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July 26, 2013

KU researchers look for evidence of early humans on the Plains

They seek clues that would tie the remains of a 15,500-year-old mammoth discovered two years ago in west central Kansas to some prehistoric human artifacts found about 50 yards away from it.

University of Kansas archaeologists may have found evidence that humans were in the Central Plains more than 2,000 years earlier than thought.

Now they are digging to prove it.

What they are looking for are clues that would tie the remains of a 15,500-year-old mammoth discovered two years ago in west central Kansas to some prehistoric human artifacts found about 50 yards away from it.

The mammoth bones and a pile of flakes accumulated from toolmaking activities were unearthed by heavy equipment terracing a field northeast of Scott City.

Although radiocarbon dating shows that the uncovered adult mammoth lived 155 centuries ago, the adjacent stone flakes are impossible to date, so the scientific team is searching for evidence, such as artifacts among the animal’s remains or butcher marks on the bones, to prove people were in the area at the same time as the mammoth.

The team is led by Rolfe Mandel, geoarchaeologist at the Kansas Geological Survey and professor in the KU anthropology department.

“The question is whether the stone flakes that were exposed during terracing were really from the same elevation as the mammoth bones or were deposited in a pit dug years after the mammoth died at the location,” Mandel said in a statement. “If the tractor removed the top of a pit, the flakes would be more recent than the mammoth.”

Mandel said the only way we could be sure “would be finding artifacts in direct association with those bones,” Mandel said. “Something this important is going to require irrefutable evidence.”

The KU team has been excavating at the discovery sight since 2011. So far, about 7 percent of the entire mammoth has been found. Mammoths stood up to 13 feet high at the shoulder, weighed up to 10 tons and had long, curved tusks. They were in the same animal order as the elephant and the smaller and extinct mastodon.

The other KU researchers involved in the dig are Jack Hofman, a professor of anthropology, and Kale Bruner, a doctoral student in anthropology.

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