Mystery Bone Circles Made From Mammoth Skulls Dating Back 20,000 Years Helped Humans Survive the Ice Age

A huge circular structure created from mammoth bones has been discovered in Russia, with analysis showing it may have provided shelter for early humans living during the depths of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago.

Circular structures created from mammoth bones are found across eastern Europe. One of these, known as Kostenki 11, is over 40 feet in diameter. It sits just outside the village of Kostenki, about 280 miles south of Moscow.

In a study published in the journal Antiquity, a team led by Alexander Pryor, from the University of Exeter, U.K., has now examined the site to better understand why it was built and what it was used for. At the time the structure was created, Earth was at the deepest point of the Last Glacial Maximum, when ice sheets covered much of North America, Europe and Russia. How humans managed to survive in these conditions is not well known.

It is thought the mammoth bone structures provided shelter for people, providing them protection from the elements over long periods of time. However, the research at Kostenki 11 has now questioned this view.

Preliminary examinations revealed the structure was created from at least 51 mammoth jaws and 64 skulls. "The bones form a continuous circle that has no obvious entrance," the researchers wrote.

The bone circle, which would have been around 20 inches in height, is surrounded by large pits that may have been used for food and fuel storage. Researchers took samples from the site and pits and found the remains of burned wood and bone, plant remains and burnt seeds.

They wrote: "The charcoal data also add to a growing corpus of macrofossil evidence that indicates the survival of trees in mammoth steppe environments on the Central Russian Plain throughout the last glacial cycle... The presence of conifer trees near Kostenki—perhaps located in low-lying, moist and sheltered areas in the ravines near to the site—would have been an important resource that attracted hunter-gatherers to the area during the glacial period. These trees were perhaps critical to human persistence in this region, while other such areas of Northern Europe were abandoned."

Unlike other mammoth bone circles, the researchers believe Kostenki 11 was not used as a permanent dwelling. The levels of activity detected through their research does not support the idea it was a long-term base. This suggests it was either used for a very short period, or was rarely used, which is surprising given the level of time and energy it would have taken to build, the team say. They added it would have been difficult to put a roof on a structure so large, and say the lack of remains from other animals is perplexing.

1 of 3

Next, the researchers will put forward evidence to suggest the structures were used to store food. They say examining samples from the site is important to "clarify how humans actually used these spectacular mammoth-bone sites, making them less enigmatic and more accessible to archaeological investigation."

Pryor told Newsweek: "If at least some of these mammoth were hunted, this is going to generate a lot of food from each kill. Therefore, preserving and storing that food could be a really significant part of what humans were doing there."

Further explaining why he does not believe the structure was used as a camp, he said some of the bones still had cartilage and fat attached when they were added to the pile: "This would have been smelly, and would have attracted scavengers including wolves and foxes which is not great if this was a dwelling."

Eventually, the structure was abandoned and the piled up bones collapsed. In a statement Pryor said: "Kostenki 11 represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment. What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area on masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter—rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites. Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age. Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."