Lessons From A Mastodon’s Rib

Scientists have been carefully examining the rib bone of a mastodon, a giant, tusked, elephant-like creature that roamed North America thousands of years ago.  The bone has led them to some interesting conclusions about when humans first came to the Americas, and what they were like.

The mastodon rib bone is unique because it includes an embedded projectile — a spear-point, also made from a mastodon’s bone, that had been sharpened to a needle-like point.  Scientists have applied precise new dating technologies, including radio carbon tests using atomic accelerators, to the bone and have concluded that it dates from 13,800 years ago.  The age of the bone is significant because it predates the point at which the so-called “Clovis hunters” were supposed to have swept across the land bridge from Siberia and spread across the North American continent.  The needle-like spear point in the mastodon’s rib — which uses bone tool techniques much more sophisticated than those purportedly used by the stone tool-wielding “Clovis hunters” — indicates that humans probably arrived thousands of years earlier.

The bone tells us that the early North Americans were capable of fine and effective toolmaking and were fierce and formidable hunters.  Imagine being able to hurl or thrust a bone spear with sufficient force to pierce not only the hide of a mastodon, but also penetrate its rib bone!  But the bone may tell us something more about the bloody-handed history of our race.  It raises the possibility that early humans played a much larger role than was once thought in the mass extinction of the huge creatures that ruled the Earth during the last Ice Age.  Woolly mammoths, mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, giant sloths, and giant birds all went extinct about 13,000 years ago.  The dating of the mastodon’s rib bone increases the sad likelihood that the fierce, bone spear-throwing hunters standing at the dawn of recorded history hunted those long-lost species to their deaths.

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