When you think of Mexico, what comes to mind? Probably not lush jungles inhabited by woolly mammoths. But when mammoths roamed the Earth, Mexico was included. And a team of researchers in Mexico is working to preserve the remains of a woolly mammoth that was uncovered last year near Tultepec, a city in northeastern Mexico.
The mammoth was found accidentally during a construction project. When it was found, the animal was cut into multiple pieces by whatever intrepid band of hunter-gatherers killed it. The mammoth fossils are thought to be about 40,000 years old and are currently being worked on in view of the public, in a Tultepec municipal building.
"We see the bones are mixed up; they are not in anatomical order, so analysing them, you can reach the conclusion that it was partially cut up by hunters and gatherers at the time," says Luis Cordoba, the archaeologist in charge of the restoration. "The discovery in Tultepec is important because it indirectly supports the presence of humans 40,000 years ago."
The mammoth appears to have been roughly 25 years old when it was killed. It stood eleven and a half feet tall and was sixteen and a half feet long. Its weight was probably roughly five tons.
The research team hopes that the fossils will be in good enough shape to be recombined into something close to a whole mammoth, and put on display.
The remains are in remarkably good condition. A lot of variables have to be in place for a high-quality fossil to form after an animal dies. Thankfully, the star mammoth was found in the sediment at the bottom of a lake. The fossils are extremely well-preserved.
But there's still work to be done. According to Felipe Munos, another archaeologist working on the remains, "We are talking about 40,000 years ago so it is a very considerable period of time. The affect (on the bones) over such a period is that the bones are very sensitive."
Modern-day Tultepec, close to Mexico City, is a very arid region. But when the mammoth was still alive, it was probably a much different picture. The area was likely quite lush, with enough vegetation and water to support megafauna like the mammoth. Indeed, the area was once also densely populated with dinosaurs.
The mammoth find is exciting both because it offers insights into mammalian biology during the period, and because of its anthropological implications. For a long time, it was received wisdom that Central and South America were sparsely populated before the arrival of European conquerors. But new evidence is piling up that the region was actually home to large, metropolitan civilizations who had a level of technological and cultural sophistication very much in defiance of how native populations were once perceived.
Bands of humans living contemporaneously with woolly mammoths in Mexico may represent another piece of evidence suggesting that humans already had a very strong foothold in the continent before the arrival of Spaniards.