Archaeologists have uncovered stunning evidence that woolly mammoths and early human settlers migrated in tandem across ancient Alaska. Analysis of a mammoth tusk found in central Alaska shows this mammoth traveled hundreds of miles over the course of its life, likely following prime habitat as the climate warmed 14,000 years ago.
Path of the Mammoths
The tusk provides an unprecedented record of one mammoth’s movements in the lead-up to their extinction. Using isotopic signatures locked in the tusks, researchers mapped the female woolly mammoth’s journey over 28 years. From isotopes in the tusks showing cycles of six months, they found the mammoth followed a seasonal migration pattern between north and south.
Over 600 miles separate the northernmost point of the mammoth’s travels from the southern. This epic journey spanned over half the length of Alaska. Below is a map tracing her route over 28 years:
The mammoth likely traveled this route while pursuing prime feeding habitat and resources. As the climate warmed 14,000 years ago, the mammoth would have adapted its migration to follow shifting ecological conditions. This included tracking migrations of caribou and bison it preyed upon.
In an incredible finding, the mammoth’s pathway directly overlapped with seasonal migration routes used by Alaska’s earliest human settlers. Archaeologists previously found evidence of humans hunting bison and caribou at the Bluefish Caves site, one endpoint of the mammoth’s route.
It’s likely these humans followed similar paths as the mammoth, moving to take advantage of seasonal resources. Their presence in the region also dates back 14,000 years, indicating they co-existed with mammoths before the species ultimately went extinct.
This is the first evidence that mammoths and humans used the same migratory corridors. It demonstrates they employed similar survival strategies while adapting to warming conditions during the last ice age.
Below is a map approximating the overlap between woolly mammoth and human migration routes 14,000 years ago:
Image source: Smithsonian Magazine
Implications for Extinction
While humans and mammoths shared migrations for over 2,000 years in Alaska, what drove the mammoths to eventual extinction?
Their adaptation to climate change proved tenuous – as warming accelerated, the mammoths’ food sources likely declined. This made them vulnerable when the first humans arrived in North America, who were accomplished hunters.
Humans almost certainly preyed upon mammoths when they could, accelerating population decline as their habitat disappeared. While climate triggered the mammoths’ extinction, human predation was likely the final blow.
These insights teach us the supreme challenge species face adapting to rapidly changing conditions. And understanding our ancient role in the mammoths’ extinction further informs decisions around conservation today.
What Happens Next?
Researchers will expand analysis to more mammoth remains scattered across Alaska. These can reveal whether this mammoth’s migration was typical for the time. They also hope to find more evidence of humans overlapping the same habitats and migration paths.
Ultimately this improves our resolution on how climate change and human encroachment sealed the woolly mammoths’ fate. It colors our understanding of the dynamic world during the twilight of the last ice age.
And it prompts deeper questions around North America’s lost megafauna – what other large animal extinctions might we have precipitated? As we face another period of dramatic warming today, these lessons from the past remain as relevant as ever.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.