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Tultepec welcomes its visitors as "The land of pyrotechnics." However, systematic excavations undertaken in recent years by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) reveal that this Mexican municipality was, above all, and continues to be, "land of mammoths."
The recent discovery of an unprecedented context of hunting and slaughtering mammoths, with an approximate age of 15 thousand years, “represents a watershed, a touchstone on what until now we imagined was the interaction of bands of hunter-gatherers with these enormous herbivores ”, expressed Pedro Francisco Sánchez Nava, national coordinator of Archeology at INAH, by announcing this "news of global impact" given its importance in regard to the studies of Prehistory, particularly of America.
In a press conference and on behalf of the anthropologist Diego Prieto Hernández, the general director of the Institute, Sánchez Nava said that this finding changes that “hazardous” and “eventual” scene that the textbooks dealt with on the hunting of the mammoth: that of a an animal that was attacked only when it fell into a swamp.
On the contrary, the excavations in San Antonio Xahuento demonstrate the use of the environment and the social organization achieved by the first settlers of the Basin of Mexico to undertake this hunting activity.
As an antecedent to this finding, the national coordinator of Archeology recalled the exploration three years ago, in that same town (San Antonio Xahuento), of the almost complete skeleton of one of these proboscideans, with which the Museum of the Museum was inaugurated a year ago. Mamut, space where the meeting with the media was held.
The municipal president of Tultepec, the engineer Armando Portuguez Fuentes, said that this experience allowed him to warn with opportunity, at the beginning of this 2019, of the appearance of bone remains of mammoths in an excavation that was done for the confinement of waste. The town hall chronicler, Juana Antonieta Zúñiga, and the archaeologist Luis Córdoba Barradas, from the Directorate of Archaeological Salvage (DSA) of the INAH, attended the place, who was in charge of rescuing the aforementioned mammoth skeleton.
In three of the profiles exposed by this large excavation (40 by 100 meters and 8 deep), Córdoba observed different mammoth bones, but what attracted his attention were some vertical cuts in the arrangement of the strata or layers. They were two pits with walls of almost 90 degrees, 1.70 meters deep and 25 meters in diameter, which were used as traps for these proboscis.
The archaeologist specified that from the site called "Tultepec II", where work has been done for almost ten months with the support of the city council, 824 bones have been recovered, most of them unrelated to anatomy, corresponding to 14 mammoths. The remains of eight come from the first two excavation units located in the southwest corner of the terrain; while the remains of another six were rescued north of it, in the third excavation unit.
Within those graves, below 3.50 meters, eight skulls, five jaws, a hundred vertebrae, 179 ribs, 11 scapulae, five humerus, as well as ulnas (ulnas of a long bone), pelvis, femurs, have been recovered. tibiae and other "small" bones.
Although the remains of 14 mammoths are below those registered in sites in northern and eastern Europe - where vestiges of 100 or 166 mammoths have even been found - "Tultepec II" can now enter the list of so-called Mammoth Megasites , he indicated.
Cautious, but aware of the significance of the find (there is only a precedent in Japan of 40,000-year-old conical traps for medium-sized mammals), Córdoba points out that they may not be the only mammoth traps in the area. The people of San Antonio Xahuento have referred to three nearby sites with more remains, so they would be facing a "line of traps", a strategy that would allow hunters to reduce the margin of error in capturing the specimen.
A climate change scenario
To understand this discovery in depth, the archaeologist, who is also a chronicler of the neighboring municipality of Tultitlán, elaborated on the glacial maximum changes, late Pleistocene, a time of great climatic instability in which the poles froze causing a drop in sea level across the planet and drier environments in various regions, in the case of the Mexico Basin.
In that sense, Tultepec prehistoric traps they were excavated in the clay at the bottom of Lake Xaltocan approximately 15 thousand years ago, when their levels dropped and left large plains exposed. This global phenomenon coincided with a local one: the great eruption of Popocatepetl 14,700 years ago, which motivated a large mobilization of animals and human beings to the north of the Mexico Basin, where the volcanic ash fall was less.
The deposition of thin layers of ash, between and above several of the recovered mammoth bones, as well as the presence of bentonite (lake bed clay) on others, allows tentative dating of this context and speculates its continued use throughout 500 years.
However, the record of more remains above the graves It is evidence that once the level of the lake was recovered and the pits were filled with the decomposition of tulle, reeds and other aquatic vegetation, this area continued to be a "mammoth graveyard".
With all this information obtained first-hand, the archaeologist Córdoba provides a more complex and complete scene of what the Mammoth hunt in the Basin of Mexico, where groups of between 20 and 30 hunters, prodded the herd with torches and branches, to separate a specimen and direct it to these traps. Once there, it was finished off from the outside and then came a long process of using the animal.
Benefit and rite
The quantity and volume of the recovered bones have exceeded the rooms of the “Víctor Urbán Velasco” House of Culture —complex that houses the Mammoth Museum—, used as warehouses. On floors, tables and shelves, femurs, pelvis, scapulae and defenses (highly developed upper incisors) can be seen with plaster bandages, and even with wooden frames that were made in situ, for their extraction and transfer.
On a table, the INAH researcher has placed the few remains recovered in "Tultepec II" that do not correspond to mammoths: two vertebrae and a camel jaw, as well as a horse molar.
The fact that this site was used exclusively for hunting and butchering these proboscideans, males and females, of different sizes and ages, makes it an inexhaustible source of knowledge, since - as he pointed out - the studies of Prehistory in Mexico had been limited to the establishment of lithic typologies as proof of human presence in these contexts.
The space, where they are still working on a strip of 130 m², reveals the prehistoric groups of the Basin of Mexico as true actors of their circumstance, sufficiently organized to get these great prey and make the most of them, but also capable of rendering a certain “honor” to these giants who allowed their subsistence, as evidenced by the accommodation and intentional absence of some bones.
As an example of this practical knowledge, Luis Córdoba specified that the ribs of these animals, as can be seen in the marks of five, were used to recharge and cut the meat; The end of an ulna was also found, which served as a polishing tool, possibly to remove oil from the skin. Also, the organs were consumed, including the tongue that could weigh up to 12 kilos, which is why their skulls are usually inverted.
But the rite was also present. The DSA specialist points out that a mammoth from which two thirds have been recovered was the subject of a special arrangement: its scapulae were superimposed and placed on the left side of the skull, and below it - parallel to the defenses - a dorsal vertebra 60 cm. Surrounding this composition was the defense of another mammoth, with a curvature of three meters.
This specimen has an attack mark and it is noted that its left defense, shorter than the right, regenerated after a fracture; indications that hunter-gatherers watched him and tried to hunt him for years, "that is why they must have considered him brave, fierce, and they showed him their respect in this way, with this particular arrangement," says Luis Córdoba.
Another interesting aspect is that, of the six registered scapulae, all are right, which could indirectly point to the existence of a ritual where, left and right, had different connotations for the ancient settlers of the lake area.
Finally, Salvador Pulido, director of Archaeological Salvage at INAH, stated that the excavations in "Tultepec II" represent "the tip of the iceberg" to understand what happened in the Basin of Mexico during the Pleistocene: “Here we had the opportunity to have profiles of tens of meters, so we realized that we were literally inside prehistoric traps. We could argue that in other archaeological salvages we have been in a similar context, but the limits of the excavations only let us see horizontal strata ”.
Therefore, he said, it would be worthwhile to carry out surveys with georadar to rule out or validate the hypothesis that more graves are found in the area, including carrying out archaeological surveys on the slopes of Cerro de Tultepec, where the hunters' camps must have been. -collectors.
Meanwhile, the recovered materials will make it possible to expand the exhibition of the Mammoth Museum and deal with little-addressed topics, such as the diseases that afflicted these colossi that roamed thousands of years ago, in the now chaotic conurbation of Mexico City.