By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The frozen carcass of a woolly mammoth found in Siberia with unmistakable signs of spear wounds is providing evidence that people inhabited Arctic regions thousands of years earlier than previously known.
Russian scientists on Thursday said the male mammoth excavated from a bluff on Yenisei Bay on the Arctic Ocean was killed by hunters 45,000 years ago, providing the earliest indication of the presence of humans in the Arctic.
Until now, the oldest evidence of humans in Arctic regions dated to "more or less 30,000 years ago," according to Vladimir Pitulko, senior research scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for the History of Material Culture in St. Petersburg.
The people who endured the harsh Arctic conditions likely lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Pitulko said. Mammoths, the close elephant relatives that were the largest land creatures in the region, represented an important resource for them.
"Indeed, these animals provide an endless source of different goods: food with meat, fat and marrow; fuel with dung, fat and bones; and raw material with long bones and ivory," Pitulko said.
"They certainly would use them as food, especially certain parts like tongue or liver as a delicacy, but hunting for the ivory was more important," added Pitulko, with the ivory substituting for wood in the treeless steppe landscape.
The mammoth, excavated in 2012, had injuries indicating it had been killed by people. Damage to its ribs appears to have been caused by spears thrown by hunters, while shoulder-blade and cheekbone injuries probably came from hand-held thrusting spears, Pitulko added.
There also was damage to the right tusk that may have been caused by people chopping at it after the mammoth was killed.
"The main part of it is that the mammoth was really killed by humans, and evidence for that is unbeatable," Pitulko said.
Scientists think mammoth-hunting may have been a critical factor in enabling people to survive in the Arctic and trek across northernmost Siberia, helping them reach the vicinity of the Bering land bridge that at the time linked Siberia to Alaska. The first humans to reach the New World crossed that land bridge, then spread through the Americas.
The fact that humans populated Arctic regions sooner than previously known suggests the possibility that people also crossed the Bering land bridge earlier than currently suspected, Pitulko added.
The research was published in the journal Science.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)