A mammoth bone circle recently unearthed at the Kostenki 11 site in Russia has been identified as one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is a concentric ring of mammoth bones laid in a continuous circle 41 feet in diameter. A preliminary inventory of the bones has counted 51 mandibles and 64 crania of mammoth and a smattering of reindeer, horse, bear, wolf and fox bones. Radiocarbon analysis of samples from across the site date it to 25,063-24,490 years before the present, making it the oldest mammoth bone circle ever discovered on the Russian Plain.
Kostenki 11 has two other mammoth bone structures, the first discovered in the earliest excavations of the site in the 1960s, the second in 1970. A 2014 archaeological survey unearthed a new mammoth bone circle, and the next three seasonal excavations revealed another circle, this one exceptionally large and well-preserved. The surface of the circle was interfered with by burrowing animals and the roots of shrubs, birch, pear and cherry trees, but the bones managed to survive the centuries mostly intact and in their original positions. Starting in the 2015 season, the excavation team took a comprehensive approach to the interior and exterior of the circle to recover plant/organic remains, evidence of fuel usage and any evidence that might help identify human usage of the site.
Combustion deposits consisting of layers of burned sediment, bone and charcoal were found in one quadrant of the circle. The high proportion of carbonized bones, small size of the fragments and low number of wood charcoal suggests a deliberate choice to burn mostly bone at the site, either for fuel or to dispose of waste, as well as wood. Plant remains are evidence that the residents also foraged plants from the area, using them for food, medicine, string and fabric.
Three pits were found on the southeast perimeter of the circle, each containing large mammoth bones, lithic debris, bone debris and charcoal, the same materials found in the circle. They were therefore either deliberately filled during the site’s occupation, or infilled after its abandonment.
The dense lithic debris in the pits and circle allowed archaeologists to map knapping activity for the first time at mammoth circle site. More than 300 flint chips left behind when the inhabitants knapped stone into sharp tools is actually a small number compared to other Ice Age sites. It indicates the site was not a long-term dwelling.
Upper Paleolithic circular mammoth bone structures surrounded by pits have been found throughout eastern Europe, around 70 of them in Ukraine and the Russian Plain. and up until now have been consistently interpreted as dwellings offering shelter during the long, cold ice age winters, with the smaller pits used to store supplies. The third Kostenki 11 circle suggests instead that it was occupied only briefly rather than used for months as a base camp.
Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: “Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter – rare in this period of extreme cold.
“These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water.”
The study of the mammoth circle has been published in the journal Antiquity.