SEP 11, 2020
As construction workers race to complete building Mexico City’s new international airport, archaeologists have stumbled on the world’s largest graveyard of mammoths, with officials saying on Thursday that the number has risen to at least 200.
Experts believe that the site, which lies about 30 miles (50 km) north of the capital’s downtown at the Santa Lucía Air Force Base in the state of Mexico, is now the world’s largest concentration of skeletons belonging to the extinct Ice Age mammal – and a large number of them are still yet to be excavated.
The humongous creatures are believed to have died between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, when the region was the site of a number of ancient lakes that both attracted and trapped the extinct relative of modern elephants.
Other Ice Age mammals have also been found at the nearly 200 excavation sites, including about 200 mammoths, 25 camels, and five horses, archaeologists with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) say.
Around 24,000 years ago, the geography of the region was a lush and vibrant place filled with sprawling grassland and lakes that attracted herds of mammoths.
“This place was like a paradise,” lead INAH archaeologist Ruben Manzanilla Lopez told Reuters, adding that the melting of the last glaciers happened at a time when ancient species of horses, camels, and buffalo thrived in the extremely muddy shorelines of the region.
“Then over many years the same story repeated itself: The animals ventured too far, got trapped and couldn’t get their legs out of the muck,” Manzanilla added.
Wild horses largely died out in North America at the end of the last ice age, and only returned during the Spanish invasion of the Americas, beginning with Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies in 1493 and continuing with the arrival of Hernan Cortes in Mexico in 1519.
A number of compelling finds are still being made at the site, including evidence that humans constructed tools from the bones of the massive creatures. The site lies roughly 12 miles from artificial pits or shallow mammoth traps dug by early inhabitants to trap and kill the creatures.
The flint arrows, spears, and rudimentary shallow water pits suggest that early humans may have also played a role in wiping out the lumbering beasts.
“What caused these animals’ extinction, everywhere there is a debate, whether it was climate change or the presence of humans. I think in the end the decision will be that there was a synergy effect between climate change and human presence,” paleontologist Joaquin Arroyo Cabrales told Associated Press.
However, the pure volume of mammoth remains unearthed – comprised of extraordinarily well-preserved skeletons including their long and curling tusks – is what has come as a shock.
“We had the idea that we’d find mammoth remains, but not this many,” Manzanilla said.
The sheer glut of mammoth remains at the Santa Lucía site is such that INAH observers are now accompanying construction workers using bulldozers to make sure that work halts when bones are found.
Manzanilla is confident that when the excavations are complete, the site will likely rank higher than similar sites in the United States and Siberia as the largest deposit of mammoth skeletons.
A museum-style mammoth exhibit is also being planned for the main terminal of the new commercial airport.
The Valley of Mexico was once a verdant and lush region rich in biodiversity that teemed with interconnected lakes and countless rivers. In 1325, the Aztecs or Tenochcas began building what would later become the major metropolis of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, on a rock in Lake Texcoco.
However, in the 1600s the Spanish colonizers began draining the lakes in a bid to rein in annual floods and accompanying disease resulting from the region’s torrential rain seasons.
In the 20th century, local authorities continued to pave over the 45 rivers that still cut through the growing city. The process of urbanization transformed Mexico City into a dry, dusty, and smoggy region teeming with busy roads and working-class neighborhoods.