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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Jarkov Mammoth

by Linda DeLaine

Finding the remains of the prehistoric giant mammoth in the far reaches of northern Siberia is not an unusual occurrence. Bones and tusks reveal themselves when the permafrost thaws. However, the discovery of an intact mammoth is something for scientists to get excited about.

It is this permafrost thaw that seems to have brought an end to many mammoths. Most remains, including that of the Jarkov Mammoth, lead scientists to believe that they became mired down in mud, unable to free themselves. The Jarkov Mammoth was discovered in 1997 on the Siberian Taimyr Peninsula. A nine year old Dolgan boy is credited with the discovery of this mammoth which is believed to have lived some 20,000 years ago.

French mammoth-hunter, Bernard Buigues, lead the successful effort to raise the mammoth. The beast, encased in a 23 ton block of mud and ice, was transported to Khatanga, roughly 200 miles away. Today, it resides in an ice cave where a team of over three dozen scientists painstakingly melt away the ice to reveal the block's contents. Alexei Tikhonov, Russia's most noted mammoth expert, is part of this international team. This excavation and ongoing study of the Jarkov Mammoth have been recorded by the Discovery Channel. Khatanga [khutän'gu] is located in the Krasnoyarsk Territory in north central Siberian Russia.

As the meticulous thawing of the Jarkov Mammoth continues, samples of hair, bone marrow and Pleistocene plants have been removed and shipped off to various laboratories for analysis. Still more samples have been taken from bone and tusk fragments found at the excavation site. The 23 ton block of ice is being melted away using Russian made hair dryers. At this point, it still is not clear how intact the mammoth is.

The Jarkov Mammoth represents an exciting find for scientists who study prehistoric times. It has, also, raised tantalizing possibilities for modern scientists who speculate about the possibility of cloning the giant creature.

Samples from the Jarkov Mammoth have been radiocarbon dated. The over 50 samples indicate that mammoths roamed the Taimyr region for tens of thousands of years. Scientists have determined that there were two period when the mammoths left the region in search of food or to escape flooding; 34,000 to 30,000 BC and 17,000 to 12,000 BC. The Jarkov Mammoth is estimated to have lived between these two periods, around 18,380 BC.

Mammoths, prehistoric forerunner to the elephant, lived from ca. 4 million to 2,000 BC. Roughly 20 different species of mammoths have been identified, each representing evolutionary adaptations and changes. The best known of these species is the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius. The woolly mammoth was not the largest of the mammoth species with a shoulder height of roughly three meters. Earliest remains date to ca. 120,000 BC and it became extinct roughly 4,000 years ago.

Global climate began to warm after ca. 13,500 years ago. The mammoths made their way from continental Europe to the north becoming extinct at an earlier date in Europe than in Siberia.

Wrangel Island, located in the Arctic Ocean off of Siberia's far northeast, marked the last stand of the mammoths. Artifacts, dating back to ca. 2,000 BC, of small mammoths standing roughly 1.8 meters tall, have been found. The demise of the mammoths is likely due to the global thaw after the Ice Age. Paleolithic man increased in numbers and competed with the mammoths for food. There is strong evidence that prehistoric man successfully hunted the mammoth, thus depleting their numbers over time.