Discovered in Ukraine, Mammoth Bone Dwellings May Be the Earliest Examples of Architecture

Huts made of mammoth bones discovered in Ukraine’s Dnieper River valley (as well as in Moravia, Czech Republic, and southern Poland) might represent the first structures created by prehistoric man, and hence the earliest instances of architecture.

Perhaps the earliest example of domed architecture, the mammoth huts found in Mezhyrich, Ukraine, could be up to 25,000 years old. “Mammoth House” as shown at the “Frozen Woolly Mammoth Yuka Exhibit” in Yokoyama, Japan in Summer 2013. Photo: NANDARO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/CC BY-SA 3.0

Some of the most famous mammoth bone homes were discovered in Mezhyrich, a town in central Ukraine, when a farmer dug up a mammoth’s lower jawbone while building his cellar in 1965. Excavations discovered the presence of four archaic homes made up of 149 mammoth bones in total.

These shelters, which date from 23,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE, are regarded to be among the earliest houses ever built by prehistoric man, and are commonly assigned to Cro-Magnons.

“They are made up of several hundred bones and tusks placed in a rough circle with a diameter of 6 to 10 meters (20 to 33 feet).” A fireplace is usually found at the middle of the previous residence, and stone tools and other rubbish are strewn about the interior and outside. Near the dwellings, large pits containing stone tools, bone pieces, and ash have been discovered.

Artist rendition of dwelling in Mezhirich, Ukraine, made of mammoth bones. Source: Dolní Věstonice Museum

“It must have taken a lot of work to put these things together. Large mammoth bones weigh hundreds of pounds even when dried. The bones and tusks may have been found during hunting periods in which entire herds of adult mammoths and their young were slain. A more plausible hypothesis is that they were collected from natural bone accumulations around the locations, maybe at the mouths of streams and gullies. The major aim of the mammoth-bone homes, which were likely wrapped in animal skins, was most likely to provide protection from intense cold and powerful winds. Some archaeologists have claimed that the buildings have religious or social significance because of their size and form.

The first examples of’monumental building’ have been interpreted as evidence of greater social complexity and rank difference during the Ice Age’s last phase.” (100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 54-55) (Paul G. Bahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 54-55)

Mammoth bone dwelling. Reconstruction based on the example of Mezhirich. Exhibit in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Momotarou2012/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/CC BY-SA 3.0

Other intriguing items discovered on the site include a map carved into a bone, probably depicting the settlement’s surroundings. Along with amber jewelry and fossil shells, the remnants of a “drum” fashioned of a mammoth skull decorated with a pattern of red ochre dots and lines were uncovered.

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