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.

When a mammoth floundered, caught unawares in a bog or while drinking at a water hole, it would be preserved by the permafrost, down to its last flea, frozen in time until a passing Yakut happened to notice chestnut hair emerging from a river bank. Smell, too, had a part to play in some discoveries – an exhumed mammoth soon begins to stink. As in a domestic freezer after a power failure, rot seems to proceed with indecent haste on the defrosted giants. It is a familiar scene from horror stories: Rider Haggard’s She, when her preservative spring is cut off, ages rapidly and horribly. The Russians excavating mammoths often had to emerge from the pit every few minutes to escape the stench, as decay bacteria went belatedly about their duty. But for as long as they remain frozen, mammoths are giant time capsules, prehistoric packages posted directly to the present day from a time when humankind had not long emerged from Africa. But what to do with them? Are these carcasses best left to rot back to their own time, to be picked over by crows and dogs? Should they be stuffed and exhibited, alongside other palaeontological wonders? Or can they be rescued from their frozen obscurity and brought back to life, once more to browse the Arctic plains?

Richard Stone assumes that attempts to revive mammoths are a practical possibility. Frozen mammoth sperm, so the theory goes, may yet be viable. Techniques are already used routinely in fertility treatment that allow defrosted sperm to fertilise living eggs, so why not use the sperm of a mammoth for the same purpose? At the simplest, the egg of an elephant could be fertilised and implanted in a surrogate mother; some kind of hybrid would result. If that hybrid were fertile – and it’s a big ‘if’ – then repeating the process over succeeding generations could increase the ‘mammothness’ of further hybrids. Eventually, an animal more mammoth than elephant would arrive clothed in splendid hair, and an atavistic revival of the age of sabre-toothed ‘tigers’ would have been born. Then – so the dream continues – reborn mammoths could be released into ‘Pleistocene Park’, a reconstruction of their primeval grasslands (the park would have to be about the size of Wales to sustain a population). Given that the generational turnover of an elephant is even longer than that of our own species, this experiment would require long-term faith in the outcome, to say the least. The Berezovka mammoth was found before its time: if only that sperm-bearing specimen had been found last year, it could have been kept frozen until just before the moment when its genetic material was injected into an elephant egg.

Several perfectly preserved, fleshy mammoths have been discovered over the last century, but none has yielded spermatozoa. The most beautiful mummification was of a baby elephant christened Dima, discovered in the Susuman gold field in Siberia in 1977. It still had traces of its mother’s milk in its stomach. Removed and stored under frozen conditions, to ensure that the bacteria were cheated, Dima has helped to answer important scientific questions. DNA extracted from the fossil was still complete enough to have preserved the gene coding for the protein cytochrome b. By comparing this gene sequence with those of Dima’s living pachyderm relatives, it was proved that the closest relative of the mammoth is the Asian elephant, rather than its African cousin – so now we know which species to use as a surrogate mother.

So far, so logical; but now come the difficulties. DNA is fragile stuff, it breaks and degenerates. The chances of a viable mammoth egg surviving thousands of years in the deep freeze are truly remote, though sperm, admittedly, is tougher. Several examples of the alleged preservation of ancient DNA in toto have proved to be bogus. For example, there is no DNA millions of years old preserved in amber (Jurassic Park and all that), in spite of well-publicised claims to that effect. There is a great difference between preserving a gene or three and preserving the whole genome: you can’t make do with just a majority of the code – even were the merest snippet to be missing, the consequences would be lethal. Undeterred, mammoth resuscitation enthusiasts have invoked different techniques, maintaining that certain kinds of cell contain the potential for cloning. Find the right frozen cell type and it might be possible to grow a mammoth, somewhat in the manner of Dolly the sheep. The keenest advocates of such a project are Japanese: a rich businessman, Kazutoshi Kobayashi, supported by an obsessed molecular biologist, Kazufumi Goto. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been spent searching for the perfect frozen corpse; the search has been fruitless. Alan Cooper, an expert in fossil DNA at Oxford, believes that the resurrection plan is, anyway, a fantasy.

If so, it is a fantasy of a very particular kind. It might be more practical (and even that is debatable) to revive a dodo or a moa – extinct flightless birds which lived into historical times. Such a project doesn’t have the right compulsive quality, however. Mammoth resurrection has something of the drama of Frankenstein’s creation or the Mummy: monsters restored from beyond the grave. ‘Mammoth’ is, after all, an adjective meaning huge, and if you’re going to bring something back from the dead, it had better be a giant.

Richard Stone has a problem which derives from his being a reputable journalist, with a responsibility to point out that the whole project may well be impossible. To be fair to him, he does refer to some of the difficulties in the science. The whole attraction of the book, however, is the Frankenstein archetype (if his subtitle had been ‘Difficulties in the Way of Resurrection’ it would scarcely have had the same appeal), so the reader is nudged onwards with encouragements to believe that a living mammoth might be a possibility. This is disingenuous. For the rest, Stone’s compilation of mammoth lore is impressive. He is particularly entertaining when he recounts his own journeys into remote parts of Siberia to meet the mammoth hunters in the field. There he experienced both the chaos and the venality that followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the charm of the local people. The persistence of the mammoth men is memorable, in the face of gangsterdom, supplies that fail to arrive and the abysmal weather: you sometimes feel that confronting a real mammoth might prove less hazardous. To search for frozen carcasses in the vastness of Siberia absolutely requires you to be an obsessive. Small wonder that the protagonists need to feed on dreams.

As with all good stories about meddling with life beyond the grave, there is a curse. The endemic peoples of Yakutia believe that to dig up a mammoth body is to invite disaster. Sure enough, as in the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, there are tales of death and ruin dogging those who violated the buried giants. One Russian peasant, rewarded with a fistful of roubles for reporting a frozen mammoth in good condition, managed to gamble away his fortune in a single day of spectacular bad luck. Several of the earlier scientists who brought specimens to museums in St Petersburg died within a year or two of their success. The fact that Professor Nikolai Vereshchagin, doyen of mammoth men, lived vigorously into his nineties, seems a rather dull fact to throw in the face of believers in a supernatural malediction.

In fact, it was the mammoths themselves that were cursed, doomed to extinction despite their numbers and success. Relatively recent discoveries in the Arctic surprised the experts by showing that they continued to exist until about 3700 years ago. While the last of them still bred on Wrangel Island, civilisation was already old on the River Nile.

There are three different theories to explain the extinction. The simplest links the changes in climate as the Pleistocene Ice Age drew to a close with changes in the vegetation on the ‘mammoth steppe’. Their favoured habitat shrank as the forested taiga spread northwards. Mosses displaced grasslands, and mammoths effectively starved to death. Evidence on the ground for climate change is everywhere, but evidence that the latest mammoths were stunted or under stress is ambiguous at best. Then there are those who prefer to blame the demise on our own species: we hunted them to extinction. Proponents of this second theory cite how North American elephants died out at exactly the same time as efficient, well-designed Clovis culture spearheads began to appear in archaeological digs. Huts built from mammoth bones have been recorded in Siberia for a century, and there can be little doubt that mammoths, for all their size, were a favoured food of the adaptable ape. Even so, it’s strange that we didn’t reach an accommodation with our prey, in the way that Lapps evolved their symbiotic relationship with the reindeer, or North American Indians with the plains bison (at least until the rifle arrived). This leaves the third explanation: that the mammoths died from infection by a ‘superbug’. This is considered most likely to have been a virus, maybe one of the immunodeficiency viruses that have thrown up Aids, or more probably a virulent version of a disease like smallpox. Maybe a human being, or his dog, was the unwitting vector of the disease that removed mammoths from the Earth. Viruses do, regularly, cross the species barrier. Could it be that the nemesis of the mammoths ultimately originated in Africa, just as Aids is presumed to have done within the last fifty years?

Near a town called Sevsk, 250 miles from Moscow, the remains of 36 woolly mammoths were excavated in the late 1980s from a single pit. There are several similar examples of apparent mass deaths, which could be read as the legacy of a plague. The last stand of the mammoths on Wrangel Island apparently shortly preceded the appearance of people there. This may be the best place to go to test the idea of a lethal infection and identify a submicroscopic slayer. Indeed, the best use of mammoth meat might turn out to be to use it to hunt for evidence of a killer virus rather than a reconstruction of the beast itself. Since the genetic structure of a virus is comparatively simple, its survival for a few thousand years would not be so remarkable: many kinds of micro-organisms have been revived from ice cores already.

Suspend disbelief long enough to suppose that one of the attempts at mammoth resurrection succeeded. You can imagine the animal as the star attraction in a zoological garden (laid out in good taste, of course). But would there not be something ineffably sad about such a re-creation? If there were further clones, might they degenerate prematurely in the way that experimental mice have done? I seem to see the huge beasts sweating in their long coats, shuffling unhappily from foot to foot, sniffing for the distant ice sheets that history has long since destroyed.