Why did ancient humans hunt mammoths to extinction but did not do the same to elephants?
We probably didn’t hunt mammoths to extinction alone, but it is indeed a correct observation that early humans preyed on mammoths, but not elephants.
This is a bit surprising, considering:
How on Earth do you come to a conclusion the creature on the left is too dangerous to prey upon, but the one on the right is an easy picking?
My pet hypothesis is that mammoth hunting was a lot less dangerous and much more mundane than usually potrayed. Elephants evolved alongside humans and evolved and taught defences against human predation. African elephants know a bunch of tiny bipedal apes are a threat and act accordingly, but mammoths just ignored us. What can these small creatures do to a creature a hundred times their size anyway?
I mention this because we do know this happened to Moas:
The Moa could kill all of these maori, if it just knew they were a threat.
The way ancient humans killed mammoths early on was probably a lot like this moa hunt above. Approach the creature or creatures, get in position, then on a signal, stab the mammoth or mammoths you targeted for the kill. It’s still a bit risky, but you can design better tactics quicker than mammoths can evolve better defensive strategies, so humans continued to prey on mammoths (and all other megafauna) until it was no more for a combination of reasons – human predation and climate change both.
We know humans went after mammoths for meat, bone and fur and this implies mammoths were a good source to obtain all of those and also – crucially – a stone age mammoth hunt wasn’t as dangerous as it seems. Docile mammoths that don’t know humans are a threat are probably a part of the story.