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The enduring fascination of the mammoth

Terry Ward

The mammoth is the most familiar of prehistoric animals largely because it is only an elephant a fur coat. There appear to be more books and articles about the mammoth than all other prehistoric animals put together. Richard Stone's Mammoth – The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant tells of recent attempts to dig up mammoths from the frozen tundra of Siberia. We learn of a Japanese scientist who aims to clone a mammoth using genetic engineering, while there is a Russian who wants to recreate the flora and fauna of the Siberian Ice Age as part of a plan to open a theme park. This he feels could be a rival to Disneyland.

The mammoth seems to inspire flights of fancy that other prehistoric animals are rarely able to do. At the end of the last Ice Age the mammoth was found in large numbers throughout the Northern hemisphere.  Art of the Mammoth Hunters.- The finds of Avdeevo by Mariana Gvozdover suggests the great scale of mammoth hunting at the end of the  Ice Age.  Outside Kursk in Western Russia sites have produced 57,000 knapped flints which demonstrates the scope and length of settlement.  Hundreds of artifacts were found from animals ranging from bison, horse, bear to fox and hare, but the majority of objects were made from mammoth bone or ivory. Figurines of women fertility symbols were made from mammoth ivory. The only animals shown on artefact decorations were the horse and mammoth.

More than seventy mammoth bone huts have been found on fifteen different sites in Russia. The evidence suggests that the mammoth was as important to Ice Age man as the bison was to the plains Native American. The animal produced material for shelter, clothing and an extensive tool kit apart from much needed meat.

What caused the decline of the mammoth? Was it climate change or did man hunt the animal to extinction? Professor Peter Ward in The Call of the Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared examined the evidence in detail and concluded that the jury was still out on the issue.

How were the mammoths killed? Traditionally it was thought they might be stampeded over a cliff, or trapped by means of digging a  large pit. Neither instance do I find plausible as convenient cliffs are very unlikely, while digging pits in frozen tundra is difficult even with modern technology.

When fully grown the mammoth was 11 or 12 feet tall and could  weigh between  4 and 6 tons. The hide of the mammoth was half an  inch thick and the only effective way to kill such an animal was to thrust a spear through the rib cage into the heart and lungs. The Clovis people of North America had 6 inch long stone spear points for this purpose.

No doubt the animals hunted would be those at the back of the pack, which was likely to mean that they could be older and slower, or perhaps a mother protecting a young mammoth. However, all mammoths could kill even the bravest of hunters. The lead hunter with the prized spear would need to be accompanied by two or three companions whose aim would be to attract the mammoth's attention while the lead hunter went in for the kill. The companions could have gone to the back of the mammoth equipped with spears or flaming brands.   Fire may well have played a much bigger role in prehistoric hunting than is often realised. In view of the short life span of our prehistoric forefathers and the difficulties of ensuring a regular supply of food throughout the year, it is likely that young people of both sexes in their mid-teens would have been expected to participate in the hunting of the mighty mammoths.

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