Down to the Last Flea

Richard Fortey

  • Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone
    Fourth Estate, 242 pp, £14.99, January 2002, ISBN 1 84115 517 9

In 1901, a frozen mammoth’s penis was discovered on the Berezovka River in Siberia. The organ was erect, nearly three feet long and, having been flattened in the icy tundra, eight inches in diameter. The mammoth’s testicles, equally frozen, were tucked inside the overlying carcass. The meat was dark and marbled, like properly hung beef. Otto Herz and Eugen Pfizenmayer, who made the discovery, wondered if they shouldn’t eat it, rather than continue to subsist on horseflesh. They decided against it. Their dogs had no such scruples. The mammoth had been frozen for something like 44,000 years; its chestnut hair was still matted on the carcass. It differed from modern elephants in other features besides hairiness: it had four toes compared with an elephant’s five, and a flap of skin protected its anus from cold winds. Its tusks curved towards each other. According to the Russian geologist I.P. Tolmachoff, this mammoth had become bogged down in treacherous ground and had suffocated, which evidently accounted for its tumid state.

Mammoths once roamed in great herds across the Siberian Arctic. Like African elephants today, they broke branches from trees and churned the ground. To the south of the massive Pleistocene ice sheets that covered much of the Earth’s northerly regions, a sedge and grass steppe supported much more life than Siberia does nowadays. Bears and wolves abounded, preying on herds of bison, moose, horses, woolly rhino and wandering reindeer. The daily activities of these grazers and browsers – breaking up the soil and depositing their dung – kept a rich sward in good condition. The climate may have been drier than at present, if the fossil pollen of the grasses is to be believed, and because so much water was locked up in the ice caps, sea levels were lower. Thus the land bridge of Beringia joined Siberia to Alaska and large mammals could wander over what is now frigid sea in search of new pasture. Despite the fearful cold of winter there was enough grazing to support a Siberian ecosystem comparable in many respects to that of Africa – with the difference that the animals had more body fat and thick pelts. The rare wood bison, which hangs on in remote parts of Northern Canada, is probably the best living analogue to the vanished grazers. Only after the end of the great Ice Age did the present landscape of tundra and taiga get the upper hand. Bog mosses choked out the nutritious grasses, dwarf willows clogged up the water courses, and the mammoths became extinct.

Their commonest legacy is their tusks. These are sawn off by ivory hunters, leaving the intractable frozen body behind. More than 100,000 tusks have been exported from Siberia to date for carving and working. Bechstein piano keys may have started life rooting up Arctic weeds thousands of years ago. In 1911, the Encyclopaedia Britannica described Siberia as ‘inexhaustible as a coalfield and in future, perhaps, the only source of animal ivory’. If poachers in Africa continue to do their worst, this prediction may yet come true.

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