In 1966, archaeologists discovered what appeared to be a primitive hut constructed almost entirely of mammoth bones. The structure was found in the Dnieper river valley in what is today Ukraine. As far back as the 1950s, other such “huts” were found in Poland, Moravia and the Czech Republic. Using carbon dating, the various sites were dated from 23,000 B.C. at the oldest to 12,000 B.C. for the latest.
The Dnieper river valley find was composed of tusks and several hundred bones that, although collapsed, were clearly a circular structure about 20 to 33 feet in diameter. Archaeologists reconstructed the bones in a way they thought was logical as suggested by the pattern of where the bones lay on the ground.
But were these mammoth bone structures truly huts in which Ice Age people lived? Or do they represent a sculpture of some sort with an entirely different purpose or meaning?
We’ll discuss that controversy more in a bit. However, there are good indications that the Ukrainian sites and others were built as permanent shelters similar to a teepee or other such dwellings.
For example, there’s evidence that a hearth was placed near the center of the bone structure. That would indicate a fire for cooking and keeping warm. Stone tools were found both inside and outside the structure. Furthermore, pits that contained stone tools and other kinds of bone fragments were found outside but nearby. Archaeologists suggest the bones made up a frame over which thick animal hides were draped to enclose them and keep the warmth inside.
But now let’s turn to another more recent and remarkable find of a mammoth bone structure or sculpture.
This one was discovered several feet beneath the ground on Russia’s forest-steppe. When archaeologists had excavated the site, they were stunned to have uncovered a massive structure that would have taken the bones of more than 60 mammoths to build. It was 40-feet in diameter. Carbon dating places the time of active usage at about 25,000 B.C.
The sheer size of the Russian structure suggests it must be something other than a place to live. Just covering the roof over the bone sculpture with hides would have been a massive undertaking. It would have required hundreds of hides. It also would have been much more difficult to heat because of the large and spacious interior volume. Just gathering the wood for that task seems a burdensome task because of how time-consuming it would have been during the bitter cold of endless Ice Age winters.
There are other mysterious facets to the Russian site as well. For example, some of the bones retained traces of meat and cartilage. If this was a dwelling place, having raw meat hanging from the wall fixtures would have been like placing a welcome sign for dangerous wolves and other scavenging predators to come calling!
Another interesting facet of the Russian find is that only mammoth meat scraps were found inside. The other smaller hut-like bone structures routinely featured remains of horse, deer, rabbit and other frequently eaten animals by paleolithic hunters.
Finally, it’s widely believed the people of the era were highly nomadic. They moved frequently out of necessity to follow the migrations of the critters they hunted for food, clothing and to make tools. A large structure would not have been conducive to a settled-down lifestyle.
This suggests the site may have had a more ceremonial purpose. It may have been visited on special occasions that had spiritual or religious meaning. That, in turn, could mean that the scraps of mammoth meat found inside were burned as part of ritual offerings. On the other hand, the site may have been a once-a-year gathering spot where people came together to celebrate a special event, such as the spring equinox.
At the very least, Ice Age mammoth bone sculptures — or buildings — are proof that the people of that era had skills to plan, organize, build and design complex structures of lasting and important consequence.