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Mammoth Bone Dwellings - Houses Made from Elephants

Upper Paleolithic Housing


Diorama Reconstruction of Mezhirich Mammoth Bone Dwelling

Diorama display of the Mammoth Bone Dwelling of Mezhirich, Ukraine, at the American Museum of Natural History

Wally Gobetz

Mammoth bone dwellings are a very early type of housing constructed by Upper Paleolithic hunter gatherers in central Europe during the Late Pleistocene. A mammoth (Mammuthus primogenus, and also known as Woolly Mammoth) was a type of enormous ancient now-extinct elephant, a hairy large-tusked mammal that stood ten feet tall as an adult. Mammoths roamed most of the world, including the continents of Europe and North America, until they died out at the end of the Pleistocene. During the late Pleistocene, mammoths provided meat and skin for human hunter-gatherers, fuel for fires, and, in some cases during the Upper Paleolithic of central Europe, as building materials for houses.

A mammoth bone dwelling is typically a circular or oval structure with walls made of stacked large mammoth bones, often modified to allow them to be lashed together or implanted into the soil. Within the interior is typically found a central hearth or several scattered hearths. The hut is generally surrounded by numerous large pits, full of mammoth and other animal bones. Ashy concentrations with flint artifacts appear to represent middens; many of the mammoth bone settlements have a preponderance of ivory and bone tools. External hearths, butchering areas and flint workshops are often found in association with the hut: scholars call these combinations Mammoth Bone Settlements (MBS).

Dating mammoth bone dwellings has been problematic. The earliest dates were between 20,000 and 14,000 years ago, but most of these have been redated to between 14,000-15,000 years ago. However, the oldest known MBS is from the Molodova site, a Neanderthal Mousterian occupation located on the Dniester River of Ukraine, and dated some 30,000 years earlier than most of the known Mammoth Bone Settlements.

Settlement Patterns

In the Dnepr river region of the Ukraine, numerous mammoth bone settlements have been found and recently redated to the epi-Gravettian between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago. These mammoth bone huts are typically located on old river terraces, above and within a ravine trending down to a slope overlooking the river. This type of location is believed to have been a strategic one, as it is placed in the path or near the pathway of what would have been migrating animal herds between the steppe plain and the riverside.

Some mammoth bone dwellings are isolated structures; others have up to six dwellings, although they may not have been occupied at the same time. Evidence for contemporaneity of dwelling has been identified by refits of tools: for example, at Mezhirich in Ukraine, it appears that at least three dwellings were occupied at the same time. Shipman (2014) has argued that sites such as Mezhirich and others with mega-deposits of mammoth bone (known as mammoth megasites) were made possible by the introduction of dogs as hunting partners, 

Mammoth Bone Hut Dates

Mammoth bone dwellings are not the only or first type of house: Upper Paleolithic open air houses are found as pitlike depressions excavated into the subsoil or based with stone rings or postholes, like that seen at Pushkari or Kostenki. Some UP houses are partly built of bone and partly of stone and wood, such as Grotte du Reine, France.

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