Mexican archaeologists say they have made the first ever discovery of pits built around 15,000 years ago to trap mammoths.
Announcing the find on Wednesday, researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said the two pits contained about 824 bones from at least 14 mammoths.
Hunters may have used torches to scare the mammals into the area with the traps, which are about 6ft (1.70 meters) deep and 25 yards (meters) in diameter, but one of the skulls found also had marks of a spear wound on the front.
Luis Córdova Barradas, the leader of the five-person excavation team, said the find in the neighbourhood of Tultepec, just north of Mexico City, marks a watershed in the study of the relationship between prehistoric hunting and gathering communities and the huge herbivores.
“There was little evidence before that hunters attacked mammoths. It was thought they frightened them into getting stuck in swamps and then waited for them to die,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “This is evidence of direct attacks on mammoths. In Tultepec we can see there was the intention to hunt and make use of the mammoths.”
The first signs of pits emerged by chance in January this year during excavations to prepare the land for use as a rubbish tip.
Córdova Barradas said that at the time the traps were built, the area was probably home to about six herds of mammoths. He said that further excavations might reveal more traps.
The archaeologist added that there was still much to study about the mammoth bones already found in the pits and the range of uses they were given by the hunters.
There is a particular mystery, he said, over why the haul only includes shoulder blades from the right side. “The left shoulder blades are missing – why?” he asked.
Parts of a jawbone and spine of a camel, and the tooth of a horse were also found at the site. Both species later became extinct in the Americas.