Flint flake hints at mammoth butchery
A nearly complete mammoth skeleton has just been uncovered at Changis-sur-Marne in the Seine-et-Marne department. This type of discovery, in its original context, is exceptional in France since only three specimens have been found in 150 years: the first such discovery, known as “the mammoth of Choulans”, was discovered in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon in 1859.
This mammoth is probably a Mammuthus primigenius, a woolly mammoth with long tusks that were used to expose edible vegetation under the snow. These animals could reach 2.8 to 3.4 metres high at their withers and were covered with fur and a thick layer of fat. The mammoth of Changis-sur-Marne existed between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, at the same time as Neanderthals. Mammoths were well adapted to cold climates and thus disappeared from western Europe 10,000 years ago when the climate became warmer. The most recent specimen died off the coast of the Bering Strait, 3700 years ago.
Mammoths and humans
The current excavation will enable archaeologists to clarify the age of the mammoth and perhaps the circumstances of its death: did it drown, or was it trapped in mud? Was it hunted or scavenged by predators? A usewear analysis of the flint flake found at the site will be performed to determine its function and a zooarchaeological study will detect possible cut marks on the bones.
The discovery at Changis-sur-Marne is exceptional since humans and mammoths have been found together at only two Middle Palaeolithic sites in western Europe: Lehringen and Gröbern in Germany. There is also the site of Ranville, in the Calvados region, where an ancient elephant (Elephas antiquus) was scavenged approximately 220,000 years ago. Finally, the excavation at Tourville-la-Rivière, in the Seine-Maritime department, recently uncovered aurochs, horses, bears, lions and panthers that were transported by the Seine, 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals, who would have been aware of all the resources in their environs scavenged meat, tendons, hide, etc. from this natural jackpot.
In the near future, archaeologists and palaeontologists should be able to determine whether the mammoth of Changis was killed by Neanderthals, or whether they scavenged the animal after its natural death. This discovery will contribute to the debate among scientists concerning the predatory skills of Neanderthals. The ultimate challenge is to determine the precise date of the event, using radiometric and chrono-stratigraphic methods.
The excavation of Changis-sur-Marne
The animal was discovered in a quarry in Changis-sur-Marne during the rescue excavation of a Gallo-Roman site, which is itself remarkable. The first bones appeared in the front cut of the quarry and due to the importance of this discovery, the Regional Direction of Cultural Affairs (Drac) of Île-de-France organised a rescue operation. This is the first excavation of its kind in France.