Why did Paleolithic humans kill mammoths? Evidence suggests early people hunted and killed woolly mammoths and butchered them for meat and hides. I realize killing a mammoth must have impressed paleo girls, but before the invention of Tupperware and refrigeration, what did you do with the resulting tons of meat? Either you'd have to have the biggest barbecue ever, or else try to preserve (and carry around) lots and lots of mammoth steaks. Considering the additional problem of drawing every carnivore and scavenger for miles, wouldn't it make more sense to kill paleo bunnies and other small game?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Bunnies? This is effete modern thinking. For primitive humans, the main concern wasn’t too much food but too little. OK, taking down a mammoth to keep the clan fed for a week sounds like overkill. But if the choice is between sustainable environmental practices and survival, you know what’s going to win. In other words, this seemingly obscure question is a parable for our times.
Before we get all big-picture, let’s acknowledge what we don’t know. For starters, we can’t be certain early humans hunted mammoths on a regular basis. Human and mammoth fossils often turn up in the same locations, and stone weapon tips have been found embedded in mammoth bones, so clearly we went after them on occasion. But some experts wonder if we weren’t mainly finishing off mammoths laid low by other causes.
That said, the consensus among scientists nowadays is that some human communities took to mammoth hunting in a big way. In fact — and I told you this question had relevance to our own day — we may have hunted them to extinction.
Why go after mammoths and not bunnies? For the same reason Costco members drive right past the 7-Eleven — acquiring food in bulk is more efficient. A typical adult mammoth is thought to have been good for well over a thousand pounds of meat — more than two million calories. Add in the bone marrow and fat, and a mammoth could probably have kept 30 people fed for two weeks.
A block of time like that gives you a chance to get organized. Specialization would likely have emerged early in a mammoth-hunting clan. The hunters would prepare their weapons for the next expedition, leaving the food-prep team to focus on what was surely job one for Paleolithic chefs: keeping the leftovers from going bad.
No Stone Age cookbooks are extant, but meat-preservation techniques have been known since ancient times. An obvious one during the last ice age would have been freezing, and in fact Plains Indians used to bury meat in the snow during winter; they’d also dry meat after large kills. Chinese historians have found that salt was harvested from inland dry lakes more than 8,000 years ago; many primitive cultures used salt to preserve meats, vegetables, and even their dead. Animal bones at one Paleolithic ruin show signs the meat had been smoked.
More exotically, underwater storage has been proposed as a means of meat preservation — experiments by a University of Michigan paleontologist show fresh-butchered meat could be stored in a peat bog for up to two years.
Archeological evidence points to mammoths being cut into large pieces for transport, with butchery occurring both at the scene of the kill and back at dedicated meat-processing sites. These locations no doubt attracted scavengers, but that may have been less a problem than an opportunity — nosy predators risked joining the mammoths on the spit. Bone accumulations at mammoth butchery sites show some but not many signs of carnivore gnawing. Other animals hunted alongside mammoths include horses, reindeer, wild oxen, wolves, foxes, and yes, bunnies.
Mammoths were also valued for their skin and bones — spears and knives made from mammoth ivory could be used to kill and butcher more mammoths. Stretch a dried mammoth skin over a frame of its bones and tusks and you’ve got yourself a tent.
So Paleolithic tribes may not have let the mammoths they’d bagged go to waste. That was no comfort to the mammoths. As we’ve seen in other realms, efficient resource exploitation typically results in more consumption, leading some to speculate that our ancestors drove mammoths to extinction.
That’s by no means proven. Studies of the Clovis peoples of North America have come to mixed conclusions, with some believing it was too dangerous to hunt Pleistocene megafauna unless they were sick or wounded. Other maintain there just weren’t enough of the biggest animals to make them a primary food source. Analyses of teeth and such indicates mammoths may have been under environmental stress anyway — in other words, we may have hunted them because they were easy targets.
To which the obvious response is: so? Easy kill or not, the result would have been the same: fewer mammoths. One study found hunters mainly went after juveniles and females and avoided adult males — a good way to wipe out a species. Fact is, even if we were reasonably scientific and responsible about it, the natural tendency would have been to hunt mammoths till they were gone.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.