Mystery Of How Early Man Hunted Mammoths Using Their Own Tusks Revealed

A man touches a giant bronze sculpture of a mammoth in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, on March 7, 2011. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages

In a perfect show of adding insult to injury, evidence suggests that early humans hunted mammoths using spears made of mammoth ivory.

According to The Siberian Times, people looking for mammoths in Siberia found a mammoth-ivory spear in the ribcage of a mammoth. It was long and smooth, with a long groove carved into it to hold sharp rocks. Anthropologists have also studied other spears made of mammoth ivory and wooly rhinoceros horn from Stone Age humanity. Presumably, the spear was inside the animal because early humans were trying to kill and eat the animal.

Why did the hunters not eat the mammoth and retrieve the tool? It's possible that the pachyderm survived the attack, walked away, and died later. Animals can live for years after an attack from humans, without veterinary care, such as this deer whose rib bones grew around an arrow. In this case, the spear was among the ribs, suggesting that it landed between them and got stuck in other animal tissue such as muscle and fat.

This was an important find, and it's lucky that there are so many people in the Russian Arctic looking for mammoth remains. In the Sakha Republic of Siberia, an option for summer employment is to scour the land for mammoth ivory. As the earth warms, it melts the permafrost, revealing behemoths frozen for tens of thousands of years. If you do find a mammoth tusk, it could make you enough money to not have to work until next summer, but if you don't, you could put yourself in debt searching.

In fact, people have found so much mammoth ivory that there is now a thriving trade, and it's legal to buy in most U.S. states. The Telegraph calls it "guilt free ivory" because it is an alternative to elephant ivory—you know for sure that no one killed an animal to get it. However, others are concerned that the mammoth ivory simply provides a cover for the illegal elephant ivory trade.

These mammoth hunters often find remains of animals that are important to paleontologists and anthropologists, and they alert nearby researchers. Sometimes they find fleshy carcasses, such as Lyuba, the most well-preserved mammoth carcass ever found, who was found by a reindeer breeder.

Animal tusks are defined as teeth that extend outside of an animal's mouth, and are grown by animals like elephants and their relatives, narwhals, walruses, some deer, and some pig-relatives like warthogs. They are made of a particularly hard type of dentine, or tooth bone. People carve tusks because they are durable, carvable and don't splinter easily.

It is only fitting that people would use ivory from mammoths that they had killed and carved it into weapons. It's unknown whether they appreciated the irony of killing animals with the sharpened teeth of their own kin.