In 2016, researchers from Adelphi University led an excavation at one of Alaska’s prized archaeological sites located 70 miles (110 kilometers) southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. The expedition was intended to unearth a prehistoric human occupation, the evidence of which has been discovered in the surrounding area. Researchers found evidence of campfires and animal bones, implying that ancient humans did indeed settle here. However, their most significant find could rewrite our understanding of the demise of the wooly mammoth and humans’ role in it.
When the researchers began digging at the site, they discovered a once-in-a-career find: an intact mammoth tusk. The 140-centimeter tusk (55 inches) was buried under 1.5 meters (5 feet) of permafrost. It is only the second intact mammoth tusk ever to be found in Alaska.
Through radiocarbon dating, researchers have estimated the tusk to be around 14,000 years old. By their estimations, this means it could have belonged to one of the last surviving mammoths in Alaska. According to Kathryn Krasinski and Brian Wygal, who led the expedition, the date of this discovery raises questions about the relationship between early North American settlers and the ill-fated mammoths:
This question is significant because it could provide further evidence that the first Americans were involved in the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Such questions are essential to understanding the greater impact of people on their environments.
Researchers still aren’t sure whether the tusk was obtained through hunting a live mammoth or whether it was simply discovered long after the mammoths were extinct in Alaska. It is estimated that mammoths went extinct in most parts of the world between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, although some evidence suggests that small, isolated groups existed much later.
The cause of the mammoth’s demise still remains a mystery, although it has been suggested that climate change might have played just as significant a role as human predation did. Other research based on genomic analysis has revealed that population shrinkage led the last mammoth populations to experience high levels of genetic mutations, possibly leading them to lose their warm coats. Luckily for them, however the planet is much warmer now; mammoths have been speculated to be one of the first extinct organisms to be revived through cloning. What could go wrong?