Meet the gomphothere: UA archaeologist involved in discovery of bones of elephant ancestor

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An animal once thought to have disappeared from North America before the arrival of humans might have actually roamed the continent longer than previously thought-and it was likely on the list of prey for early humans, researchers from the University of Arizona and elsewhere have found.

Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts of the prehistoric Clovis culture mingled with the skeletons of two gomphotheres-an ancestor of the elephant- at an archaeological site in northwestern Mexico.

The discovery implies that the Clovis-the earliest widespread group of hunter-gatherers to reside in North America- likely hunted and ate gomphotheres. It was already known that the members of the Clovis culture were hunters of gomphothere’s cousins, mammoths and mastodons.


Although humans were known to have hunted gomphotheres in Central and Southern America, this is the first time a human-gomphothere connection has been established in North America, says archeologists Vance Holliday, who co-authored a new paper on the findings, which was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, and it’s the only one known,” said Holliday, a professor of anthropology and geology at the UA.

Holliday ad his colleagues from the U.S. and Mexico began their excavation of the skeletal remains of two young gomphotheres back in 2007 after ranchers alerted them that the bones had been found in northwestern Sonora, Mexico.

At the beginning of their excavation it was unclear what kind of animal they were dealing with.

“At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because the extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison,” Holliday said.

Then, in 2008, they unearthed a jawbone with teeth, buried upside down in the dirt.

“We finally found the mandible, and that’s what told the tale,” Holliday said.

Gomphotheres were smaller than mammoths-approximately the same size as modern day elephants. At one time they were widespread in North America, but until now they appeared to have disappeared from the continent’s fossil record long before humans arrived in North America, which happened about 13,000 to 13,500 years ago, during the late Ice Age.

However, the bones that Holliday and his colleagues discovered date back 13,400 years ago, making them the last known gomphotheres in North America.

The remains of the young gomphotheres wasn’t the full extent of Holliday and his colleagues discoveries at the site, which they dubbed El Fin del Mundo- Spanish for The End of the Word- because of its remote location.

As their excavation of the bones progressed numerous Clove artifacts were also unearthed, including signature Clovis projectile points, or spear tips, as well as cutting tools and flint flakes from stone tool-making. The Clovis culture is so named for its distinctive stone tools, first discovered by archaeologists near New Mexico, in the 1930s.

Clovis Tools: WikiPedia
Clovis Tools: WikiPedia

Radiocarbon dating, conducted at the UA, puts the El Fin del Mundo site at approximately 13,400 years old, making it one of the two oldest known Clovis sites in North America, the other being the Aubrey Clovis site in north Texas.

The position and proximity of the Clovis weapon fragments relative to the gomphothere skeletons at the site suggests that humans actually killed the two animals there. Of the seven Clovis points found at the site, four were in place among the bones, including one with bone and teeth fragments above and below. The other three points had clearly eroded away from the bone bed and were scattered nearby.

“This is the first Clovis gomphothere, it’s the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, it’s the first evidence that people were hunting gomphotheres in North America, and it adds another item to the Clovis menu,” Holliday said.


Contributing Source: University of Arizona

Header Image Source: WikiPedia

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