A recent archeological dig in Mexico shows that gomphotheres — an extinct elephant-like animal believed to have disappeared from North America long before humans got there — actually roamed the continent longer than previously thought. Incredibly, the new evidence suggests these large mammals were hunted by the Clovis people.

The earliest known foragers to populate most of North America were the Clovis people, who migrated south from the glacial areas some 11,500 to 13,500 years ago. Known for their "Clovis" artifacts, they hunted Pleistocene megamammoths such as mammoths and mastodons.


From left to right, artist Sergio de la Rosa's depiction of three elephant ancestors, the mastodon, the mammoth, and the gomphothere.

But new evidence uncovered in Sonora, northwestern Mexico, suggests that these ancient North Americans also hunted gomphotheres (Cuvieronius sp.). These creatures were smaller than mammoths and about the same size as modern elephants. They were once widespread in North America, but until now they were thought to have gone extinct long before humans arrived on the scene.


The discovery broadens the age and geographic range for the Clovis people, establishing El Fin del Mundo as the oldest and southernmost Clovis site. This supports the hypothesis that the origin of the Clovis people was considerably south of the gateways to North America — and that the makeup of the continent's megafauna was more expansive and diverse than assumed.

Bones and Tools Mingled Together

Archaeologists discovered Clovis artifacts together with the bones of two juvenile gomphotheres, a find which suggests they hunted and ate these animals. During excavations, the archaeologists uncovered numerous Clovis artifacts, including spear tips, along with cutting tools and flint flakes from stone tool-making.


Radiocarbon dating placed the site at 13,400 years old, making it one of the two oldest Clovis sites in North America, the other being the Aubrey Clovis site in North Texas.


According to study co-author Vance Holliday, the position and proximity of Clovis weapon fragments relative to the gomphothere bones at the dig indicate that the humans did in fact kill the two animals there. Of the seven Clovis points found, four were in place among the bones, including one with bone and teeth fragments above and below. The other three had eroded away from the bone bed, and were found scattered nearby.

"This is the first Clovis gomphothere, it's the first archaeological gomphothere found in North America, it's the first evidence that people were hunting gomphotheres in North America, and it adds another item to the Clovis menu," Holliday said in a statement.


Read the entire study at PNAS: "Human (Clovis)–gomphothere (Cuvieronius sp.) association ∼13,390 calibrated yBP in Sonora, Mexico".

Images: Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales/Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.