Mysterious 25,000-Year-Old Structure Built from the Bones of 60 Mammoths Unearthed

Photograph taken from the museum roof, looking north-west towards the third mammoth-bone structure; the two visible scales are 5 and 6m long,
respectively (photograph by A.E. Dudin)

The remains of a structure built from the bones of over 60 woolly mammoths were recently discovered on Russia’s forest steppe.

While anthropologists aren’t completely sure why the structure was built some 25,000 years ago, there are clues buried within its walls. Evidence of fires, vegetable food scraps, and even a possible food storage area were uncovered within the 40-foot circular building.

A team member with mammal bones –
Image: A. J. E. Pryor et al., 2020/Antiquity

The structure was unearthed at Kostenki, a village on the Don River in Russia.

The village is a world-renowned treasure trove of Paleolithic sites, with nearly 20 in total.

Aerial photograph of the new mammoth-bone structure at Kostenki 11, taken using a drone during
excavations in 2015 (photograph by A. Yu. Pustovalov & A.M. Rodionov). Sampling locations are indicated by the
black squares and rectangles. The location of the burnt deposits and pit features are also shown (image prepared by
A.J.E. Pryor).

Buildings like these have been documented throughout Eastern Europe before, though they are generally much smaller — more in the range of 10 feet in diameter. Called “mammoth houses,” the structures have been thought to help Ice Age dwellers escape the bitter cold.

A replica of a similar finding, “Mammoth House” in Yokoyama, Japan

Because of this particular structure’s size, however, archaeologists believe it had special significance. Archaeologist Alexander Pryor of the University of Exeter is the lead author of the study describing the find. He spoke to Smithsonian Magazine about the structure, telling them “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.” Marjolein Bosch, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Cambridge, agrees; She visited the site herself and believes the sheer scale suggested “it was meant to last, perhaps as a landmark, a meeting place, a place of ceremonial importance, or a place to return to when conditions grew so harsh that shelter was needed.”

We may never know for sure, but future discoveries should help us uncover more about these awe-inspiring creations.

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