April 5, 2012 -- On the frozen tundra of northern Siberia, scientists say a young woolly mammoth has been found, remarkably well-preserved after more than 10,000 years, and showing signs -- never seen in such detail before -- that its carcass was cut open by human hunters.
The animal was probably about three years old when it was killed, say researchers. It is in such good shape that pink flesh and reddish-brown fur remain. The mammoth was found in 2010 by local people; scientists have come from around the world to study it.
The mammoth, nicknamed Yuka, was probably attacked by top predators, perhaps lions. Prof. Daniel Fisher, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan who has examined the remains, says there are clear bite marks on the mammoth's lower legs and tail, and signs that the attackers clawed at their prey. They apparently broke one of its hind legs, so that it was helpless to escape them. An awful way to die.
But the plot thickens, Fisher said. There are no signs that the predators finished the mammoth off by biting down on its trunk and snout, something large carnivores with strong jaws would likely do.
Instead, scientists say they found that someone slit the animal open, as if with a crude knife. Most of the internal organs were missing. The skull, pelvis, ribs and other bones were also removed, and placed next to the carcass, which was then buried.
"This is not the way lions enter carcasses," said Fisher. "If typical signs of lion entry are not present, that tells us that human beings must have somehow gained control of the carcass."
Those ancient hunters were methodical about their work. Fisher said they cut the mammoth's hide slowly and carefully. The missing organs were probably used quickly for food.
"But you don't take all that away and just leave the rest," Fisher said. "It would have been too valuable just to leave to scavengers. So that suggests it was intentionally buried, so that perhaps they could come back for it later. This kind of burial for preservation of meat -- that's something that people in high latitudes still do today."
Fisher and other scientists had joined with a French-based group called Mammuthus, trying to uncover and preserve the prehistoric past.
"This baby mammoth gives a point -- a pixel -- to place on the photograph that we are trying to reconstruct of the last ice age," said Bernard Buigues, the group's founder.
Other, more complete mammoth remains have been found in Siberia and elsewhere. But Fisher said few are as well preserved as Yuka, and none show such clear signs of human handiwork.
Inevitably, there have been questions about whether Yuka's flesh could be in good enough shape for someone to try to clone a modern-day mammoth from it. Most researchers are doubtful; DNA deteriorates over time, especially in permafrost.
"Then, if it did happen, wouldn't a single mammoth be lonely and sad?" said Tim Walker, who has been producing a documentary on Yuka for the BBC and the Discovery Channel. "They were, after all, communal animals."