SI Vault
Lincoln Barnett
October 15, 1956
A distinguished American writer evaluates this rare find and re-creates for Sports Illustrated the stirring drama of a hunt by prehistoric man
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October 15, 1956

The Mammoth Kill

A distinguished American writer evaluates this rare find and re-creates for Sports Illustrated the stirring drama of a hunt by prehistoric man

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The hunters again moved forward, more rapidly this time, less wary of being observed. Suddenly two of the older mammoths became alert. They tossed their heads and peered nearsightedly from side to side. Then, extending their trunks, they trumpeted a shrill warning. The other mammoths tensed; the calves edged closer to their mothers. For a moment they stood irresolute, as the hunters, moving swiftly, left the central channel and approached the shallow waters of the pool. Now from the meadows on the right bank there sounded wild shrieks as the women of the tribe raced toward the pool, waving their flaming brands. Terrified by the flickering fire and streamers of smoke, the screams of the women and the shouts of the charging hunters, the mammoths wheeled in panic and then, with the instinct of the herd, massed together and lumbered downstream, wild-eyed, stumbling, slipping and splashing in the wake of an aged bull. The hunters in their path separated and scrambled swiftly up the red clay banks. But those who had approached from above the pool hastened in pursuit, converging on a 4-year-old calf which was struggling to stay by its mother's side.

At the end of the sand bar two huntsmen overtook the little mammoth and plunged their spears into its body, one in the shoulder, one in the belly. The calf screamed in pain and faltered, floundering half on the sand bar, half in the water. A third hunter ran up and, taking his stance directly in front of the wounded animal, thrust his spear deep into its breast, penetrating the lungs. A last gurgling expiration came from its trunk, and then its knees crumpled and the calf fell dead upon the pebbly sand.

Meanwhile the mother mammoth, following the stampeding herd, apprehended her offspring's predicament and halted in her tracks. Hearing her calf's screams of agony, she paused momentarily, rolling her eyes in fear and anger. In this moment of indecision one of the hunters who had ascended the stream from below the pool crept up close behind her and plunged his spear deep into her lower bowels. Dreadfully stricken, she lunged forward, past the body of her fallen calf, trumpeting in torment. As she lifted her trunk, another hunter hurled his spear from close range into the mammoth's throat. A third and a fourth attacked her hind legs, tearing tendons and muscles from the bone. Flailing her great tusks, she staggered blindly about the sand bar, but the hunters pressed their attack. Leaping nimbly out of range and circling again from the rear, they thrust spear after spear into her belly and flanks. At last she stood immobilized, bleeding from a dozen wounds, mortally injured but still erect, towering above her midget assailants. Then abruptly she toppled and crashed upon the shaking strand.

As she lay dying, the other mammoths continued their frenzied stampede downstream. Three adults and a calf came to a section where the banks were lower and, emerging from the stream bed, attained the safety of solid ground. Two others—an adult male and his young mate—lagged behind, frightened temporarily by the howling, torch-waving women on the bank. Then they plodded on to join the rest of the herd.

Unlike modern hunters, primitive man did not slaughter hosts of living creatures for lust of killing; he slew only to sustain his immediate needs. And so the tribesmen allowed the surviving mammoths to wander unmolested across the valley, and proceeded jubilantly to butcher their kill. With their stone knives they carved great chunks of meat from the bone, and with their stone scrapers they separated it in long strips from the hide. They built two great fires at opposite ends of the sand bar to repel vultures and jackals, beetles and blowflies and other carrion-eaters that swiftly would be attracted to the site. And over the fires they roasted their initial feast, beginning with the choicest tidbits which ever were the hunter's first reward: eyeballs, tongues and brains.

By sundown the best meat had been removed from the two carcasses and wrapped in the mammoth's own skin for preservation. Shouldering their burdens, the hunters filed up the grassy slope to their encampment on the terrace of the valley, leaving the bones where they lay to be picked clean by the multifarious scavengers of earth and sky.

In the weeks that followed, the green floor of the San Pedro Valley was crisscrossed time and time again by roving herds of bison, horses, antelopes and mammoth. But it was not until the tribesmen's meat supply was nearly gone that they ventured forth to hunt again. How many forays they made that summer no one can ever know. But the evidence of the bone bed reveals clearly that the shallow pool with its sand bar and steep clay banks provided a natural ambush, a lure for all manner of big game and a rich hunting ground for man. The nine mammoths and other animals that perished there may have been slain in a single season—or two or three. But that they died not only in the same place but at almost the same time is shown by the close entanglement of their skeletons and the uniform workmanship of the human weapons that lay buried with their bones.

The hunters might well have prospered there for many another year had it not been for a change in the local weather. For some reason the San Pedro Valley grew wetter for a time; its meadows turned into marshlands, and layer on layer of silt and sand piled up in the ancient channel, filling the stream bed and covering the silent bones. This was the first in a series of accidents that embalmed them for the eye of modern man. For the creation of a swamp wrapped them in snug protective jackets of silt and clay, thus insulating them against chemical and bacterial action and immobilizing them against the violence of scavengers or floods. Then, as the northern glaciers receded toward the Pole, the Arizona climate gradually became drier, creating the southwestern arid land which has preserved the bones as Egyptian relics have been preserved in the desert plateaus above the Nile.

Nature and chance

They might have lain there unobserved forever had it not been for two other fortuitous events. The first was the cutting of a modern erosion channel, beginning half a century ago and terminating in the washout of 1955, which plainly exposed the bones. And finally, as Dr. Haury has pointed out, they were found by an alert and perceptive man who recognized their scientific value.

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