An ancient ancestor to today’s elephant was hunted by the earliest North American people. The gomphothere was believed to have disappeared in North America long before humans arrived, but a recent discovery obliterates that notion.

Archaeologists recently discovered artifacts belonging to the prehistoric Clovis culture interspersed with bones of two gomphotheres. This suggests that the Clovis people hunted and ate gomphotheres.

The paper detailing the dig was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Clovis people were already avid hunters of mammoths and mastodons. Humans were known to have hunted gomphotheres in Central and South America at the time, but it’s the first archaeological evidence of gomphothere in North America. The gomphotheres were believed to have disappeared from North America before humans arrived during the last ice age.

Vance Holliday, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, and his colleagues weren’t sure what they were digging up back in 2007 after ranchers alerted them to bones found in northwestern Sonora, Mexico.

“At first, just based on the size of the bone, we thought maybe it was a bison, because the extinct bison were a little bigger than our modern bison,” Holliday said.

As the excavation continued, the team discovered a jawbone with teeth? “We finally found the mandible, and that’s what told the tale,” Holliday said.

What shocked Holliday was the date of the bones. They dated them back 13,400 years ago. While excavating the bones, the archaeologists began finding Clovis artifacts including spear tips, cutting tools and flint flakes at the El Fin del Mundo site (Spanish for The End of the World).

How do archaeologists know the Clovis people probably hunted them? One of the seven spear tips found was located above and below bone and teeth fragments of the gomphothere.

The dig was full of firsts for the team. “This is the first Clovis gomphothere, it’s the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, it’s the first evidence that people were hunting gomphotheres in North America, and it adds another item to the Clovis menu,” said Holliday.

Image credit: Sergio de la Rosa

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