British scientists examining a site in Russia have dated the bones to 20,000 years ago, when Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers lived in the harsh environment

Mysterious bone circles made from the remains of dozens of mammoths could help explain how man survived temperatures of minus 20 in the last Ice Age.

British scientists examining a site in Russia have dated the bones to 20,000 years ago, when Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers lived in the harsh environment.

As well as the majority of mammoth bones, reindeer, horse, bear, wolf, red fox and arctic fox bones were also found.

About 70 of these structures are known to exist in Ukraine and the west Russian Plain, but this is the oldest and the latest to be analysed.

Researchers from the University of Exeter said the bones were likely sourced from animal graveyards but might not have been 'lived in' as previously thought.

They identified 51 lower jaws and 64 individual mammoth skulls which were used to construct the walls of the 30ft by 30ft structure and scattered across its interior of the site, 500 kilometres south of Moscow.

The new analysis also uncovered for the first time the remains of charred wood and other soft non-woody plant remains within the circular structure.

This shows that people were burning wood as well as bones for fuel and the communities who lived there had learned where to forage for edible plants.

These plants could also have been used for poisons, medicines, string or fabric with more than 50 small charred seeds indicating local plants were cooked and eaten.

Dr Alexander Pryor, who led the study, said: "The site, Kostenki 11, represents a rare example of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on in this harsh environment.

"What might have brought ancient hunter gatherers to this site? One possibility is that the mammoths and humans could have come to the area en masse because it had a natural spring that would have provided unfrozen liquid water throughout the winter - rare in this period of extreme cold.

"These finds shed new light on the purpose of these mysterious sites.

"Archaeology is showing us more about how our ancestors survived in this desperately cold and hostile environment at the climax of the last ice age.

"Most other places at similar latitudes in Europe had been abandoned by this time, but these groups had managed to adapt to find food, shelter and water."

The last ice age, which swept northern Europe between 75-18,000 years ago, reached its coldest and most severe stage at around 23-18,000 years ago, just as the site at Kostenki 11 was being built.

Climate reconstructions indicate at the time summers were short and cool and winters were long and cold, with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius or colder.

Most communities left the region, likely because of lack of prey to hunt and plant resources they depended upon for survival.

Eventually the bone circles were also abandoned as the climate continued to get colder and more inhospitable.

Previously archaeologists have assumed that the circular mammoth bone structures were used as dwellings, occupied for many months at a time.

The new study suggests this may not always have been the case as the intensity of activity at Kostenki 11 appears less than would be expected from a long term base camp site.

Other finds include more than 300 tiny stone and flint chips just a few millimetres in size, debris left behind the site's inhabitants as they knapped stone nodules into sharp tools with distinctive shapes used for tasks such as butchering animals and scraping hides.

The research, conducted by academics from the University of Exeter, University of Cambridge, Kostenki State Museum Preserve, University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Southampton, is published in the journal Antiquity.

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