The first person to reach the North Pole was the American explorer Robert Peary, in 1909. Or maybe it was Frederick Cook, in 1908. Historians still aren’t sure which man really made it there first.
At any rate, it’s a fitting story of discovery for the Arctic, a corner of the world where ambiguity reigns. There isn’t even an official consensus on the exact parameters of the label: Technically, the Arctic refers to anything above the Arctic circle, which has a latitude of 66 degrees, 32 minutes North, but the U.S. definition includes all of the Bering Sea (which stretches as far south as 53 degrees), and some scientists use the Arctic tree line or average temperatures to draw their boundaries. And many of the region’s research stations are built on sheets of sea ice, drifting masses that have no true fixed location.
Also adrift is our current understanding of when humans arrived in the Arctic. In a new paper published today in Science, a team of Russian researchers made the case that humans occupied the region as early as 45,000 years ago, several millennia earlier than archaeologists had previously believed.
But the discovery on which they base their argument isn’t a frozen mummy, or any sort of man-made object. Instead, it’s the body of a mammoth, discovered in 2012 on the shores of Siberia’s Yensei Bay. The researchers were able to date the bone to around 45,000 years ago, an age supported by analysis of branches, peat, and other natural materials found around and on top of the body.