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Concept: Mastodon


The earliest dispersal of humans into North America is a contentious subject, and proposed early sites are required to meet the following criteria for acceptance: (1) archaeological evidence is found in a clearly defined and undisturbed geologic context; (2) age is determined by reliable radiometric dating; (3) multiple lines of evidence from interdisciplinary studies provide consistent results; and (4) unquestionable artefacts are found in primary context. Here we describe the Cerutti Mastodon (CM) site, an archaeological site from the early late Pleistocene epoch, where in situ hammerstones and stone anvils occur in spatio-temporal association with fragmentary remains of a single mastodon (Mammut americanum). The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. (230)Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion-adsorption-decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production. Systematic proboscidean bone reduction, evident at the CM site, fits within a broader pattern of Palaeolithic bone percussion technology in Africa, Eurasia and North America. The CM site is, to our knowledge, the oldest in situ, well-documented archaeological site in North America and, as such, substantially revises the timing of arrival of Homo into the Americas.

Concepts: Human, North America, Americas, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Archaeological site, Mastodon, American mastodon


Elephantids are the world’s most iconic megafaunal family, yet there is no comprehensive genomic assessment of their relationships. We report a total of 14 genomes, including 2 from the American mastodon, which is an extinct elephantid relative, and 12 spanning all three extant and three extinct elephantid species including an ∼120,000-y-old straight-tusked elephant, a Columbian mammoth, and woolly mammoths. Earlier genetic studies modeled elephantid evolution via simple bifurcating trees, but here we show that interspecies hybridization has been a recurrent feature of elephantid evolution. We found that the genetic makeup of the straight-tusked elephant, previously placed as a sister group to African forest elephants based on lower coverage data, in fact comprises three major components. Most of the straight-tusked elephant’s ancestry derives from a lineage related to the ancestor of African elephants while its remaining ancestry consists of a large contribution from a lineage related to forest elephants and another related to mammoths. Columbian and woolly mammoths also showed evidence of interbreeding, likely following a latitudinal cline across North America. While hybridization events have shaped elephantid history in profound ways, isolation also appears to have played an important role. Our data reveal nearly complete isolation between the ancestors of the African forest and savanna elephants for ∼500,000 y, providing compelling justification for the conservation of forest and savanna elephants as separate species.

Concepts: Gene, Elephant, Elephantidae, African Bush Elephant, Mammoth, Prehistoric elephants, Pleistocene mammals, Mastodon


Existing radiocarbon ((14)C) dates on American mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossils from eastern Beringia (Alaska and Yukon) have been interpreted as evidence they inhabited the Arctic and Subarctic during Pleistocene full-glacial times (∼18,000 (14)C years B.P.). However, this chronology is inconsistent with inferred habitat preferences of mastodons and correlative paleoecological evidence. To establish a last appearance date (LAD) for M. americanum regionally, we obtained 53 new (14)C dates on 36 fossils, including specimens with previously published dates. Using collagen ultrafiltration and single amino acid (hydroxyproline) methods, these specimens consistently date to beyond or near the ∼50,000 y B.P. limit of (14)C dating. Some erroneously “young” (14)C dates are due to contamination by exogenous carbon from natural sources and conservation treatments used in museums. We suggest mastodons inhabited the high latitudes only during warm intervals, particularly the Last Interglacial [Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5] when boreal forests existed regionally. Our (14)C dataset suggests that mastodons were extirpated from eastern Beringia during the MIS 4 glacial interval (∼75,000 y ago), following the ecological shift from boreal forest to steppe tundra. Mastodons thereafter became restricted to areas south of the continental ice sheets, where they suffered complete extinction ∼10,000 (14)C years B.P. Mastodons were already absent from eastern Beringia several tens of millennia before the first humans crossed the Bering Isthmus or the onset of climate changes during the terminal Pleistocene. Local extirpations of mastodons and other megafaunal populations in eastern Beringia were asynchrononous and independent of their final extinction south of the continental ice sheets.

Concepts: Climate, Canada, Extinction, Steppe, Taiga, Tundra, Mastodon, American mastodon