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Dartmouth study reveals potential overlap between woolly mammoths and humans in New England

Replica of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. The display is from 1979, and the fur is muskox hair.
Replica of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. The display is from 1979, and the fur is muskox hair.Wikimedia Commons

The first humans to arrive in New England may have encountered woolly mammoths, a new paper written by researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire suggests.

New radiocarbon dating of a rib fragment from mammoth remains found in the 19th century in Mount Holly, Vt., suggests the mammoth roamed the New England area around the same time the first humans arrived — approximately 12,800 years ago, according to a paper published in the journal Boreas by Jeremy DeSilva, a Dartmouth professor, and Nathaniel Kitchel, an anthropology fellow.

Prior research suggested mammoths and humans had not overlapped in New England, though there is ample evidence they interacted in other areas of the country, according to Kitchel.

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“Previous research had indicated that there was little to no overlap, that probably the first people to move into the Northeast after the glaciers had receded didn’t see living elephants, and so this offered a tantalizing hint that just maybe they did,” he said in a telephone interview. Those first arrivals were ancestors of the Native American groups that live here today, Kitchel said.

Woolly mammoths are believed to have survived in North America until between 10,500 and 7,600 years ago, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. They stood as tall as modern-day elephants and were covered in thick, yellowish brown fur.

Kitchel uncovered the rib fragment, a large bone stained brown from age, in autumn of 2019, at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum’s offsite storage facility, the university said. Following the discovery, Kitchel and DeSilva took a sample and sent it along to the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia to be radiocarbon dated.

Radiocarbon dating determines how long an organism has been dead based on its concentration of a radioactive isotope of carbon. To verify the initial results, Kitchel said he plans to collect another sample and send it to a different lab to be radiocarbon dated.

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“You might imagine, when something has been sitting in the ground, in this case for well over 12,000 years, that other sources of carbon can get into that item,” he said.


An image showed the affixed tags and 3-D model of the Mount Holly mammoth rib fragment housed at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.
An image showed the affixed tags and 3-D model of the Mount Holly mammoth rib fragment housed at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.Image by Nathaniel Kitchel and Jeremy DeSilva.

He said the discovery raised new questions about the role humans may have played in the extinction of the woolly mammoth, something that scholars have been debating.

“The big question here, that this only pokes at just a little bit, is what role might the first humans have had in the ultimate extinction of these animals. … Because you might have noticed there’s a coincidence, right — the first people and the last mammoths? And what is that relationship? We don’t know,” he said.

There are two schools of thought on the subject, Kitchel said. One suggests humans hunted the mammoths to extinction; the other suggests environmental factors were to blame.

“This obviously doesn’t answer that question, but by bringing humans and mammoths closer together in time, possibly even having them overlap, [it] intersects with that broader discussion in interesting ways. Especially here in the region,” he said.

Kitchel said he was “cautiously excited” about the discovery but stressed the importance of verification.

“I am cautiously excited, but I think it’s a really neat outcome that is changing our ideas about what the landscape may have been like when the first people showed up in New England,” he said.

The mammoth remains, discovered in 1848 in the Green Mountains, are scattered among several repositories, including Dartmouth, Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Mount Holly Historical Museum. A tooth and tusk held by the latter museum have been designated the Vermont state terrestrial fossil.

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Uncovering previously unknown history is “really, really cool,” Kitchel, a native of Vermont, said, especially when the discovery hits so close to home

“That is awesome. It’s the thrill of discovery,” he said. “One of the cool things for me is being part of that conversation and doing things like this, getting this out to the public that ‘No, no, this history happened here too, this is part of our natural history.’ And I’m really excited to play a small role in that, too, helping teach people about what New England was like thousands and thousands of years ago. I think that’s super fun. I find that really gratifying.”

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.