October 20, 2020

Mexico does not know what to do with its mammoths | Science


A humble poster with the legend “Project Tultepec II” alerts the arrival to the last great archaeological discovery of Mexico: an excavation where they have found for the first time in the world two traps dug in order to hunt mammoths and remains of 14 of them. “Prehistory texts will have to be rewritten from this,” says historian Juana Zúñiga, in charge of the project, about the unprecedented discovery. The emotion, however, is not long in setting. Although the finding represents “an international milestone” that has put the site on the scientific radar, the Mexican government has turned its back on it and has allocated almost no resources. The researchers assume that the finding is much larger, at least a dozen traps and about 40 more mammoths, although they admit that they probably never know.

The archaeologist Luis Córdoba tries to remember: they have found many traps to hunt in the world, and many mammoth bones, but never before have traps been found for these man-made pachyderms, remember. According to him, records show that they were all natural or for smaller animals, such as fish or deer. “It is an important finding because it changes the vision of hunters, who were thought to be small groups that depended too much on nature,” says the researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of Mexico with some huge fangs “The traps dug on purpose prove a great organization of the hunters,” he adds as he walks among some bony remains still half buried as if it were an extension of his own house.

The excavation in which you receive this newspaper It was until less than a year ago a landfill project in Tultepec, a town in the State of Mexico with about 90,000 inhabitants. The finding, however, paralyzed construction since January. The humble team that works these days on the site has limited itself to only removing the bones from the surface, but Córdoba says that “the remains suggest the existence of a line of traps along half a kilometer.” This translates into a dozen traps with between 40 and 70 more mammoths. He admits, however, that they are unlikely to extract them from the earth.

“What would we do with so many bones?” He asks. Next to him, a layer of land placed manually hides, in addition to a pelvis, an economic reality: for lack of resources Mexico will lose knowing with certainty what is in its soil. “We have left bones buried there. Even if we get the resources to get them out, we would have nowhere to put them or what to do with them. ”

Proof of your statements is the tour inside the Mammoth Museum, a humble building dedicated to a copy they found in 2015 when they installed a pipe. Scattered through the corridors of the building, some of the bones found are waiting to be restored. “These were to be offices, but for now they have been designated as a warehouse,” says Córdoba, an academic who does not usually use a mobile phone but who does not stop receiving calls from the international scientific community these days.

Archaeologist Luis Córdoba shows his drawings of the excavation.


Archaeologist Luis Córdoba shows his drawings of the excavation.

Both the bones and the traps are part of the Mexican federal heritage, but the financing of the excavation has been done entirely by the municipality. “What comes will require more investment and we know that economic times are not favorable,” says Zúñiga in relation to the cuts that the public administration has suffered since the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to power. The only contribution the Executive has made so far is the salary of the INAH researcher. “We call on the Government to support the culture and that federal resources can also fall into these projects,” he adds. In the absence of public funds, he says, do not rule out going to private financing.

It is not the first time that the Mexican Government turns its back on what sprouts from its soil. About 10 kilometers from the Tultepec excavation, another group of workers found remains of a mammoth while carrying out the works for the construction of the Santa Lucia Airport, one of the most pampered projects of the Mexican president. A second copy was found days later in the same area. The construction, however, continued its course because the discoveries did not meet the requirements to stop the work, said the director of archaeological rescue of the INAH. “All heritage is important, it cannot be that the great works such as the airport or the Mayan Train are prioritized,” says Zúñiga. “These findings are also important for the equitable development of communities.”

Land of giants

More than 600 years ago, every time the level of the lakes in central Mexico dropped, huge bones appeared on the water’s edge. A femur of a meter and a half long, a hip one meter wide, teeth the size of a human forearm. Those remains that appeared in the mud reaffirmed the theory that the Aztecs had that lived there at that time: the giants had inhabited that place in a previous life. That land of giants, as it was thought until many years later, was nothing other than the Basin of Mexico, a geographical region located around the capital. And the bones did not belong to huge humans, but to mammoths.

The archaeologist Luis Córdoba teaches the skeletal remains in the excavation.


The archaeologist Luis Córdoba teaches the skeletal remains in the excavation.

Córdoba recalls the anecdote recorded in an indigenous manuscript. “There are also reports that the conquerors wrote when they arrived in Mexico that speak of bones that belonged to ancient giants,” he says. In the entire American continent several individual bones have been found several times in countries such as the United States or Argentina. But this finding, the most numerous in the history of Mexico, results from the passage of several herds throughout the 70,000 years that these animals are estimated to have lived there.

After the discovery, the hypothesis is that these organized groups took advantage of the drought of the lakes characteristic of the time of the Glacial Maximum to choose where to dig the traps. “Once the traps were made, the hunters would grab the mammoths with branches, spears and torches until they fell into the holes and, once there, they were killed,” he explains.

With these almost 900 skeletal remains found, the proposal of the Mayor’s Office of Tultepec is to expose them in the municipal museum for themes, such as diseases or growth sequences. Climate change caused the extinction of these animals, explains Córdoba, which because of the lack of rain began to feed poorly and, as a consequence, suffer from diseases such as osteoporosis or arthritis. The archaeologist celebrates that the finding opens “many possibilities for research”, but admits that, with the limited budget they have, they must arrange with public institutions to be able to meet the costs.

Bone remains of 14 mammoths found in Mexico.


Bone remains of 14 mammoths found in Mexico.

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