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Did dogs help drive the woolly mammoth to extinction?

By The Siberian Times reporter
30 May 2014

Siberian mammoth graveyards provoke a new theory on why the creatures were wiped out, and how dogs were domesticated.

A new theory has emerged: that the world's first domesticated dogs were used in the slaughtering of mammoths at sites which may have suited early man to ambush the creatures. Picture: the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, The Siberian Times

The cemeteries of bones have long puzzled scientists because they appear to show the giant shaggy relatives of today's elephants all died in the same place. The bones are different ages, spanning centuries, and recent evidence suggests that spear-hurling humans played a role in hunting these iconic animals. 

Now a new theory has emerged: that the world's first domesticated dogs were used in the slaughtering of mammoths at sites which may have suited early man to ambush the creatures. 

Professor Emerita Pat Shipman of Penn State University was intrigued by evidence from Predmosti, in the Czech republic, where a large fragment of bone was placed in a dog's mouth shortly after burial - some 27,000 years ago.

She speculates that the animal was accorded special treatment for its hunting prowess.

Ancient dog scull found in Predmosti

Evidence from Predmosti, in the Czech republic - a large fragment of bone was placed in a dog's mouth shortly after burial - some 27,000 years ago. Picture: Mietje Germonpre.

She analysed archeological sites in Siberia and Europe where large numbers of mammoth bones were used in the construction of dwellings by ancient man.

'They're crazy sites,' said anthropologist Shipman in Science journal. 'The sheer number of dead mammoths is astounding.'

In Berelekh - in the north of Siberia's Sakha Republic - are more than 160 of the tusked goliaths.

'One of the greatest puzzles about these sites is how such large numbers of mammoths could have been killed with the weapons available during that time,' she said.

Theories on such 'mammoth megasites' have included floods washing bones to a certain spot or herds that fell through thin ice. But they seem to date to 44,000 years ago, around the time modern humans emerged. 

She found that 'few of the mortality patterns from these mammoth deaths matched either those from natural deaths among modern elephants killed by droughts or by culling operations with modern weapons that kill entire family herds of modern elephants at once'.

The professor concluded in her research, outlined in Quaternary International, that the mammoths were killed in the same spot for many generations.  'There's something that's drawing them to that location,' she said.

She believes the sites may have been on migration routes in spots where early humans and their domesticated dogs could attack.

Mammoths cemetery in Berelekh

In Berelekh - in the north of Siberia's Sakha Republic - are more than 160 of the tusked goliaths. Picture: P. Lazarev, The Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk 

Skulls suggesting early dogs have been found at some of the mammoth graveyard sites, say reports. 

'Many of the skulls bear healed fractures, a possible indication that these animals were cared for by humans,' reports Science. Shipman speculates that the mammoth megasites may be the first significant evidence of a cooperative relationship between man and dog. 

'The canines could have corralled the mammoths at the ambush sites and held the prey in place while human hunters moved in for the kill, Shipman says. 'Once the mammoths were dead, the dogs could have protected the sites from scavengers.'

She said: 'Dogs help hunters find prey faster and more often, and dogs also can surround a large animal and hold it in place by growling and charging while hunters move in. Both of these effects would increase hunting success.' 

And 'all of that mammoth meat would have brought predators from miles around.'

'In return, the humans may have provided these canines with food and protection. And slowly, a closer relationship may have begun to form,' stated Science. 'Dogs may indeed be man's best friend,' she said. 

Mammoths cemetery maps

Skulls suggesting early dogs have been found at some of the mammoth graveyard sites, say reports. Picture: Jeffrey Mathison

Now a search will begin for more evidence of dogs which might support her hypothesis. Some authorities are sceptical, at least until seeing more evidence.  

'I like it as an idea, but there's no smoking gun,' said one expert, Nicholas Conard, who works at the University of Tubingen in Germany.

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