Around 1650 BCE (Before the Common Era), the last mammoth on earth died on Wrangel Island, a small outpost in the Chukchi Sea off northeastern Siberia. In the same general period of time, the Shang Dynasty ruled China, the Thirteenth Dynasty began in Egypt, (it will be 300 more years before Tutankhamen is born), the Hittites sack Babylon and the world’s first wooden bridge was constructed on Lake Zurich.
Frequently ice-bound, Wrangel was visited by hunters before its mammoth population became extinct, evidenced by the various stone and ivory tools the hunters left behind. Possibly a part of a vast Inuit trading culture, the hunters did what hunters do – feed their families. They might, or might not, have known mammoths were becoming very scarce. Large mammals such as reindeer and sea lions were their prey – why not the last mammoth left on earth? Wrangel Island is now a sanctuary, a breeding ground for polar bears, with the highest density of dens in the world.
Most mammoth and mastodon populations became extinct during the transition from the Late Pleistocene (126,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE) to the Holocene, the age of modern man beginning at 12,000 BCE. The word Holocene derives from the Greek words holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new) and the epoch encompasses all of the period from the last glaciations throughout the worldwide population growth of the human species and up to present day. Animals and plants have not evolved much during the Holocene, but have undergone major shifts in their distributions, due to the effects of man. It was also the period where the megafauna – mammoths, mastodons, giant bears and an entire range of predators – disappeared.
During the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, the Stone Age came to an end with the advent of flint tool manufacturing, the first usage of advanced darts and harpoons, and the development of a modern toolkit including oil lamps, fish hooks, ropes, and eyed needles – all perfect inventions that indicate successful hunting-gathering techniques. During this transitionary period, Neanderthals became extinct, clay figures were hardened in wood-fired ovens, the bow and arrow was invented, and cave painting appeared in Europe. By 12,000 BCE, Asiatic peoples crossed from Asia to North America, entered South America as far as the Andes, and domesticated llamas.
Although climate change and human predation are considered the main causes for the extinction of the Pleistocene-Holocene megafauna, the spread of disease is also an extinction theory. Scientists who believe that the catastrophic drop in mammoth and mastodon populations was due to a hyper-disease are studying frozen samples from the mammoths of Wrangel, hoping to find evidence of an Ebola-like virus in their DNA. They theorize that the virus could have jumped from fleas to mammoths, which would account for an extinction rate that increased as humans spread across the planet. (Rats, which carry fleas, caravanned right alongside us, as we propagated our way across the continents.) To date, the DNA recovered from Wrangel is incomplete and fragmentary.
But climate change and overhunting are the two main theories for the Holocene extinctions. During the last glaciations of the Pleistocene (19,000 to 20,000 BCE) most of the climate of the world was colder and drier. Deserts expanded, sea level dropped, and rain forests were splintered by savannah. Twelve thousand years ago, the last Ice Age ended. The vast grasslands of Siberia froze under permafrost. Trees marched north. Humans moved into the more temperate regions, following game. As habitat collapsed with the climate change, as mammoths and mastodons were confined to shrinking islands of refuge, they became easier to hunt.
Females and the young, the easiest and most numerous, died first. And with the older females went the knowledge of where and when to migrate. With fewer and fewer females, birthrates could not keep up with death rates. Mammoths couldn’t pop up every spring like wildflowers.
The longer it takes to find each elusive herd makes a difference on how long you stay and how much you overhunt it. But even as places of refuge became further and further apart, it was still possible to find them. And hunt again and again and again.
There’s a lot of return for killing mammoths, much more so than gathering grass seeds, which were the most abundant food item of the Pleistocene. In the last twenty years tons of evidence has been unearthed, confirming the overhunting theory. Below Krakow’s Spadzista Street in Poland, 8,000 bones of 73 individuals were found in a 40 x 40-foot square area, a mammoth mausoleum. At a hunting campsite in Czechoslovakia, archeologists excavated more than a thousand mammoths. In areas where wood was scarce, such as the Ukraine, shelter frameworks were constructed of mammoth bones, with skulls for foundations and interlocking tusks as arches. One shelter, near Kiev, contained the bones of 95 mammoths. And in Dent, Colorado, the bones of a dozen mammoths are clustered at the bottom of a cliff. Scattered among them are stone spear points and large rocks.
Mammoths and mastodons survived through the Pleistocene and into the age of man. Ten thousand years ago, North America resembled Africa, with huge migrating herds of elephant, camels, horses and antelope. Following alongside the herds were Saber-toothed cats, Dire wolves, Miracinonx (the American cheetah that looked like an elongated cougar), Giant short-faced bears and American lions. Then, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, within just eight thousand years, three-fourths of North America’s large mammals disappeared.
I imagine how the Mastodon in My Backyard died:
Near a small, bog-rich pond, the pearl-gray catkins of a pussy willow rattle in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge. Frozen red berries still cling to its stems. Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall. Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.
The temperature drops and the sky clears. When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds. Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red. Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.
A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow. The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth. The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection, shimmering the four-legged silhouette on the pond’s surface. Looming over his own shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.
All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes. He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, pulled out each foot with a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.
On the tall-grass prairie, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind. He saw a shaggy outline, obscured by blowing snow, sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks. Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.
Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before. She is a mammoth and not a member of his low-browed kind.
At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt. A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock. His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground. An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.
Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.
Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems. The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky. Cattails chatter in the wind.
He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud, rich, black, and carnivorous. He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds. Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.
Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out. They build a fire and settle to their work.
In the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim, Washington, which is about thirty miles from my backdoor, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in the low spot of his front yard. His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs. His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University. The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.
In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon. The left side of the skeleton was intact, all its bones in a correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond. The mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains. Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.
But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.
The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.
The projectile made of elk bone penetrated three-fourths of an inch into the rib. The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.
Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were found near the pond. During a later phase of the excavation, the partial remains of two more mastodons were unearthed. Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered. In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were also found near the site. The two species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.
Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous. They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds – even gave tours. And to the skeptics who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short reply. “Did an elk explode?”
After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. Recently, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.
Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm. Some of the mastodon’s bones remain caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering. A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle. On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.” It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so. And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine. In nearby glass cases the mastodon’s bones tell their history, chop mark by slash, elk bone embedded in rib. I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.
Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo. Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti. Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.
But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.
Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.