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Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth

An Erratum to this article was published on 17 March 2005


The extinction of the many well-known large mammals (megafauna) of the Late Pleistocene epoch has usually been attributed to ‘overkill’ by human hunters, climatic/vegetational changes or to a combination of both1,2. An accurate knowledge of the geography and chronology of these extinctions is crucial for testing these hypotheses. Previous assumptions that the megafauna of northern Eurasia had disappeared by the Pleistocene/Holocene transition2 were first challenged a decade ago by the discovery that the latest woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island, northeastern Siberia, were contemporaneous with ancient Egyptian civilization3,4. Here we show that another spectacular megafaunal species, the giant deer or ‘Irish elk’, survived to around 6,900 radiocarbon yr bp (about 7,700 yr ago) in western Siberia—more than three millennia later than its previously accepted terminal date2,5—and therefore, that the reasons for its ultimate demise are to be sought in Holocene not Pleistocene events. Before their extinction, both giant deer and woolly mammoth underwent dramatic shifts in distribution, driven largely by climatic/vegetational changes. Their differing responses reflect major differences in ecology.

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Figure 1: Radiocarbon dated (red dots) M. giganteus finds, showing chronological changes in distribution.
Figure 2: Chart of Late Glacial and Holocene 14C dates for M. giganteus.
Figure 3: Chart of 14C dates <36 kyr for Mammuthus primigenius and Megaloceros giganteus in western Europe.
Figure 4: Chart of 14C dates <16 kyr for Megaloceros giganteus (red) and Mammuthus primigenius (blue) in Europe and selected areas of Siberia3,4,9–13,29 (and refs as Fig. 2).

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The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. We thank the following for their help in providing specimens and/or data: K. Aaris-Sørensen, J. Altuna, N. Benecke, P. Boscato, M. Breda, C. Bronk Ramsey, V. Cabrera, A. Currant, W. Davies, P. Doughty, I. V. Foronova, C. Gamble, M. Germonpré, S. Gonzalez, K. Hawkins, R. Hedges, B. Huntley, R. Jacobi, K. James, L. Kaagan, R. Kahlke, A. Kitchener, Y. V. Kuzmin, J. van der Made, A. K. Markova, D. Mol, D. Nagel, L. Niven, M. Palombo, M. Patou, P. Pettitt, A. Pinto, B. Sala, M. Street, A. Tagliacozzo, P. Tomlinson, E. Turner, A. A. Vorobiev and P. Wojtal. Special thanks to I. V. Foronova for agreeing to publication of the Chernigovo date in advance of further collaborative work on Siberian Megaloceros, and to P. Grootes for AMS radiocarbon dating of the Kamyshlov and Redut specimens. We are grateful to A. Mangione, B. Sala and Superintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell'Umbria for permission to use the Megaloceros illustration in Figs 2, 3 and 4.

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Correspondence to A. J. Stuart.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Photo of Kamyshlov skeleton (DOC 776 kb)

Supplementary Tables 1 and 2

Table 1: Megaloceros radiocarbon date list, and calibrated values for dates <24 cal BP Table 2: Calibrated age ranges expressed in cal years BP for Megaloceros giganteus specimens <12.5 kyr BP. (XLS 137 kb)

Supplementary References (DOC 28 kb)

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Stuart, A., Kosintsev, P., Higham, T. et al. Pleistocene to Holocene extinction dynamics in giant deer and woolly mammoth. Nature 431, 684–689 (2004).

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