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The predictability and perils of woolly mammoth hunting during the European Gravettian

Project Description

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project details:

The quest to find food was one of the biggest challenges facing Upper Palaeolithic humans during the last European ice age c.50,000-20,000 years ago. Access to woolly mammoth meat, and critical fat supplies in particular, appear to have played a role in this as their remains are found widely at sites in central and eastern Europe and sometimes in very large quantities[1]. However, hunter-gatherers typically opt for predictability of food supply rather than simply maximising returns, and the status of mammoth as a food staple or food supplement hunted as-and-when depends critically on their dependability as prey[2]. Could hunters have targeted predictable seasonal migration routes that reliably produced huge quantities of food at specific times of the year suggesting a food storage economy, or were mammoth movements less predictable, requiring encounter-based approaches to hunting that are inherently less certain and more risky as a source of food implying they may have provided only the occasional food bonanza? This research will answer this question by reconstructing the seasonal mobility patterns of mammoth preyed upon by Gravettian humans and, in-so-doing, provide a platform for reinterpreting the role of the woolly mammoth in Palaeolithic subsistence.

Project Aims and Methods:

This research will investigate the predictability of woolly mammoths as an Upper Palaeolithic food resource by reconstructing the seasonal mobility patterns of mammoth preyed upon by Gravettian humans at sites in central and eastern Europe. The aims are to:

-Use paired strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of woolly mammoth tooth enamel to identify seasonal patterns of change. Samples for isotopic analysis will be prepared in Exeter and analysed at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Strontium measurements will be made using LA-MC-ICPMS resulting in high resolution data capable of detecting rapid movements[3]. Samples will derive from both museum collections and ongoing archaeological excavations.

-Use existing (and where necessary original) strontium basemap data to reconstruct seasonal mobility of mammoth prey

-Collate existing ecological and isotopic data on woolly mammoth to contextualise the new mobility data collected in this project and broaden knowledge of the behaviour of this extinct species

-Reinterpret the role of the woolly mammoth in Palaeolithic subsistence, drawing on the theoretical literature for optimal foraging strategies, resilience theory, and opportunistic “encounter-based” vs planned “sit-and-wait” hunting strategies in hunter-gatherer societies[4]

-The selected candidate will help shape the project by identifying suitable sites for analysis, taking advantage of the supervisors existing contacts and collaborations in central and eastern Europe.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

The student will gain access to the mass spectrometry labs at NOC, one of a very small number of UK institutions to have the equipment and technical expertise required for laser ablation strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel. NOC staff will provide extensive hands-on tuition in the operation of this mass spectrometry equipment. Through training, the student will acquire transferable skills in all the analytical aspects of the work including instrument selection, preparation, critically understanding data and trouble-shooting problems when they occur.


The student will be trained in the collection, pre-treatment and isotopic analysis of faunal tooth enamel samples derived from museums and ongoing excavations in central and eastern Europe. This will include extensive tuition from the lead supervisor and a minimum of four weeks at NOC with the co-supervisor for training and data collection purposes. After training the student will be expected to operate parts of the mass spectrometry equipment for long periods with minimal oversight from NOC staff. Training will also be provided in the micro-excavation, documentation and sampling of Palaeolithic archaeology while assisting the supervisor at sites in central and eastern Europe. The successful applicant will be required to take an advanced statistics course (BIOM4025), and acquire further skills through the postgraduate training programs at Exeter.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


1.Wojtal, P. and J. Wilczyński, 2015. Hunters of the giants: Woolly mammoth hunting during the Gravettian in Central Europe. Quaternary International, 379: 71-81.

2.Jochim, M.A., 1981. Chapter 4 - Feeding Strategies, in Strategies for Survival, M.A. Jochim, Editor. Academic Press. 64-113.

3.Lewis, J., C.D. Coath, and A.W.G. Pike, 2014. An improved protocol for 87Sr/86Sr by laser ablation multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry using oxide reduction and a customised plasma interface. Chemical Geology, 390: 173-181.

4.Ross, C.T. and B. Winterhalder, 2015. Sit-and-wait versus active-search hunting: A behavioral ecological model of optimal search mode. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 387: 76-87.

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