Previous archaeological evidence suggests that humans settled in North America roughly 13,000 years ago when the Clovis hunter-gatherer tribes crossed the Bering Strait from Asia using now-melted bridges of icy land. Evidence for this theory comes mainly in the form of flint tools found throughout the southwestern United States. However, researchers from the University of Michigan believe they might have found new paleontological evidence that shows humans settled in North America much earlier than previously thought.

Researchers excavating the skull of the Bristle mammoth.

That evidence comes in the form of a near-complete mammoth skeleton that shows signs of butchering and has been radiocarbon dated to around 15,000 years ago, roughly a millennium before the Clovis hunters arrived. If the theories surrounding the Bristle mammoth are confirmed, they have the potential to re-write the history of mankind in North America.

The mammoth's skull, in particular, shows evidence of careful butchering.

The mammoth skeleton was found on Chelsea, Michigan native James Bristle's farm, hence the name “Bristle Mammoth.” Researchers excavated the mammoth last year in a one-day operation. The mammoth skeleton shows that the skull was broken in strategic places in order to reach nutritious tissues, while the rest of the mammoth carcass was butchered and re-arranged anatomically in an area that shows signs of having once been a pond. This indicates that these prehistoric people might have used the pond as a type of ancient “meat locker,” keeping the massive mammoth carcass safe from the elements or scavengers.

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Farmer James Bristle, left, discovered the mammoth's remains. UM Paleontologist Daniel Fisher, right, led the excavation of the mammoth skeleton.

According to University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher, who led this excavation, the potential significance of the Bristle mammoth has been a surprise to everyone involved in this project:

What's so interesting about the Bristle site is that there's a mammoth with evidence of human association at a very early date—well before Clovis times [...] I didn't realize how big this was going to be, how important it would be to a lot of people. It's still overwhelming to me.

The Bristle mammoth will be on display for free at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History from November 5, 2016 to January 15, 2018.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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