Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index

What happened to the Mammoth?

by K.S. Gardner.

Every one is acquainted with the hairy long tusked mammoth that was part of this country's fauna during the last Ice Age.  A tooth of one was found in St. Cuthbert’s Swallet a few years ago by Jack Waddon.

That the mammoth was contemporary with man we know from the lifelike representations on the walls of the French caves, paintings and engravings ten to twenty thousand years old. But what happened to this great beast when the polar front retreated from the British Isles to its present position?  Of his contemporary companions many remain accepted as present day occupants of this earth; the reindeer the arctic fox and the lemming did not become extinct, they merely moved north, as must the mammoth have done initially.

It is widely known that some years ago, a frozen carcase of a mammoth came into the hands of a scientific institution in Russia and that much was learned from its study.  The general impression was that this was a stroke of luck - one mammoth preserved by chance and fortuitously delivered into the hands of science.  This is not quite the case, however, for "superstitious peasants" and people who "must be mistaken" had been taking such happenings for common place for centuries previously.

The word ‘mammoth’ is alleged to have been derived from ‘mammantu’ meaning ‘the underground giant’. Throughout all of Lapp and Siberian folklore are legends of a monstrous hairy beast who sleeps beneath the snow and slowly emerges when it melts.  A more material form of evidence is the long established trade in ivory carried out by Siberian peasants.  At the beginning of this century the province of Yakutsk is alleged to have exported 150 pairs of mammoth tusks per year.  The trade is not new either; both pre-Christian Chinese chronicles and Pliny the elder refer to ivory being dug from the ground in Siberia.

In 1611 in London a certain J. Logan exhibited a huge “elephant's Tusk” from Russia.  In 1692 a Dutchman named Ides reported the discovery of carcases and the legends of burrowing elephants.  In 1724, Peter the Great sent a representative to investigate and he found a putrefying carcase.  In 1802, another was seen by Prof Adams and at last in 1901, the Imperial Academy of Science at St Petersburg announced the recovery for scientific study of an almost whole carcase.

A study of the stomach contents revealed that, far from being a tundra beast, this hairy elephant fed on lush forest plants.  Its remains were found when the forest had retreated - perhaps been stripped even by the vast hordes of mammoth, more and more of whom must have been slowly concentrating on N. Siberia ten thousand years ago.   But did they all drop dead with no descendants, even though the Siberian environment of the time must have been ideal for them?

Three million square miles of Siberia is covered with the world's largest and least known forest - the Taiga.  A forest which could hide Great Britain thirty times over, a forest almost the size of the U.S.A.  Could it be logically possible that a few mammoth still survive?  How old were the ice preserved corpses - ten thousand years? - a thousand years? - a hundred years?

In 1580 a Don Cossack reported having seen a large hairy elephant beyond the Ural Mountains.  In 1918 an illiterate Siberian hunter followed tracks into the Taiga for several weeks.  His quarry eluded him but not before he had seen them.  Shown pictures of the mammoth, he had no difficulty in identifying them!

After the discovery of the so-called extinct coelacanth, who knows what other 'extinct' fauna may prove one day not to be so.