Seward Peninsula Mastodon Tusk – “too old”, therefore Too Old.

Worked 35,000 year old mammoth tusk from Alaska. Note scale! Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al.

This is getting a little out of the area, but I’ve just run across a report by Gelvin-Reymuller et al.  (download PDF) on the finding of a worked mammoth tusk from the north side of the Seward Peninsula.  That is on the west-central Alaska coast near the closest approach to Asia, and hence smack in the middle of Beringia.  The tusk is interesting in its own right, of course, but doubly so when we see that it was dated to well before the last glacial maximum:

Though the age of the tusk is only peripherally relevant to the significance of the reduction described in this paper, the tusk was sampled for dating. A single bone collagen sample from the tusk was dated by Beta Analytic, Inc. following standard pretreatment and analytical procedures. A 5.2 g of sample was first removed from an inner area, well beneath a surficial treatment of Elmer’s Glue-All which the tusk’s discoverer had initially applied to the surface. The resultant AMS date was 35,150 +/- 530 BP (Beta-189092). …… The latest mammoth remains in mainland Alaska are dated to around 11,400 BP.   Since the age of this tusk places it beyond the range of initial human habitation in the New World, as currently understood, we posit that the tusk was worked by later inhabitants of the area.

The authors note that it is possible to diagnose from the reduction strategies used whether ivory was worked when fresh/green or when already subfossilized,  though curiously they draw no such conclusions about this particular piece.  I find it intriguing how a central Beringian artifact made on a 35,000 year old material is so readily characterized as a recent manufacture.  While this piece would pre-date the earliest known record of extreme NE Asia and while I wouldn’t second-guess the authors nor impugn their motives and while it is certainly possible that a fossil mammoth tusk was worked at a much later date, I’m, uh, just sayin’.   This paper is interesting on a number of levels, not least as an example of stickhandling around competing paradigms.

Detail of working method of Alaskan tusk. Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al

3 responses to “Seward Peninsula Mastodon Tusk – “too old”, therefore Too Old.

  1. The authors say with respect to distinguishing whether ivory is worked green or from fossil contexts: “Further experiments assessed at a microscopic level might prove useful.” I wonder if any of them are doing this, surely it is important with such finds to confirm all possibilities. There is a lot of fossil ivory being worked at the moment as a replacement for elephant ivory. There is probably knowledge in that community (scattered all over the world) about how best to work it and a bit of “ethnographic” research with these carvers could prove instructive as well. Is there any solid evidence that this part of the Alaska could not have been inhabited at the time?


  2. I do find it curious, as I note in the post, that the authors say it is possible to tell between green and fossil bone working, but don’t seem to say which it is for this piece, or even to say it is equivocal. So yes, a fresh look at this piece could be warranted. Fossil ivory is getting a lot of press lately as tons of material melts out of Siberia, and with the continuing embargoes on modern ivory. Just a google search turns up dozens of ways of getting it: and yes I agree talking to those who carve it might well be useful. (it’s about 80 bucks a pound or more: ) However, a lot of those carvers seem to use modern power tools (understandably) and to what extent they have an empathetic feel for the material as an ancient one is debatable. They must use hand tools, sometimes, I would think!!

    It’s also worth noting the find locale is about halfway between the two Alaskan fluted point sites which I’ve talked about recently, Serpentine Hot Springs and Raven Bluff. It’s possible it dates 31k human behaviour, or 10.5k behaviour, or anything, really.

    Definitely worth a closer look, though I am certainly glad it was published in the first place.


    • Huh, this 1911 encyclopedia article is cool, not least because it notes that a lot of mammoth ivory was already in use then.

      It also presciently comments:

      In England tusks have been recently dug up – for instance at Dungeness – as long as 12 ft. and weighing Zoo lb. The Siberian deposits have been worked for now nearly two centuries. The store appears to be as inexhaustible as a coalfield. Some think that a day may come when the spread of civilization may cause the utter disappearance of the elephant in Africa, and that it will be to these deposits that we may have to turn as the only source of animal ivory.

      Anyway, there is a quite detailed set of comments on the differing natures of different ivories from the perspective of carving.

      (Note the inexplicable “seahorse teeth” actually refers to the trade name for Hippo ivory)


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