March 13, 2012
In a southwestern corner of what is now Alberta, Canada, camels once roamed. They went extinct at the end the last Ice Age, and their disappearance has generally been attributed to changes in climate and vegetation. But new research suggests that human predators may have contributed to the Western camel’s (Camelops hesternus) demise. A paper in American Antiquity shows that, at a time when ice sheets still covered most of northern Canada, Clovis people on the Western plains were hunting camel for food.
“Our evidence shows that we have to consider that humans may have had some role in their extinction,” said Brian Kooyman, an archeologist at the University of Calgary, and the paper’s lead author.
The study makes the first direct association between Clovis projectile points, stone tools and the remains of a butchered camel. The remains, which radiocarbon dating showed to be about 13,000 years old, were found preserved in windblown sand and silts at Wally’s Beach, an archeological site 108 miles south of Calgary.
“Tracks indicate that [after the horse] they were the second-most common animal at Wally’s Beach and a common part of the fauna,” said Len Hills, a geoscientist at the University of Calgary and collaborator on the study. “Abundant camel tracks at the site clearly show a substantial population.”
Kooyman says this particular camel was likely killed with spears after being ambushed at the top of an embankment leading into a river valley. Hunters may have hidden in nearby shrubs before isolating the animal from the herd. The hunters then chopped their prey into units of eight vertebrae each, while severing and snapping the camel’s torso into sides of ribs.
But did camels make up a significant part of these people’s diet?
“This is the only site where we have proof of camel use,” said Kooyman. “So far at the site, we have seven killed horses and one camel, so here it is likely they made up about one-eighth of the meat diet.”
At present, there is no evidence that the hunters ever spared the animals in an effort to harness them as pack animals or for human transport, nor that they ever used the camels for anything other than food. But as Kooyman notes, it’s likely these early hunters would have used camel hides for clothing, since life on these post-glacial plains would still have been windy and cold.
Bruce Dorminey is a science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System.