Mammoths – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world


Mammoths – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

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The sound of a flute floats through the air, ethereal and mysterious. But as well as travelling through space, it is also moving through time: back more than 30,000 years to a period when much of northern Europe – including what we now call the British Isles – was blanketed with a thick layer of ice. For this flute made from a woolly mammoth tusk is the closest we’ll ever get to hearing the sound of the Ice Age.

There are no written records this far back, so we will never know who made these instruments, and why – whether it was for a special ceremony, or simply for pleasure – but its makers were highly skilled, producing different types of flute to produce a range of sounds. Their singing, chanting and clapping are not available, so those sounds stay in the past with the bones of the people. But their instruments give us a tantalising glimpse of our ancestors’ lives, a fragment of sound from an otherwise silent world.

Today, the Ice Age – specifically that of North America, with its particular suite of creatures – has been packaged and marketed as a series of highly popular animated films. But the reality of this period in our history is in many ways very different. Packs of wolves, fierce sabre-toothed cats, huge ground sloths and giant deer wandered through the cold and windswept landscapes of the north. But without doubt the creature that still sums up this bleak period in the earth’s history is the mammoth.

The name ‘mammoth’ derives from a Siberian word for the animal which was brought to western Europe in an account by a seventeenth-century Dutch traveller. It was introduced into general use by Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, writing about the elephant remains in his collection for his lecture to the Royal Society, when he became its president in 1727. Sloane recognised these large fossilised bones belonged to an elephant from a different climate before the time of the Flood, rather than the biblical human giants they were previously assumed to be, but nevertheless it is as a giant that this animal has entered our language as a metaphor. As John Simpson, editor-in-chief of the Oxford English Dictionary, notes, like the word ‘monster’, ‘mammoth’ is now shorthand for anything larger than life.

Apart from the use of the word as a synonym for something almost unbelievably huge, it would be easy to assume that the mammoth – a creature that became extinct around 4,000 years ago – has little relevance to our modern-day world. And yet mammoths still loom large in our lives – if we just know where to look.

Mammoths formed the now extinct genus Mammuthus. They were close relatives of the elephants that today are the largest land animals on earth. They lived alongside our ancestors, and may well have heard that flute music, for their lives were closely intertwined with that of the human population. Woolly mammoths were hunted for food, while their skins were used for clothing, their tusks were carved into ornate sculptures, their ribs were used as tent poles, their skulls were made into drums to make music, and their images were painted on cave walls. They were vital to our ancestors’ survival.

The common image we have is of shaggy elephantine beasts roaming across the icy wastes of Siberia and Arctic North America; yet in fact the places where they lived were fertile grasslands. They were not the only species that existed. Many thousands of years before the Ice Age, and before the mammoth got woolly, our own ancient ancestors lived alongside a less hairy species. If you want to see the jaw-dropping skull of this monster mammoth, it can be seen on display in the Natural History Museum. It is known as the Ilford Mammoth, after the location in suburban Essex where it was unearthed in 1864. Adrian Lister is the museum’s specialist in mammoth evolution:

This really is one of the most spectacular fossils ever discovered in Britain. The tusks on this specimen are about 2½ metres long, and the skull as a whole – including the tusks – is at least 4 metres long. A mammoth tusk takes two strong men to lift it off the ground, and yet this animal was walking around with two of them sticking out the front of its head.

At about 200,000 years old, the Ilford Mammoth represents an early stage of the evolution into what today we recognise as a woolly mammoth. It would have been about 3.5 metres tall at the shoulder, weighing about 5 or 6 tonnes – roughly the same size as a bull African elephant, though other species did grow much larger. Its hunting grounds would have been around the banks of the River Thames, whose course at that time ran further north than it does today. These huge beasts, sporting their simply enormous tusks, didn’t live alone; mammoths were part of a rich fauna that lived in east London, and indeed across much of Britain and Europe. You can imagine predator pitched against prey, the roars and screams, the fights and the blood as they battled it out in the endless struggle for survival – they were the original East Enders.

The lifetime of this beast coincided with one of the warmer periods between Ice Ages, known as an ‘interglacial’, which also allowed human beings to thrive, as Adrian Lister explains:

There were people in Britain at the same time as the Ilford Mammoth: early Neanderthals, who used stone tools, and left bone remains. Their role is still unsure: they were certainly eating meat, but to what extent they were hunting animals or scavenging carcasses is a longstanding debate amongst archaeologists. I would presume that by this time – about 200,000 years ago – they were doing both.

For a few thousand years after the Ilford Mammoth finally sank into the riverside mud, the climate remained similar to today. But then, about 190,000 years ago, it began to get really, really cold. Apart from a brief warm interglacial period for about 15,000 years, Britain and Europe endured an ice age for many millennia. As the ice took its grip across Europe, those species that preferred warmer climes began to retreat southwards or disappear, and those better suited to life in the freezer gradually took over. The Neanderthals – heavily built, squat and rugged, a species of human very closely related to us, but particularly well adapted to life in cold environments – thrived. But then, 45,000 years ago, an important change took place: one that would have major consequences for all Ice Age wildlife, including the mammoth. Modern humans arrived in Europe.

Coming into Europe from Africa, via the Middle East, Homo sapiens was not at first well suited to living in cold climates. But these early humans were nothing if not adaptable: their intelligence enabled them to learn to stitch animal skins together to make very warm and effective clothing, and tents where they could live through even the coldest winters. For the next few thousand years, modern humans and Neanderthals managed an uneasy coexistence, alongside the wild animals that could also survive this bitter, bone-chilling cold. One of these was the mammoth – now evolved into an altogether hairier beast. Stomping into our lives – massive and shaggy – the woolly mammoth and our ancestors braved the Ice Age together.

We know a lot today about the woolly mammoth thanks to one crucial factor: when the animals that roamed across Siberia died they froze solid and were then buried in the permafrost. Adrian Lister has been able to describe their lifestyle:

They lived in what is essentially an open landscape: there were very few trees, because that far north it was too cold for tree growth. What you did have was a very rich growth of vegetation such as grasses, flowering plants and small shrubs. So there were not only very large numbers of mammoths – remember, these were animals that lived in herds – but also rhinoceroses, horses, bison and so on. It’s a mistake to think of the Ice Age as some desperately difficult time with only a few animals managing to eke out a living. Although it was colder than today, it was very productive: there was a lot of vegetation and food growing to support these herds of large animals. There had to be, or they wouldn’t have been there.

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The 30,000-year-old flute that opened this chapter comes from the middle of this icy time. The people who carved it from mammoth tusk and played those haunting melodies were the same as us – they loved music for a start – but they lived in a land that is far removed from anything we can imagine in the twenty-first century. They were hunter-gatherers living in small bands and dependent on the creatures of the Ice Age. Jill Cook specialises in Palaeolithic culture at the British Museum:

They’re the same sort of people as us: fully modern humans, with the same brain. They express themselves in complex language and, brought forward in time, they could drive cars, use mobile phones, and so on. Back then, they were part of an environment with plains teeming with game, amongst which they were the least numerous of the species. So amongst this extraordinary animal kingdom here we were as humans, taking all this in; aware that we were part of this, but also different, because we’re thinking, we’re communal, we have the use of fire. We did lots of things that are different yet we were still part of this world.

Being surrounded by so much rich life soaked into their minds, into their culture and into their art and beliefs.

They saw mammoths almost every day; they recognised particular individuals and may have even named them. And this really comes out through the representations of these animals that they made. And right from the earliest sculptures about 40,000 years ago, right up to the end of the Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, mammoths are ever-present in their art.

Just as more modern human beings used elephant tusks to create ornate works of art, so our ancestors used mammoth ivory, as Adrian Lister explains: ‘The use of ivory for weapons, ornaments and works of art goes back more than 40,000 years. These are both functional objects and also artistic ones: we have beautiful sculptures of animals including the mammoths themselves.’

The British Museum collection has a 20,000-year-old weapon carved from a reindeer antler in the form of a mammoth, as well as an exquisite sculpture of a pair of reindeer made from the tip of a mammoth tusk. The weapon, a spear thrower, is one of only two known examples depicting a mammoth. Although essentially caricaturing the beast, it captures the mammoth’s defining characteristics. Just a few centimetres long, it is unmistakably a tiny mammoth, beautifully observed with that characteristic hump on the head and the sloping back. The obvious care and attention that went into these sculptures and paintings tells us about the people who made them, as Jill Cook points out:

They’re thinking about the animal that they’re looking at – and they’re putting something of themselves into this creature. With the paintings, sometimes on a cave wall all you see is the hump, the feet, the line of the back and the tail. It’s enough to tell you instantly ‘mammoth’. Like a cartoon, you don’t need the full detail to know what it is. At other times they did go into detail: depicting the trunk, with its fantastically delicate end that would enable this beast to pick up a buttercup. So these creatures made a very important impression on artistic expression, and are also providing all sorts of raw materials and food.

Sculpting or sketching a mammoth from a distance is one thing – actively hunting it for food is quite another. Remember, some of these animals were the height of a double-decker bus and the hunters would only have had wooden spears with a sharp point made of stone. Adrian Lister is not convinced that the usual image we have of hunters chasing down the mighty mammoth is the true picture:

My view of mammoth hunting is that it was a relatively rare occupation. There were lots of easier animals to hunt: horses, bison and deer, whereas a mammoth would have been a very dangerous animal. But we do have evidence that at least on occasion people did hunt mammoths: there’s a mammoth skeleton found in Siberia, which has been carbon-dated to about 14,000 years ago, with the tip of a flint spear-point embedded in the vertebra.

Jill Cook speculates on a deeper relationship between the hunters and their different kinds of quarry:

They need these animals to survive, and yet they do things that enable them to overcome them. So it’s a developing relationship, and these early humans may have seen the supernatural represented within that system too. These animals may have been ways in which they could connect with different realms of the cosmos; part of a religious, as well as an everyday, life.

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So from roughly 200,000 years ago we see early humans living with mammoths in balmy conditions on the edge of what is now London. Then, during the Ice Ages, modern humans developed a complex and intimate relationship with the woolly mammoth, relying on it for all kinds of things from food, tools and clothing, to art and spiritual expression. This tension with an animal that supplied so much became a wellspring of creativity. Fast-forward thousands of years to the present day, and the human–mammoth tension provided the foundation for the storyline for the first of the hugely popular Ice Age films, which appeared in 2002.

The story of Ice Age revolves around a Neanderthal baby, Roshan, who is rescued by a massive, grumpy and unsociable woolly mammoth called Manny, and ultimately returned to his father. Yet at first, Manny is very reluctant to help the infant, as he understandably holds a grudge against the people who try to hunt and kill him. Michael J. Wilson, the film’s writer, explains why he chose a grumpy mammoth as his lead character:

I placed the mammoth at the centre of my story because during my research at the library I found out that during the Ice Age, Neanderthals and mammoths actually coexisted. The Neanderthals were using the mammoths for everything – shelter, food, jewellery and so on. If you were a mammoth and you saw a Neanderthal you would be like a deer in the headlights; you would be looking at your biggest fear and your mortal enemy. If you were a mammoth and trying to teach your family the ways of the world, the first thing you would point out to your children would be ‘stay away from the humans’. It just struck me as a fantastic thing if we could find a situation where a Neanderthal actually owed a mammoth something: that instead of seeing a mammoth and killing it, they would want to protect it and thank it for saving a member of their family.

In reality events did not turn out so well for the woolly mammoth – nor, indeed, for the Neanderthals (who, incidentally, being confined to Europe, would never have come across sabre-toothed cats and much of the other fauna in the film). The Neanderthals eventually disappeared somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mammoths survived much longer, though most populations had become extinct by the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 12,000 years ago. Yet some did manage to survive far longer – only finally dying out surprisingly recently, as Adrian Lister reveals:

We’ve realised in recent years that some did survive on islands, such as St Paul Island off the cost of Alaska, where they lived until about 6,500 years ago; we’ve also got Wrangel Island off the north coast of Siberia, where we have the very last population of mammoths, and the radiocarbon dates from there show they survived until about 4,000 years ago. So these ‘prehistoric’ animals survived into the beginnings of civilisations such as the Egyptians.

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They may have gone, but their frozen bodies, many still with skin and hair, remained locked in icy wastes until they appear, eerily, out of the frozen soil, or are dug up by people. What on earth did new settlers on the now ice-free areas make of these huge creatures emerging whole from the ground? Adrienne Mayer is a researcher in the Classics Department of Stanford University:

The entire creature has been frozen – naturally preserved, mummified if you like – in the permafrost from which they eventually erode out. So indigenous people of the Arctic came up with theories about these being burrowing animals that lived underground, avoiding the sunlight; and that all died when they emerged into the bright sunshine. That would explain why you find them coming out of the icy ground, looking as if they had just died.

A giant burrowing beast is an extraordinary thought, but people didn’t just create myths. In some areas where the mammoth died out only in the last few thousand years, hunting them may have been a genuine memory, passed down through generations and still being passed on today: ‘There are some stories I [Mayer] found amongst the Abenaki people of north-east Canada, who had an oral tradition that in the remote past their ancestors used to hunt a gigantic elk-like creature with a long, arm-like appendage stretching from its head. That sounds a lot like a mammoth.’

Other people folded the discovery of mammoth bones into the beliefs of their time, incorporating them into established religion:

In Europe during the Middle Ages, most people believed when they found the bones of mammoths that these were the giants who had been destined to perish in the Flood sent by God. The British naturalist William Catesby was visiting the Carolinas in the 1700s, and was there when a group of African slaves belonging to a plantation-owner ploughed up a huge tooth. Everyone came from miles around to see it, and everyone believed that this must have come from a giant who died in Noah’s Flood. But remarkably enough, it was the African slaves who correctly identified the tooth as belonging to an elephant. They were the first people to correctly identify a mammoth fossil anywhere in the Americas.

Throughout the centuries we have pondered on the remains of woolly mammoths – and sometimes more than pondered. In 1872 the New York Times reported that some French adventurers heading for the North Pole found so many well-preserved mammoth specimens that for a time they ‘lived entirely on mammoth meat, broiled, roasted and baked’ – though this claim has never been proven. But true or not, these accounts of people digging up mammoths from the great freezer of the north and making dinner intrigued the writer Hilaire Belloc so much that he wrote a poem called ‘The Frozen Mammoth’:

This Creature, though rare, is still found to the East

Of the Northern Siberian Zone.

It is known to the whole of that primitive group

That the carcass will furnish an excellent soup,

Though the cooking it offers one drawback at least

(Of a serious nature I own):

If the skin be but punctured before it is boiled,

Your confection is wholly and utterly spoiled.

And hence (on account of the size of the beast)

The dainty is nearly unknown.

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But nowadays, when people discover a woolly mammoth carcass or skeleton some are more interested in the tusks. For thousands of years, while the beasts still roamed the earth, mammoth ivory was carved into beautiful objects. But this didn’t end with their extinction. Because the mammoth carcasses came out of the ground in such good condition, they seemed as fresh as the ivory from living elephants – and in some ways easier to obtain. The carving of ivory is of course hugely skilled and the American poet George Henry Boker wrote about his wonder at seeing a figure emerge from the carved tusk of a mammoth in his 1857 poem ‘The Ivory Carver’:

Yet even earthly natures may beget

Grand ends, and common things be wrought

To holiest uses. I in thought

Have seen the capability

Which lies within yon ivory:

This rough, black husk, charred by long age,

Unmarked by man since, in his rage,

A warring mammoth shed it. Lo!

Whiter than heaven-sifted snow,

Enclosed within its ugly mask

Lies a world’s wonder; and the task

Of slow development shall be

Man’s labor and man’s glory. See!

His foot-tip touched it; the rude bone

Glowed through translucent, widely shone

A morning lustre on the palm

Which arched above it.

The trade in ancient mammoth ivory continues to this day, fuelled by the tens of thousands of mammoth carcasses still buried throughout the Arctic tundra, as Adrian Lister explains:

It’s still legal to trade in mammoth ivory, so you can still buy little ivory objects in shops in Russia. In Siberia the mammoth tusks are now being commercially dug out of the ground, and that is feeding an industry producing very beautiful carved objects. The smaller ones are popular with tourists, but you can also purchase – if you have the wherewithal – magnificent carved tusks that have taken years of work for a craftsman to produce. These are traded internationally, and that’s all legal because the mammoth is an extinct species.

One issue with the current situation is the potential to substitute a legally produced carving in mammoth ivory with an illegal one made from elephant tusks. A cross-section of both elephant and mammoth ivory reveals a criss-cross pattern; the angle is subtly different between the two but only experts can tell the difference.

Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne produced a report on the mammoth ivory trade for Save the Elephants and the Aspinall Foundation in 2014:

We don’t know an exact figure of how much mammoth ivory is traded, but we do know where the major markets are. Much of it – about 70 tonnes a year – is exported directly from Russia to Hong Kong and China. We don’t know the trade in elephant ivory, but we can estimate the number of elephants being poached each year – perhaps 25,000 animals – producing about 100 tonnes of ivory.

Lucy Vigne takes an ambivalent view of the current situation:

The mammoth ivory trade is a double-edged sword. In one way it’s an opportunity for someone to buy a piece of ivory legally; but elephant ivory also can be confused with mammoth ivory, especially for smaller items. When trading the raw material – the tusks – it is easy to distinguish mammoth from elephant ivory, but when it is carved, and the outer layer removed, it can be easily confused. So mammoth ivory can act as a cover for elephant ivory.

The figures, though hard to pin down exactly, show that up to 50 per cent of the trade in ivory into China is mammoth ivory, and the demand is increasing every year, despite attempts by the government to stop it. Adrian Lister believes that all trade in ivory (apart from certified antiques) should be banned, not just from elephants, so that mammoth ivory carvings are not able to keep the demand going. And he has an unusual suggestion to make this happen: ‘I think there’s actually an argument for making the mammoth the first ever extinct species to be listed by CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species]. Both of the living elephant species are listed by CITES, which means that international trade in elephant ivory for the most part is banned.’

If you’ll forgive the terminology, it looks as though putting mammoths on the CITES list of endangered species may well prove to be something of a mammoth task. Which brings us to the question: when did that expression, and others like it, first enter the English language? Kelvin Corlett works on the Oxford English Dictionary:

The earliest example we have of the word ‘mammoth’ being used to describe something huge is 1801, in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson [the third President of the United States], where he discusses a ‘mammoth cheese’. And around this time there are lots of examples, including an entry in a private diary, which rather unkindly describes dancers in a theatre production as having ‘mammoth legs’. So this expression really caught on very quickly, and became part of our culture.

Mammoths, woolly or smooth, have lumbered their way into our lives and are staying put, in our minds and hearts, if not in the flesh. And we still have the wonderful Ice Age art and sculpture to remind us of just how truly extraordinary these animals once were.

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Cleopatra: Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, That kills and pains not?

Clown: Truly, I have him: but I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal; those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.

Antony and Cleopatra, v: 2




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