Early hunters killed mastodons with mastodons (Also, you can chuck a bone spear through a car. Who knew?)

By Ed Yong | October 20, 2011 2:12 pm

To round off my brief stint at the Guardian, here’s a piece about a mastodon specimen with what looks like a spear-tip stuck in its rib. This specimen, the so-called “Manis mastodon” has been a source of controversy for several decades. Is that fragment man-made or simply one of the animal’s own bone splinters? Does it imply that humans hunted large mammals hundreds of years earlier than expected, or not?

Having re-analysed the rib in an “industrial-grade” CT scanner, Michael Waters thinks it’s definitely a man-made projectile. He even extracted DNA from the rib and the fragment and found that both belonged to mastodons. So these early hunters were killing mastodons and turning them into weapons for killing more mastodons. How poetically gittish.

Anyway, read the piece for more about why this matters. In the meantime, I want to draw your attention to this delicious tete-a-tete at the end between Waters and Gary Haynes, who doesn’t buy the interpretation. Note, in particular, the very last bit from Waters, which made my jaw drop.

But despite Waters’ efforts, the fragment in the Manis mastodon’s rib is still stoking debate. “It’s not definitely proven that it is a projectile point,” says Prof Gary Haynes from the University of Nevada, Reno. “Elephants today push each other all the time and break each other’s rib so it could be a bone splinter that the animal just rolled on.”

Waters does not credit this alternative hypothesis. “Ludicrous what-if stories are being made up to explain something people don’t want to believe,” he says. “We took the specimen to a bone pathologist, showed him the CT scans, and asked if there was any way it could be an internal injury. He said absolutely not.”

Waters adds, “If you break a bone, a splinter isn’t going to magically rotate its way through a muscle and inject itself into your rib bone. Something needed to come at this thing with a lot of force to get it into the rib.”

The spear-thrower must have had a powerful arm, for tThe fragment would have punctured through hair, skin and up to 30 centimetres of mastodon muscle. “A bone projectile point is a really lethal weapon,” says Waters. “It’s sharpened to a needle point and little greater than the diameter of a pencil. It’s like a bullet. It’s designed to get deep into the elephant and hit a vital organ.” He adds, “I’ve seen these thrown through old cars.”

Comments (15)

  1. Gary Haynes winds up playing a tragic role in the soap opera that is today’s onogoing debate over the origins of early American populations and cultures. After a long and noteworthy career, he is now Mr. Clovis, by default the go-to-guy for a dissenting opinion on new evidence. Even though he tends to be more gentlemanly than many of the men (and they’re almost all men) in his field, his continuing skepticism against pre-Clovis evidence is becoming increasingly difficult to view as purely scientific. I hate to think that after all he’s done, Haynes’ legacy may be as the last defender of an outdated Clovis orthodoxy.

    If there is a field of study that reminds us that science is first and foremost a human endeavor, subject to all the frailties and flaws of our species, it is archeology.

  2. Avattoir

    Granting Waters the win on Haynes’ ‘meandering splinter’ supposition, Waters, here at least, does not refute Haynes’ foundation point, that since elephants “today push each other all the time and break each other’s rib”, then we cannot reasonably discount mastodons pushing around their fellows.

    So, now I look again at the picture on top, see those tusks (How could one not?), and begin to wonder whether a really ticked-off mastodon might resort to colmillo al colmillo combat.

  3. Pat

    Professor James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College, Erie, PA has been excavating a pre-Clovis site in Pennsylvania for years. Known as the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, it dates to 16000 years ago. He has led excavations in Israel and the Czech Republic, and is respected by his peers. I am afraid Gary Haynes is stubbornly wrong about Clovis being the first North American culture.

  4. “So these early hunters were killing mastodons and turning them into weapons for killing more mastodons. How poetically gittish.” (From Text)

    Poetic absolutely, but what part of this seems to be charaterized by the word git?

  5. Tom

    Why does “the earliest known” always get translated into “the first”. I have yet to see a distinction in the MSM. How could any learned person possibly stand behind such dogma. Given the time frames and scarcity of possible finds it just seems so counter productive.

  6. Eleanor

    I dunno, pushing mastodons towards extinction using spears fashioned from their murdered brethren seems pretty gittish to me.

  7. In fairness to Haynes, he also said the following to me:

    The main point that the authors are trying to make is that there was hunting of large mammals pre-Clovis. All those things I like. People would have targeted the big mammals. As far as being 200-300 years earlier thn Clovis, that’s not a problem either. Clovis is a projectile-point style and there must have been people around before it was invented.

    @Tom – Fair point, well made. Will watch that in future. I love that I’m MSM now.

  8. Octavo Dia

    The hunter could have also used a spear thrower such as an atlatl to provide sufficient killing power.

  9. They almost certainly did. Incidentally, when Waters mentioned the atlatl to me, I heard “axolotl”. That’s not a very good spearthrowing device at all!

  10. amphiox

    I hate to think that after all he’s done, Haynes’ legacy may be as the last defender of an outdated Clovis orthodoxy.

    A common fate for many distinguished scientists with the “misfortune” of having a career sufficiently distinguished and sufficiently long.

    Methinks, though, that few of the individual scientists in question, minded, or would trade it for the “undistinguished and soon forgotten”, or even the “amazing, revolutionary, but brief with early flame-out” career trajectories.

    Ultimately, it means that perhaps we ought to rethink how (and to what) we should be assigning “legacies” to, if at all.

  11. John H

    The angle as well as the targeted area of the projectile appears to be just right for a hunter’s weapon. Maybe just a skoshe high.

  12. yogi-one

    “I’ve seen these thrown through old cars.”
    Now THAT’s something I’d really like to see a video of!

  13. Great post! My only minor criticism is that I disagree with the statement “the spear-thrower must have had a powerful arm”. I am doing my master’s thesis at MIT on the biomechanics of javelin throwing. I don’t think a hunter would need a powerful arm to put a spear point in a mammoth bone, just a couple of steps, leverage and proper technique. Most of a spear throw’s distance is a consequence of transferring energy from your legs, and your momentum on the move, to your arms… and not from the throwing arm itself. The actual arm strength is only helpful insofar as it is enough to successfully channel the energy from the legs (via your momentum) in the desired direction and not cause injury.

  14. Daniel J. Andrews

    They almost certainly did. Incidentally, when Waters mentioned the atlatl to me, I heard “axolotl”. That’s not a very good spearthrowing device at all!

    But ninjas used axolotls as lethal weapons to kill mammoths.

    wiki.answers.com/Q/Is_an_axolotl_poisonous

    Or am I skimming too fast again….?…..

  15. Trevor Jones

    Surely this bone fragment could have penetrated the rib if the animal fell from a cliff to its death. there are lots of possible explanations and cyniscim but I feel that using this bone splinter to rescue Clovis theory is clutching at straws or splinters

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