The Cerutti Mastodon and the Arrival of Early Hominins to the North American Continent

During a freeway expansion project in 1992, the bones of the Cerutti Mastodon were found. This site has been being studied over several decades, and throughout that time scientists have discovered evidence that implies that humans have been on the North American continent for much longer than previously thought. (SDNHM) The remains of the mastodon date back 130,000 years old, and humans were thought to have crossed over a land bridge into the Americas around 13,500 years ago. (Mayor, 2014) But how do we know that humans were present while the mastodon was alive? Well, certain artifacts found at the site can tell us that humans were there. These artifacts were found in situ, which means they were found where they were originally deposited. The way that the bones and stones were fractured showed that Humans were present during the burial of the mastodon. The presence of hammerstones and stone anvils also alongside the mastodon. These prove that some species of Homo were on the North American continent nearly ten times earlier than previously thought. (Holen et al. 2017)

Figure 1: Diagram showing what bones of the mastodon were found. (Holen et al. 2017)

There are those, however, that challenge the assertion that this site is legitimate. In a paper written by Gary Haynes in the journal PaleoAmerica, he writes that the mastodon assemblage is “not adequately supported.” (Haynes, 2017) He questions the validity of the stratigraphy of the CM site since it was discovered while construction workers were trying to build a highway, claiming that the machinery could have moved where the bones and artifacts were located which would make the dating of the site inaccurate. Another paper published in the journal Nature written by S. R. Holen et al. also claims that the dating of the site is not evidence of early hominid activity in the Americas in the late Pleistocene. (Ferraro, 2018)

Figure 2: Figure from the original paper on the CM site showing the position of the tusk. (Holen et al. 2017)

Holen et al., who published the original paper on the Cerutti Mastodon site, responded to the criticisms in his paper he published in the journal of PaleoAmerica. In response to the claim that the assemblage was moved by the machinery, Holen points to the mastodon tusk that was implanted through several layers as seen in figure 2 above. In response to the criticisms that the rocks weren’t used by hominins by restating the presence of flakes and bulbs of percussion, commonly seen as wear in stone tools. And in response to the claim that the artifacts were moved there from natural processes, Holen looked to the fact that large hammerstones and tusks were moved, however the molars and bone fragments and smaller rocks were not moved far away. These artifacts were found closely consolidated, so they couldn’t have been previously moved from natural processes. (Holen et al. 2017)


Seeing the evidence provided, we know that a hominin was present in the Americas 130,000 years ago. Whether those hominins were Homo Sapien or another hominin could be debated. But the absence of evidence shouldn’t overrule the evidence that we do have of hominins being present that far back.


More articles to read:



The cerutti mastodon discovery. The Nat


The Cerutti Mastodon Site: One year later. The Nat


Ferraro, Joseph V., Katie M. Binetti, Logan A. Wiest, Donald Esker, Lori E. Baker, and Steven L. Forman

2018 Contesting early archaeology in California. Nature 554(7691)


Haynes, Gary

2017 The cerutti mastodon. PaleoAmerica 3(3): 196–199


Holen, Steven R., Thomas A. Deméré, Daniel C. Fisher, Richard Fullagar, James B. Paces, George T. Jefferson, Jared M. Beeton, Adam N. Rountrey, and Kathleen A. Holen

2017 Broken bones and hammerstones at the Cerutti Mastodon site: A reply to Haynes. PaleoAmerica 4(1): 8–11


Holen, Steven R., Thomas A. Deméré, Daniel C. Fisher, Richard Fullagar, James B. Paces, George T. Jefferson, Jared M. Beeton, Richard A. Cerutti, Adam N. Rountrey, Lawrence Vescera, and Kathleen A. Holen

2017 A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in Southern California, USA. Nature 544(7651): 479–483


Moyer, Steve, Mark Athitakis, Erica Machulak, Jennifer Smart, and James Williford

The first Americans. The National Endowment for the Humanities

Shanidar Cave and Other Early Human Burials

In the mid-1950’s, a team of researchers from Columbia University found Neanderthal remains inside Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan (Figure 1). The main excavations of the site were done in Shanidar cave from 1956 to 1961, and 11 Neanderthal remains have been found that date back to 35,000 to 65,000 years (Sissakian, 2019). One of the skeletons, known as Shanidar 4, was debated to have been buried in a “flower burial”. Another skeleton known as Shanidar 1 displayed evidence of disabling injuries, which suggested care for group members with debilitating injuries. Though there is debate about the burial of Shanidar 4, Shanidar Cave still shines a light on the behavior of Neanderthals and our knowledge of the species (Pomeroy, 2020).

New remains discovered at site of famous Neanderthal 'flower burial' | Science | AAAS

Figure 1: A photo of the entrance to Shanidar Cave. Retrieved from

Another discovery of the burial of a small child in a cave in Kenya (Figure 2) has been thought to have been the oldest human burial in Africa, dating back to roughly 78,000 years ago. The child was thought to be about 3 years old at the time of death, and was buried curled up in a shallow grave. Portions of the child’s skeleton have been found in 2013, however, the actual burial site wasn’t discovered until 2017. It was also discovered that the child had been tightly shrouded in its position, showing deliberate preparation. The site was dated using a method known as luminescence dating (Ronen, 2012). Luminescence dating is a method used in archaeology and the earth sciences and has an age range of about a century or less to over one hundred thousand years (Aberystwyth University, 2008).

Child's grave at 78,000-year-old burial site tells of early man's emotional life: Kenyan archaeologist - SCIENCE News

Figure 2: Photo of Panga ya Saidi Cave in Kenya. Retreived from

Despite being the oldest human burial in Africa, the oldest burial was found in Israel, dating back to about 130,000 years ago. Two populations, modern humans and Neanderthals, are associated with the total of about 40 individuals found buried. The practices of the two populations are similar, consisting of placing the corpse in a prepared pit, occasionally alongside grave goods, then filling the pit. There are also signs of the protection of the corpses from scavenging animals. Occasionally, stones were placed on the skeleton or on top of the pit after it had been filled in. The two most common types of objects used as grave goods were animal parts and symbolic objects. The fact that these individuals were buried intentionally occasionally with objects shows that these burials were not just to dispose of a dead body, but were intentionally done out of respect, as it had no clear benefit in the material world of quest for food, shelter, or defense (Ronen, 2012).


Overall, there are many different ways that humans have buried their dead over the years, as we have been practicing the act of burying the dead for hundreds of thousands of years. Early humans bury their dead despite it costing resources that could be used to prolong the survival of the group. This shows that early humans and even Neanderthals had the same if not similar capability to feel as we do now.



Biovin, Nicole. “Oldest Human Burial in Africa.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 5 May 2021, 

Culotta, Elizabeth. “New Remains Discovered at Site of Famous Neanderthal ‘Flower Burial’.” Science, 22 Jan. 2019,

Guidelines on Using Luminescence Dating in Archaeology. 2008, 

Pomeroy, Emma, et al. “New Neanderthal Remains Associated with the ‘Flower Burial’ at Shanidar Cave: Antiquity.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 18 Feb. 2020, 

Reuters. “Child’s Grave at 78,000-Year-Old Burial Site Tells of Early Man’s Emotional Life: Kenyan Archaeologist.” India Today, 13 May 2021,

Ronen, Avraham. “The Oldest Burials and Their Significance (Chapter 27) – African Genesis.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 5 Apr. 2012,

Sissakian, Varoujan K. “Shanidar Cave – an Interesting Archaeological Site in the Kurdistan …” Shanidar Cave – An Interesting Archaeological Site in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, UKH Journal of Science and Engineering, 27 Dec. 2019,


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