated the rib fragment, researchers might be able to similarly date and separate the bones in the Harvard collection. How the rib fragment ended up in Bacon’s possession at Dartmouth isn’t clear.

“It’s entirely possible that as the remains were coming out of the ground that local folks took some of them for their own cabinet of curiosities,” Kitchel speculated.

Previous research has found that mammoths were present in the Northeast 14,000 years ago. What makes the Mount Holly mammoth so special is that it could have been one of the last to live in the region, Kitchel said.

Woolly mammoths, which were herbivores, had long tusks, and were believed to be the size of African elephants, lived alongside early humans in other parts of what is now North America. When Kitchel was doing graduate work at the University of Wyoming, he worked on a dig where human artifacts were found alongside mammoth bones, which implied that humans hunted the creatures.

“In the Northeast we have no evidence of that nor is there any evidence of any human involvement with the Mount Holly mammoth, just that they may have shared the landscape with each other,” Kitchel said. “Even though they shared the landscape we cannot implicate humans in any way in the demise of the creature or even scavenging it after it died.”

Since the discovery was made, Kitchel and a team of people have been back out to the bog near where the Mount Holly mammoth was found to use ground-penetrating radar, “the idea being that maybe, just maybe we could get some hints that there may be more mammoths down there.” At the very least, they should be able to get an idea of geological makeup.

For Kitchel, the discovery is also personal. As a child growing up in Danville, Vt., he was interested in fossils, but thought that mammoths had trod elsewhere in the country and not in his home state.

“This is part of our history too,” Kitchel said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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