Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giantby Richard Stone
The true story of a daring band of twenty-first-century mammoth hunters and their fascinating search for the long-extinct beastSee more details below
The true story of a daring band of twenty-first-century mammoth hunters and their fascinating search for the long-extinct beast
- Basic Books
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Meet the Author
Richard Stone is the European News Editor of Science magazine. He has written for Discover, the Washington Post, the Moscow Times, Smithsonian, and numerous other publications. A graduate of Cornell University and a Fulbright scholar in Russia, Stone won the Evert Clark Award for science journalism in 1995 for a Discover article and a Walter Sullivan Award in 2001 for an article in Smithsonian magazine.
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RAISING THE DEAD
Cigarette haze filled the kerosene-scented cabin of the vintage Aeroflot helicopter as we flew low across the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia, but my view from a small, round passenger window was crystal clear. In the late-afternoon sun, treeless hills cast bluish shadows, and ice-packed rivers that snake through a vast frozen tundra glittered like golden blasts of dragon fire. A herd of shaggy reindeer, startled by the whop-whop-whop of the strange orange bird overhead, kicked up powdery snow and sprinted by the last larch trees of the Ary Mas reserve, the northernmost forest in the world.
I felt a twinge of anxiety as we approached the barren wilderness site where the veteran Arctic explorer Bernard Buigues and his team had been dropped off two days earlier. I had grown fond of Buigues, watching this modern woolly mammoth hunter in action one week in Siberia in late October 2000. A few days earlier, I had been with Buigues when he flew into a remote village. The indigenous Dolgans who live theremost dressed in western-style winter clothes but a few in traditional reindeer skin jackets and chapsgathered around and greeted him warmly. Buigues often brings them sacks of flour, shoes for the children, and other supplies to ease their hardscrabble life on the tundraalthough on this trip, organized in a rush, he came empty-handed. He asked how they were faring, and the look in his kind blue eyes showed he genuinely cared. Buigues also wanted to know where he could find skeletons of woolly mammoths andthe greatest prize of alla frozen carcass.
The Dolgans were silent at first. They fear disturbing the remains of a creature revered by the older generations. Yet they divulged to this Westerner, his blond hair graying at the temples, the locations of a few recently spotted bone piles. Buigues had won their trust, but he knew that the Dolgans would never help him unearth a mammoth. Doing so, they believed, would put their lives and their families' lives at risk.
Now I wondered if Buigues had proved the Dolgans prophetic. Cavalier at the end of a long field season, his group had brought only enough food for an overnight stay. Their satellite phone was dead, so they had no way of knowing that the helicopter had been diverted the day before to fix an electricity generator in another village. And we had no idea how Buigues and his team were doingalthough weather reports suggested that temperatures on the tundra had plummeted and the winds had grown stronger. Even huddled in their tents, the group would need extra calories to maintain their body temperatures and keep themselves alert and alive. Sitting next to me in the MI-8 helicopter was Christian de Marliave, Buigues's gaunt logistics chief and long-time friend, who appeared unfazed by the delay in rescuing the team. Indeed, it would take far more perilous circumstances to unnerve de Marliave, who had had a delightful time retracing the grueling trek of the early-twentieth-century Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton across the mountains of South Georgia Island to reach a whaling station and raise help for his stranded crew.
If Buigues's team was now cold and hungry, it wasn't because he lacked experience in the High Arctic. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990, Buigues launched an Arctic tourism business in Khatanga, the biggest town on the Taimyr. His firm in Paris, Cercles Polaires Expéditions, or Cerpolex, caters, to daredevil adventurers who want to ski from the tip of the Taimyr PeninsulaCape Arktichevksyto the North Pole or to rich tourists who want to sip vodka while standing on the frozen Arctic Ocean. Using Khatanga as a staging ground, Buigues has organized more than twenty expeditions, including a 55-day march on skis from Arktichevsky to the North Pole in 1996. Explaining his fascination with the Arctic, he once told me, "The north is in my soul."
This exotic land captivated me as well. My bird's-eye view revealed a patchwork quilt of frozen ponds and polygonal patterns formed when cycles of severe freezing and thawing fractured the tundra's permanently frozen ground, or permafrost. It's mind-boggling how herds of reindeer can derive enough nutrients from this wasteland.
We approached a large body of water and began to descend. This was Lake Taimyr, its black ice fissured with cracks that had refrozen. I was reminded of the images of Europa, the moon of Jupiter that's thought to be covered by a frozen ocean. Then a brown blob against the black resolved into an ice fisherman's shack, bringing me back to Earth.
The helicopter banked and tents came into view, along with a half-dozen people bundled up against the bitter cold. The copter hovered and settled to the ground, lurching forward a few times until the pilot found a stable landing spot. He cut the engine, and the four of us piled out to joyous greetings. De Marliave, who hides his emotions well, smiled radiantly after hearing that everybody was okay. Maybe he had been worried after all.
The research party, along with the Discovery Channel crew that was filming its exploits, had grown concerned enough to consider sending someone on a 25-mile hike to a shelter equipped with a radio transmitter at Cape Sablera, a lonely outpost with a tattered Soviet hammer and sickle flying outside. And their food had indeed begun to run outsomething they could joke about now. "It was terrible," said a cameraman, John Davey. "We ran out of baked beans." After enduring twenty-four hours of hunger and uncertainty, buffeted by winds that dropped the temperature as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit, everyone was anxious to break camp. Everyone, that is, except the leader.
Buigues smiled at us. "Come, follow me." Without bothering to cover his balding head with the fur-lined hood of his parka, he strode past the tents and down a steep bank to a frozen stream, part of a delta feeding Lake Taimyr. Whipped by gusts, freshly fallen snow curled like wraiths above the flat basin, piling up against the odd rusted-out fuel barrel half buried in the frozen muck. My toes were turning into icicles despite three pairs of socks. Right behind me was de Marliave, pulling a plastic sled loaded with the components of a ground-penetrating radar. We were heading toward what looked like a lone telephone pole set incongruously in the frozen sediments. It was a marker.
As Buigues slowed his pace, the source of his excitement became obvious. Jutting out of the ground were the tops of five chestnut-colored spinal vertebrae, the remains of an emissary from a long-lost world. Buigues got down on his hands and knees and pointed to some tufts of hair. "I didn't expect to find anything when I came here" he said. But in September, before the delta froze, water levels had dropped three feet to expose the top of the mammoth carcass. The previous day, one of the team's scientists had used a steel pick to chip away at the concrete-like delta. A few inches down, he found some frozen flesh from the animal's flank. "We suppose that about half the mammoth is in the permafrost" Buigues said. De Marliave assembled his ground-penetrating radar to try to ascertain just how much more of it they might raise if they were to dig it up.
Buigues is the latest in a long line of mammoth hunters dating back to the days of Peter the Great, the Russian czar who opened Siberia to the world at the turn of the eighteenth century. The French explorer has pioneered a method of airlifting Ice Age animals from their icy tombs in northern Siberia to cold laboratories, where the soil encasing them can be thawed slowly, allowing them to be studied while still frozen. His team hopes that the mammoth remains they unearth will shed light on some of the enduring scientific mysteries surrounding this magnificent beast.
* * *
Piecing together fossil finds over the last two centuries, scientists have created for our imaginations dioramas filled with wondrous creatures that once walked the earth. No extinct animals are more inspiring than the dinosaursbut they were never contemporaneous with humans, dying out more than 60 million years before Homo sapiens arose. When we imagine enormous beasts that shared the stage with our ancestors, we think of the Ice Age animals that tested human survival. We think of saber-toothed cats and cave lionsbut these predators are easily imagined, not so different from modern tigers and lions.
Most entrancing of all the Ice Age creatures are the woolly mammoths. Although no bigger than elephants, their living cousins, mammoths were the biggest animalsand thus the closest to dinosaursthat our Stone Age ancestors had to square off against. Early on, some scholars thought it was the mammoths that hunted us. As George Turner of the American Philosophical Society wrote in the late eighteenth century, "With a body of unequalled magnitude and strength, it is possible the mammoth may have been at once the terror of the forest and of man!" But it soon became clear that it was the other way around. Our ancestors, armed with spears and guile, hunted these great shaggy beasts. One piece of evidence for this hunt is the remains of igloo-shaped huts built from mammoth bones and tusks on the steppes of southern Ukraine. It's likely that the huts were built thousands of years ago as temporary shelter during mammoth hunting excursions on the steppe.
Mammoths are also special because they are still with us, in body if not in spirit. Because mammoths, along with Pleistocene horses and steppe bison, were the most abundant large animals in Siberia that have since become extinct, their bones are easy to find. But although countless mammoths lay entombed in the Russian tundra, well-preserved specimens are rarer than any gemstone. Of the three dozen or so carcasses ever discovered and retrieved during the brief Siberian summer, most were badly deteriorated or only partial remains. A few exquisite finds, however, have shown us these majestic animals: long narrow heads, downward-sloping hindquarters, small ears, and tusks up to 16 feet long. We know no other prehistoric animal that died out so intimately. And this familiarity forges a connection to a mystical age, a time before written language or the first cities.
With an economy presaging the pencil drawings of Picasso, a few brushstrokes convey the awe in which Stone Age humans held mammoths and their contemporaries. In the Ardèche region of southern France, in a cave closed to the public, two male woolly rhinos battle over a female, locking curving, scythe-like horns nearly as long as their shaggy bodies. Cave lions rush stampeding bison. Two mammoths stand placidly side by side, trunks hanging beneath broad, flat foreheads. These relics are as full of life today as they were 30,000 years ago, when the artists used black manganese dioxide and red ocher, ground and mixed with fat or bone marrow, to sketch the animals on the walls of Grotte Chauvet.
We may know what the mammoth looked like and surmise that our ancestors held it in esteem. Far more compelling are the puzzles that shroud our true relationship with the mammoth. For instance, archaeologists have discovered a cache of mammoth hyoid bones near Krakow, Poland. These bones, which support the tongue, all have cut marks, apparently inflicted by humans who feasted on the mammoth tongues. But why only hyoid bones? Was the tongue a delicacy? After felling and butchering the massive beasts, did Stone Age people use the rest of the mammoth? We know they made tools from the ivory tusks and carved sculptures of mammoths from ivory and slate, possibly to serve as talismans or clan totems. But did they use the hide for foot coverings, the stomach for a water bladder, the downy undercoat for swaddling their babiesas imagined by Jean M. Auel in her novel Clan of the Cave Bear?
Although we may never know the answers to these questions, scientists have cracked other longstanding riddles. For instance, we know from studying DNA and tissue samples from frozen mammoth remains that the creatures were cousins, not ancestors, of modern African and Asian elephants. We also know from fossil finds that there were six species of mammoths and that the primeval mammoths originated in Africa before spreading into Europe and Asia.
Eluding scientists, however, is the answer to the most confounding riddle of all: What vanquished the woolly mammoth at the end of the Great Ice Age? This question has captivated Bernard Buigues and his team, who are racing to find evidence frozen in northern Siberia that would support a provocative new hypothesis. If they succeed, they will lay claim to the Holy Grail of mammoth research.
Around 11,000 years ago, the entire mammoth population went into a tailspin, but no one is sure why. Native peoples across Siberia once believed that mammoth bones were the remains of giant rats that dwelled underground and, like vampires, died if exposed to air or sunlight. When Western European scholars heard about the frozen elephant-like creatures in Siberia, they were convinced that these were the carcasses of African elephants swept to the Arctic during the flood described in the Bible's Book of Genesis.
But evidence began to pile up late in the 1700s that mammothswith thin jawbones, long, twisting tusks, and shaggy hideswere not elephants. So where were they hiding? Many people believed that Noah had brought onto his ark breeding pairs of all Earth's animals; no species had ever just ceased to exist. Even Thomas Jefferson assumed that the mammoth, the bones of which were found throughout the New World, existed in the wilds west of the Mississippi River. This fallacy was shattered during Jefferson's presidency, when the woolly mammoth became the first species ever shown to have gone extinct.
When, in the 1840s, a picture emerged of glaciers advancing deep into Europe and North America during the Great Ice Age, biologists reasoned that the woolly mammoth was a cold-adapted mammal that could not cope with the abrupt transition to a warmer climate when the glaciers receded. A more sophisticated version of this idea holds that during much of the Pleistocene Epochabout 1.8 million years in which the polar ice sheets advanced and retreated twenty-three timeshuge swaths of the Northern Hemisphere were covered by cold, arid grassland: the mammoth steppe. When the world warmed around 11,500 years ago, near the end of the Pleistocene, shifting weather patterns brought more rain and snow. Winter would have become particularly taxing for grazing animals, when mosses and sedgesless nutritious plants that had supplanted the steppe's grasses and herbslay buried under snowdrifts. In this scenario, mammoths couldn't get enough to eat, and isolated populations guttered and winked out one by one.
Thirty years ago, a rival hypothesis emerged to pin the blame for the mammoth's disappearance in North America on prehistoric humans who slaughtered the animals for food. Attributing the demise of mammoths across Eurasia to hunters was much more of a stretch, but the idea got European researchers probing whether hunting abetted climate change in dooming the animals.
A spine-chilling new idea appeared in 1997 when Ross MacPhee, the curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, argued that prehistoric hunters, or perhaps their dogs, carried a deadly microbe that tore through mammoth populations with the virulence of the flu and the lethal quality of the Ebola virus. "There was no way the mammoths could fight back," MacPhee says. "This was the killer plague of all time." MacPhee thinks that this efficient killer, or at least its DNA, may still exist in the frozen bones or flesh of the most recently deceased mammoths, so in August 2000, he joined Bernard Buigues on the mammoth hunt on Taimyr to try to prize the "hyperdisease" pathogen, if it exists, from the ice.
* * *
Tracking down a prehistoric terror is not the only goal of modern mammoth hunters. Finding the frozen mammoths today holds out a fantastic new possibility: What if we could bring one of these fabled creatures back to life? The Japanese scientist Kazufumi Goto believes we can. In a pioneering experiment in 1990, he showed that a bull's dead sperm could be used to fertilize an egg. After implanting the egg in a cow, a calf was born.
If the intact DNA, the genetic code, contained in a sperm head were all that was necessary for fertilization, Goto thought, dead sperm might be used to save endangered speciesor to resurrect Ice Age beasts. Goto briefly considered the idea of reviving Ice Age animals like deer or bison, whose modern descendants could serve as surrogate mothers for any breeding experiment using dead sperm. But bringing back a woolly mammoth would be more romantic. Mammoths are so unlike any animal alive today, yet they are closely enough related to elephants that a breeding experiment might just work. In the summer of 1997, Goto assembled a team and struck off for Siberia in search of frozen mammoths.
Not long ago, that sort of wild-eyed adventure and its ultimate goalbringing the mammoth back to lifewould have been dismissed as science fiction, a kind of warm and fuzzy Jurassic Park. But stunning advances in reproductive biology are giving scientists a shot at succeeding. They range from the microscopic tools that allow scientists to slip a sperm head into an egg without rupturing its fragile membrane to the technological tour de force of removing an egg's genes and inserting replacement genes from an adult cellthe necessary prelude to making a clone.
If he could find well-preserved tissue, Goto reasoned, he would face a choice: attempt to create a hybrid, with half its DNA from a mammoth and half from an elephant, or create a clone that would be 100 percent mammoth. Producing a hybrid would require injecting mammoth sperm into an Asian elephant egg. (An African elephant, also closely related to the mammoth, could be tried too.) If an embryo were to form from the union, it would be implanted in an Asian elephant cow. It's likely that untold numbers of hybrid embryos would never develop into a fetus. But if one were to flourish and be carried to term, it's conceivable that after around 600 daysthe length of time a fetal elephant stays in its mother's womba living mammoth would be born.
Cloning a mammoth would be more spectacularand possible, in theorywith mammoth tissue in which the DNA, a long, spiraling, ladderlike molecule, had not shattered during the freezing process. Scientists could inject the nucleus from a mammoth cell directly into an Asian elephant egg stripped of its own DNA and zap it with electricity to spark fertilization. Such an embryo would also be implanted in an Asian elephant cow.
Scientists are on the verge of bringing extinct species back to life. "I know it sounds unbelievable," says Goto. "But no science can deny our idea."
* * *
This book is about the daring individuals who are penetrating the farthest reaches of Siberia in search of the mammoth. Breathtaking finds from this great mammoth graveyard have ushered in each of the last three centuries. Two hundred years ago, the Adams mammoth provided a glimpse of what the great beast looked like. One hundred years ago, the majestic Berezovka mammoth added more vital clues to its appearance, giving us our present picture of the mammoth.
Today, explorers are mounting the most intense search ever for frozen mammoths. For good reason. While dinosaur hunters must settle for dusty bones, the DNA in these relics long gone, mammoth hunters know they can find the real thing: gnarled plaits of mammoth hair, still attached to the skin, smelling mangyand alive. Beneath the skin lie the muscles and ligaments and fat, the bones and even organs, all still containing their DNA, which holds the secrets to why a mammoth looks different from an elephant. Today's explorers are turning up new specimens that could at last explain why the woolly mammoth became extinct. They also offer the magical possibility of bringing the king of the Ice Age back to life.
Would our lives somehow be enriched after resurrecting the king? Or are we courting disaster, as the American paleontologist William Berryman Scott, believing the mammoth to have been a ferocious carnivore, suggested in 1887: "The world is a much pleasanter place without them, and we can heartily [say] `thank heaven that the whole generation is extinct.'" To many people, conjuring up a breathing mammoth is a chilling thought. The Dolgans and other native Siberians who live with the bones of the beast beneath them fear the consequences of bringing it back to life. Even some of the scientists and explorers contend that resurrecting the mammoth is pointless or amoral, considering how alien it might feel in a world much changed from the one of its brethren. End this Promethean quest, they argue, and let the mammoth rest in peace.
That will not be possible. Explorers and scientists are racing to raise the dead. Their goal is to exhume the most intact mammoth ever beheld since our ancestors stalked the hairy beasts. For some, the finish line spells doom; for others, the start of a spectacular scientific drama.
TREASURE OF THE WOODEN HILLS
Looking like a lumberjack in his red plaid cotton shirt and gray skullcap, Anatoly Logachev shifted his bulldozer into gear and plowed into the thawing ground on a warm and sunny morning. It was June 23, 1977, early in the summer strip-mining season at the Susuman gold mine in northeastern Siberia's Kirgilyakh River valley. The night before, the miners had redirected a small stream to thaw and wash away an ice lens covering a promising patch of ground. While working this layer, Logachev's blade caught on what appeared to be a thick, dark root. Climbing out and examining what he'd gashed, Logachev discovered that the root, in fact, was part of a body. He called over the other miners, who brought a hose and starting blasting the concrete-like permafrost with warm water. After a few minutes, enough silt had washed away for them to get a good look at the carcass. Logachev's eyes flashed. "Mamontyonok!" he is said to have cried. A baby mammoth!
Logachev did not realize, but he was looking at the best-preserved frozen mammoth ever found.
Most miners would probably have discarded the carcass: any distraction that curtailed their operations during the brief Siberian summer would hurt them financially. But Logachev had a hunch that this baby mammoth was special, so he persuaded his fellow miners not to hush up the find. That day the head of the mine cabled the director of the geology institute in the regional capital of Magadan, 180 miles to the east. As word got out, a stream of local officials and residents came to gawk and take photos. Over the next two days the weather grew hotter, and the thawing mamontyonok began to stink and draw flies. The miners covered it with ice and put up a makeshift tent.
Finally, three days after the carcass was exposed, three geologists arrived from Magadan. They immediately recognized the specimen's value and moved it to a shelter to protect it better from the sun; later they moved the thawing corpse by car to Magadan, where it was stowed in a freezer. Word filtered up the chain of command to Communist party authorities, who on July 3 dispatched teams from the Institute of Paleontology in Moscow and from the country's leading mammoth house, the Institute of Zoology in Leningrad (so called in the Soviet era, the city's name reverted in 1991 to St. Petersburg). One of the scientists who flew over the eight time zones to Magadan was Nikolai K. Vereshchagin, the zoology institute's main mammoth expert. On his arrival, he marveled at the baby, dubbed Dima after a rivulet several feet from the site. "I laid my hand on its skin and felt a chill" Vereshchagin recalls. "I had touched the Stone Age."
During the examination of the site at the Susuman mine, Vereshchagin congratulated Logachev and presented him with all he was permitted to give: a special watch from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in reward for reporting the find. (A few years later, the Soviet government insured the specimen for 10 million rubles before sending it to London for an exhibition.) Feeling sorry, Vereshchagin asked the Communist party secretary in Magadan to supplement the measly reward by giving Logachev and his crew another bulldozer. "I was trying to do something for the workers," Vereshchagin says. The functionary refused. But Logachev always remained dear to the scientists' hearts: he later found a place of honor at the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, which exhibits a framed sepia-tinted photograph of the miner squinting in the sun in front of his bulldozer. The picture hangs above two glass jars, one containing Dima's heart, the other the mamontyonok's pickled foot-long penis.
Excerpted from MAMMOTH by Richard Stone. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Stone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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