Ancient people took on a mammoth project, in more ways than
one.

Excavations at Russia’s Kostenki 11 site have uncovered one
of the oldest and largest Ice Age structures made of mammoth bones. Hunter-gatherers
assembled bones from at least 60 mammoths
into an imposing ring
around 25,000 years ago, say archaeologist Alexander
Pryor of the University of Exeter in England and colleagues.

Building this structure, which measures about 12.5 meters
across, required a huge investment of time and energy, the scientists report in
the April Antiquity. Bones may have
come from hunted mammoths or from carcasses of animals that died of natural
causes. Sieving of soil samples identified charred wood from fires set inside
the ring, but it’s unclear how its makers used the structure, Pryor’s team says.

Kostenki 11 site excavation in Russia
Excavations at Russia’s Kostenki 11 site have uncovered the extensive remains of this ancient mammoth-bone structure.A. Pryor

Circular
mammoth bone structures
, most dating to no more than 22,000 years ago, previously
have been found across eastern Europe and western Russia (SN: 12/13/86). Researchers have often assumed that these
constructions, including two others found at Kostenki 11 in the 1950s and
1960s, housed people during harsh winters.

The new discovery challenges that idea. A large, open space
in the bone ring appears unsuitable for long-term occupation, in part because
it would have been difficult to roof, Pryor’s group says. And only a few stone
tools were found. Ice Age hunter-gatherers may have stored food or conducted ritual
ceremonies in their mammoth creation, the researchers speculate.