(TMU) — A spectacular example of architecture constructed from mammoth bones that date back about 25,000 years has been unearthed at an ancient site in Russia, giving researchers a spectacular glimpse at how people lived during the Ice Age.
The excavated structure was discovered at Kostenki 11, an ancient site in Russia’s forest-steppe about 300 miles south of Moscow in Khokholsky District, Voronezh Oblast, Russia. The location, which lies near the Don River, is home to a number of important sites from the Paleolithic era.
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According to a recent study published in the journal Antiquity, the mysterious 40-foot wide circular hut was built primarily from the skulls, tusks, and skeletons of over 60 woolly mammoths.
Alexander Pryor, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter and co-author of the study, believes that the bones were “sourced from somewhere and brought to this particular location,” making the structure “really quite staggering.”
Pryor told Smithsonian Magazine:
“Clearly a lot of time and effort went into building this structure so it was obviously important to the people that made it for some reason.”
While the British scientists aren’t entirely sure why hunter-gatherers in the region built such a stunning circular structure, the builders did leave some tell-tale signs indicating what the building was once used for.
Evidence that fires were burned in the structure was found, as well as food scraps such as vegetables—suggesting that locals ate a wide variety of plant foods. Intriguingly, wood was burnt inside the structure and not bones alone. Pryor said:
“It’s the first time anyone’s found large pieces of charcoal inside one of these structures. So it does show that trees were in the environment.”
A number of pits containing the buried bones of mammoths were also found outside of the bone circle, suggesting that food was stored there.
“You obviously get a lot of meat from a mammoth,” Pryor explained. “So the idea that there were food processing and food storage activities going on at the site is something that we want to investigate more.”
While 70 similar structural sites are scattered across western Russia and Ukraine, this particular structure has been found to be the oldest—as well as one of the largest and most intricate.
Other so-called “mammoth houses” date back about 22,000 years and were believed to provide shelter from the icy temperatures of the era. Unlike the new mammoth structure, the smaller structures included the remains of bears, horses, reindeer, wolves, red foxes, and arctic foxes—suggesting that people in the area used whatever was on hand to construct the huts.
However, the new structure doesn’t include other animal remains and consists “almost exclusively” of wooly mammoth bones—which is what makes the site so unique, Pryor said.
Marjolein Bosch, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that the “truly exceptional find” at Kostenki 11 was likely not an everyday home. She explained:
“The size of the structure makes it exceptional among its kind, and building it would have been time-consuming.
This implies that it was meant to last, perhaps as a landmark, a meeting place, a place of ceremonial importance, or a place to return to when the conditions grew so harsh that shelter was needed.”
But what’s most compelling about the latest find is what it tells researchers about who exactly built it. Pryor explained:
“This project is giving us a real insight into how our human ancestors adapted to climate change, to the harshest parts of the last glacial cycle, and adapted to use the materials that they had around them.
It’s really a story of survival in the face of adversity.”
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