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Innovative studies delve into the perennial enigma of the annihilation of archaic North America’s gigantic creatures, underscoring recent investigations employing ZooMS to scrutinize bone shards from Smithsonian’s repositories. It underscores the imperative of conserving archaeological repositories to unveil tidbits about erstwhile life forms and their obliterations.

Dr. Mariya Antonosyan, a molecular archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, Dr. Torben Rick, a custodian at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and Prof. Nicole Boivin, likewise from the Max Planck Institute, co-authored a scrutinizing piece in Frontiers in Mammal Science. Employing cutting-edge methods, they scrutinized fossil bone shards at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Their examination proffers novel insights that might refine our comprehension of the causes and consequences pertaining to the eradication of hefty mammals.

50,000 years in the past, massive creatures dominated North America. Meandering mammoths wandered the frozen expanses, whilst the woodland hosted towering mastodons, fierce saber-toothed tigers, and gargantuan wolves. Bison and astonishingly tall camels traversed the continent in herds, while mammoth beavers navigated its water bodies. Towering ground sloths, tipping the scales at over 1,000 kg, were widespread primarily eastward of the Rocky Mountains.

And then, somewhere at the close of the Last Ice Age, most of North America’s colossal fauna vanished. The cause and mechanisms are ardently debated. Proponents suggest that human incursion played a critical role. Perhaps the behemoths were hunted and consumed, or humans disrupted their habitats or competed for essential sustenance. Nonetheless, other investigators argue that climatic shifts were responsible, as the globe warmed after years of frigid climate, altering habitats quicker than the colossal fauna could adapt. Discord between these perspectives has been intense and the discussions fierce.

Albeit extensive investigations, the riddle of the Ice Age remains unresolved. Currently, there’s inadequate evidence to conclusively dismiss any scenario or endorse alternative theories that have surfaced (such as epidemics, celestial impact events, or a composite of factors). A contributing factor is that numerous bones from which we trace the presence of colossal creatures are fragmented and hard to pinpoint. While some locales preserve these remains remarkably well, at others, the bones have suffered greatly, worn down into minute particles too distorted for identification. These deteriorating actions include exposure to the elements, erosion, breaking apart, and biotic decomposition.

These dilemmas cause a void in critical data concerning how different colossal fauna species were spread out, the precise moment of their disappearance, and how they reacted to the arrival of humans or to the climatic alterations of their habitats during the Late Pleistocene epoch.

Modern technological approaches to ancient remains

Our initiative aims to bridge this knowledge gap. In pursuit of this, we have shifted our focus to the remarkable compendium of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. As a repository of findings from numerous archaeological digs conducted over the last century, the Museum serves as an invaluable cache of animal remains pertinent to the puzzle of how North America’s gigantic creatures met their end. Yet, a plethora of these specimens are heavily fragmented and unidentifiable, which until now, has curtailed their potential to enlighten us regarding this matter.

Luckily, recent advancements have brought forth new biomolecular techniques for archaeological research. Instead of embarking on field excavations, researchers are directing their efforts towards scientific labs, exploiting novel techniques to scrutinize extant materials. An emergent method known as ZooMS – an abbreviation for Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry – is gaining traction. It operates on the principle that although most proteins swiftly degrade post-mortem, some, including bone collagen, can endure for extended time frames. Collagen proteins often exhibit minute yet distinctive variations among different taxonomic groups ofFor various creatures, and distinct species in particular, collagen sequences can serve as a unique molecular identifier to assist in pinpointing bone shards that defy recognition. Hence, segments of collagen protein taken from trivial amounts of bone can be isolated and subjected to analysis via a mass spectrometer to carry out identifications of residual bones that conventional zooarchaeologists are unable to achieve.

Choosing archaeological specimens for investigation

We opted to employ this technique to re-examine the stored specimens at the Smithsonian Museum. Our investigation was exploratory in nature, posing the pivotal inquiry: could bones kept at the Smithsonian Museum retain adequate collagen for us to uncover more about the shattered bone remains in its repositories? The outcome was uncertain, given that several digs had occurred numerous decades prior. While the specimens had been preserved during the last ten years or so within a cutting-edge, temperature-controlled setting, the older date of the digs indicated that they might not have been managed, processed, or conserved at every step according to contemporary norms.

Our scrutiny covered bone samples from five archaeological localities. These sites dated back to the Late Pleistocene/early Holocene (circa 13,000 to 10,000 calendar years past) or prior and were situated in Colorado, in the American West. The most ancient was unearthed in 1934, the most recent in 1981.

While portions of the specimens from these locations were recognizable, a vast amount was highly splintered and lacked distinguishing characteristics that could facilitate zooarchaeological pinpointing to species, genus, or even family. Some bone pieces appeared incredibly unpromising – they had been bleached and eroded, or their edges rounded, hinting at their transport by water or sediment before being buried at the localities.

Unveiling superior biomolecular conservation

Our discoveries were astonishing. In spite of the collections’ antiquity, the unassuming nature of much of the specimens, and the classic origins of the bones themselves, they produced exceptional ZooMS outcomes. Incredibly, 80% of the sampled bones produced enough collagen for ZooMS identifications. A full 73% could be pinpointed down to the genus level.

The species we pinpointed using ZooMS encompassed Bison, Mammuthus (the group to which mammoths belong), Camelidae (the camel lineage), and conceivably Mammut (the group to which mastodons belong). In certain instances, we could only designate the samples to wider taxonomic categories as numerous North American creatures are yet to be included in ZooMS reference libraries. These compilations, which are extensively developed for Eurasia but not other regions, are vital to decipher the spectra produced by a sample during mass spectrometry analysis.

Our findings have significant repercussions for museum holdings. The objects we evaluated are, in all respects, the less regarded kin of the illustrious specimens presented in natural history museums. At first glance, these thoroughly shattered, diminutive, and nondescriptive animal bones are mundane and seemingly insignificant. Yet, like further biomolecular methodologies, ZooMS is demonstrating the immense data stored within these overlooked artifacts that have captivated neither scholars nor onlookers for ages.

Moreover, our research underscores the potential of such assortments for delving into current discussions concerning the precise timing, locale, and mechanism of megafauna extinctions. By making the analysis of the broken bone remains that comprise much of the megafaunal record accessible, ZooMS can contribute substantially new investigative data to address age-old queries about megafaunal disappearances. ZooMS presents a reasonably straightforward, prompt, and economical approach to distill novel insights from long-ago excavated sites.

Our study further accentuates the necessity to preserve archaeological assemblages. When fiscal resources are stretched thin for researchers and institutions, archaeological treasures and bones that lack immediate evident allure or value might be disregarded or discarded. Ensuring museums receive sufficient financial support for the lasting conservation and storage of archaeological remnants is crucial. As our analysis indicates, such age-old materials can be revitalized in surprising manners – in this context, allowing for the utilization of petite bone shards to edge closer to unraveling the enigma of the disappearance of some of the largest creatures to have roamed the landscapes of prehistoric North America.

Image Source: frank60 / Shutterstock

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