I live at the edge of the continent, where an elbow of the world’s largest ocean juts into the far western side of North America, where ocean is trying to become land and land ocean. I live where elephants once roamed, where mastodons and mammoths ranged the southern edge of ice sheets.
They lived, literally, in my back yard. Thirty years ago mammoth bones and teeth eroded from the cliff just a half mile from my house.
Last night I had a dream, born, I guess, from the days when I lived in Seattle. As if my clock radio had gone off, I heard the voice of a male announcer in my ear.
Traffic Alert! The 520 bridge is slow, slow, slow this morning. Mammoths are beginning their annual migration from the Cascade Corridor into the Arboretum for salal berries! Let’s take a look at the traffic cams. Yep, cars are really creeping, trying to get a look, as the mammoths cross the Wildlife Bridge at Montlake. And now we’ve got reports of a couple of herds at the beach near the old Pier 51 site.
Female voice: Wow, Clark, look . . .at. . .that! Ferry commuters are gonna get a great view from Coleman Dock. Isn’t that something!
Male voice: Well, that’s the latest traffic update. Expect major delays into downtown this morning. Now, back to our top story . . .
It’s dark, 4 a.m., and I awaken laughing and crying, wondering where dreams come from. Wondering if I’ve imagined an alternative present where mammoths and mastodons still migrate through our daily routines, safe from the closed door of extinction. Wondering what I would see if I rose in my dream and looked out my window: mammoths in the grass, in the moonlight, plucking the heads of dandelions one by one, mastodons stripping the bark of the cedar tree in my neighbor’s back yard. Elephant ghosts reclaiming their land.
In 1898, on the central coast of British Columbia, Franz Boas recorded oral beliefs of the Heiltsuk tribe. Their creation stories told of a world made of water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline. The oral history of the Heiltsuk stated that their peoples settled the central coastal area “before the great flood,” which may refer to the rising sea levels as ice sheets further inland melted.
The First People of North America spread up rivers and along the Rocky Mountain foothills, out into the Great Plains and on to the Atlantic seaboard as the glaciers melted. Twelve thousand years ago, a band of humans travelling the steppes of what would become the state of South Dakota, might have witnessed something like this:
To the north are huge, receding remnants of the Pleistocene glaciation. But here it is spring, and the valley below them bursts with sedge, Arctic sagebrush, dwarf willows, buttercups, daisies and new shoots of grass. A braided river born from ice meanders south, glistening under a rising sun.
In the distance immense clouds pile behind a series of small, rolling hills. The clouds groan, rumble and rain fingers the earth. A rainbow arcs, glistens, and fades.
Up and over the nearest hill strides a Columbian mammoth, and then another and another, until the horizon holds thousands of them in parallel lines, headed in a single, purposeful direction. It’s the spring migration, following a route used for generations.
The humans squat, clothed in the skins of llama and deer, rabbit and fox. They watch as the mammoths fill the basin below them. They watch interrelated family units greet each other joyously, trumpeting, bellowing and intertwining trunks. The air shivers as mothers rumble reassurance to their offspring. The circles of kinship within the mammoth families include aunts and grandmothers, uncles and grandfathers, whose experiences carry the entire library of mammoth knowledge.
A young calf with wild eyes and a swinging trunk veers out of the herd and toward the humans, stops, lifts a foot, raises her chin, then rips out a clump of grass and throws it over her back. As a self-appointed guardian for her family, she’s young enough to be uncertain and old enough to be full of herself.
Satisfied with her display, festooned with wisps of grass, she rejoins her family. A sibling tugs at her fur, liberates a stalk of grass and waves it around like a magic wand. Her mother, the matriarch, is constantly alert to the humans, her awareness evident by an uplifted trunk smelling in their direction.
The humans keep an eye on her. They know what she’s capable of if they threaten the herds. They watch and wait, scanning the valley, smelling sweet grass crushed between thousands of massive molars.
On a distant hill a solitary male mammoth flips over shocks of grass, searching for new growth. He’s an oddly dainty monster, with a squashed, flattened face and a tall head dome. The skirt of hair across his flanks and under his belly ripples in the breeze. His fur coat is three feet long, his feet covered with six inches of hair. Around his neck and under his chin, is a dark-colored beard, a feature often depicted by Ice Age artists.
The humans communicate with silent glances at each other, recognizing the woolly mammoth is old and slowed by age. They are not surprised when he is surrounded by a pride of American lions, Panthera leo atrox, a species 25% larger than today’s African lions. Timing and opportunity are gifts to all predators.
The lions surround the mammoth as he stands his ground, whirling in circles, brandishing his tusks. The more agile lions slice in and out of the fray and finally succeed in hamstringing the bull, severing the tendons of both back legs. A long time later, the mammoth goes down. The lions eat their fill and spend most of the afternoon upside-down, napping. The humans settle for a long wait. Often lions will defend prey this size for days on end.
But humans aren’t the only hunters following the herds, waiting for opportunity. Other scavengers are drawn to the kill. Circling in a slow funnel of doom, paratroops of vultures spiral down, down, down and muster on the ground in untidy rows. A group of Condors, slump-shouldered and patient undertakers, perch on a jumble of nearby rocks.
At the first hint of blood on the breeze, Arctodus simus, the Giant Short-faced Bear, stands upright on his two back legs, sniffing for the direction of its source. The biggest bear ever – twice the size of a grizzly – he is 11 feet tall when upright. Like all bears, he is also an opportunistic carnivore. With olfactory organs larger than those of any other bear, he locates the lion kill quickly and strides toward it at a graceful, rapid pace, moving in the same way a horse paces, the legs on a side moving forward together. He does not waddle like modern bears. He charges up the hill, roaring. The lions give way to the largest land predator of the Pleistocene, intimidated by his size. They are unwilling to risk injury from his strong jaws and their ability to crush bones with a single bite.
The humans stay put and let the bear eat. They too are intimidated. Even when standing on all four legs, Arctodus simus is seven feet tall, able to look any man directly in the eye.
Toward dusk, when the bear shows no signs of moving on, the humans concoct a plan. They gather stones, large stones, and ferry them within throwing range. The bear stands erect each time the humans edge closer, but is glutted, lethargic, and does not charge them. The humans spread into a half-circle, each one next to a pile of stones, and with a single nod, begin to throw as fast as they can. Surprised, furious, the bear charges in one direction, only to be hit from another. Before their piles of stones diminish, the humans have routed him. They are many and he is just one.
They build a ring of low, smoky sagebrush fires around the mammoth. They cut out his tongue and eat it raw. Fortified, they work through the night, scattering coyotes with well-timed stones. They carry a small arsenal of bone-tipped spears and arrows, but these are precious and not used unless it is absolutely necessary. Wolves, howl at a distance, pack-hunting under a full moon.
More than half the mammoth, the down side, is still left. One of the men separates an exposed shoulder blade from the rest of the skeleton and sharpens it by flaking away pieces of bone. At thirteen pounds, it’s a heavy tool. He uses both of his hands to chop at the carcass. He hacks at a lower leg, frees it, and and drags it to one side.
A woman uses a splintered tibia as a knife, shaves layers of fat from a disarticulated foot. She eats as she shaves, wipes blood and fat from her face with the palm of her hand, and pushes her hair from her eyes. It clumps in crests like greasy, matted feathers. She swats at the mosquitoes swarming around her, then rises and throws dried mammoth dung on the nearest fire. It smokes, repelling the small, persistent predators, a species so adaptable it will live on long after both mammoths and humans vanish from the earth.
Under the cold, unblinking animal eyes of the night sky, in a world lit only by a small circle of fires, the humans eat and butcher and sometimes sleep.
Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.
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.
Near a small, bog-rich pond, a pussy willow rattles pearl-gray catkins in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge, frozen red berries clinging to their 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 on the pond’s surface. The ripples pass through a black, four-legged silhouette in the middle of the pond. Looming over his own night 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, each footstep making a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.
All day long on the tall-grass prairie, through blowing clouds of sunshine and snow, 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 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 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.
Fourteen thousand years later, in the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim in Washington State, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in 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 the bones in their correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond and 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.
Originally researchers thought the spear point was made of elk bone, but later analysis confirmed it was fashioned from another mastodon. It was sturdy enough to penetrate thick hide, ten inches of muscle, and 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 unearthed near the pond, evidence of the oldest human occupation yet found in the Americas. During a later phase of the excavation, twelve separate layers of human habitation were discovered, ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 years ago.
The site was occupied again and again by people hunting and butchering other large mammals, such as bison, that gathered at the ancient pond. The partial remains of two more mastodons were excavated. 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 found near the site. The two elephant 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, gave tours and turned their barn into a theater for audio slide shows. And to the skeptics at the time who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short, curt reply. “What, did an elk explode?”
After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. The site officially became part of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. “Manny” Manis died in 2000; Clare Manis Hatler eventually remarried. In 2002, 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 there, 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.
I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.
There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer.
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds
There are certain things that can only be learned from a different perspective.
Pushing aside the darkness, a tiny, flickering lamp in hand, our ancestors crawled into the caves of Europe to paint the animals important to them. Still alive on those walls, mammoths with high, domed foreheads and a hump over their shoulders face two-legged stick hunters. Their humps held fat reserves, making them coveted prey, and dangerous prey make great stories.
Caves are potent, resonant underworlds. Tallow lamps held in a hand cast a low-level light, shadow each curve of the rock wall, suggesting a hump over there, the curve of an antler here. With red, brown and yellow soils dampened by egg white, blood, animal fat or plant juices, our ancestors recorded the vocabulary of the hunt on wall after wall. They made their brushes of hair and their sponges of moss or leaves. They inhaled the dampness of the earth that receives all, both those who eat and those who are eaten.
Escape, exhaustion, success, death, galloping bison and herds of antelope, squared jaws of lions, the arched necks of horses, and outlines of cave bears – painted by generation after generation of artists, who left their signatures in an outline of a hand or a couple of dots, who left only stick representations of themselves.
After etching the outline of a mammoth on rock and storing its spirit forever in darkness, the crawl back to light perhaps gave the world a new appearance – as if it could be conquered, controlled, illuminated, literally brought alive by an artist. Life stories painted under the ribs of the earth. Hidden knowledge. The past the present the future recorded on rocks deep in caves.
Was the crawling to light a prayer?
We are the progeny of ancestors who lived with, hunted and ate the great ones. We are the result of their lives intertwined with those they knew in the belly of the earth.
I carry in my veins a longing for turquoise-blue glaciers, a blood-red night sky and breath I can see as I breathe. Ancient memories flicker across my mind, casting shadows against cave walls. I press my hand against rock, blow pigment between my fingers. This is my signature. Look, I was once here. See how your hand fits into the outline of mine? See these hairy elephants? They were here then, too.
Imagine the smell of air freshly born from retreating glaciers, a sky cleared by melting snow. Imagine the scent of an earth newly thawed. Out there, just like you painted, a mammoth driven by a hunt has fallen over a cliff and bellows arrive in waves.
Our palm prints on cave walls, carvings on bone, the exposure of light on glass plates full of chemicals, digital cameras, electrons arranged in display across computer screens, voices tumbling through the air – is it the destiny of the human race to remember and record? Is that our place on earth?
There is a cave of light from our eye to our brain; but it is the corners of our eyes that perceive the most light; the corners of our minds where we begin to understand.
Theoretically, it is possible to reclaim extinct beings, to spin evolution backwards. To recreate a mammoth all you need are a few live mammoth cells, since each and every cell contains complete genetic information. Red-furred segments of mammoth flesh are not uncommon discoveries in Siberia, usually found by sled dogs that eagerly gnaw on frozen haunches. But cells die if stored above minus 94º Fahrenheit, even for short periods. Still, the possibility of finding live cells does exist. Paleontologists in Ohio have isolated 11,000-year-old bacteria from the stomach of a mastodon, the oldest living organisms ever found.
To recreate a mammoth, destroy the nucleus in the ovum of an Asian elephant. Then inject live mammoth-cell DNA into the altered ovum and implant the artificial zygote into the uterus of an Asian elephant. If the 22-month pregnancy is successful, you can expect the birth of a 100% mammoth baby.
Another method is to take mammoth sperm (selected to ensure female offspring), inject it into an elephant’s egg and wait 22 months for your mammophant, a half elephant, half mammoth calf. Then wait until the hybrid is sixteen or so, breed it with more female-selected sperm, and in 3 generations of mammophants, say sixty years, the resulting pachyderm will be 90% mammoth with 16-foot tusks. The obvious obstacle to this method is that hardly any non-degraded frozen mammoth cells exist, let along viable sperm. And even if some were found, would two species separated by millions of years of evolution even be capable of producing offspring?
So let’s go back to the method that just might be successful. Let’s find live mammoth DNA, or perhaps just replicate some of it, and join it with the ovum of an Asian elephant. The resulting offspring would be a cloned mammoth.
To get more mammoths you have to artificially construct more zygotes, which need more live mammoth cells, which would result in clones of clones – unless you find a lot of live mammoth DNA from many different individuals. And for such a project you need elephants as surrogate moms. Endangered Asian elephants. Even with a whole herd of resurrected mammoths, inbreeding could make the population nonviable. Would a hyper-disease be resurrected too? Could it jump to elephants?
And where would we put our newly minted species? In zoos? On reservations? In those isolated pockets we call National Parks? While we’re at it, shouldn’t we resurrect some cavemen, too? In Northern Siberia scientists are already attempting to create a mammoth ecosystem called Pleistocene Park. Imagine the tickets they could sell to watch Neanderthals, our human cousins, hunting.
And where do we stop? Do we bring back Saber-toothed Cats, Dire wolves and Giant Short-faced Bears? Do we re-create their habitats? Lower the temperature of the earth four degrees in this time of global warming? Bring back the Ice Ages?
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.
Against a chalk-blue sky, the smooth bare branches of a Motsheketsane tree interweave like a dancer’s arms caught in a multiple exposure. The shade it provides is full of holes, lacy as a cobweb. Embedded in the sand at its base are the hoof prints of zebras, from hooves exactly like those of unshod horses.
Morula and I seek what little shade there is underneath the tree. I take a swig from my water bottle while she searches for leftover Motsheketsane seeds. Using her trunk as a leaf blower, she corrals the ones she finds into a neat little pile whuff, whuff, whuff and transfers it into her mouth.
I pick one up. The seed is oval and has ruffled wings that divide it into 5 horizontal planes. It looks like a small paper lantern of a vaguely Oriental design. I try to pocket one, but its wings crumble as my hand close around it.
My everywhere-mind wanders off by itself, meanderings of no practical use except, of course, to me. Speculatively, I eye Morula, cloak her in long, ginger-colored, shaggy fur, shrink her ears, implant upturned, pitchfork tusks, and imagine her, well, tubbier, in a mastodon suit of hair.
She waves her trunk tip at me, neighborly, as if across a backyard fence: Hello.
With its two fingers, the tip of her trunk could argue for a close relationship with mammoths. But recent DNA research found direct genetic links only between Asian elephants and mammoths. Morula’s family tree looks like this:
Mastodons branched from the proboscidean family tree 26 million years ago. They became the first elephant cousins to leave Africa, the first to migrate through Asia and the first to arrive in North America, around 3.7 million years ago. Mammoths followed, around 2.2 million years later. Once in North America, the elephant cousins spread from Alaska to Central Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. As you might expect of distant kin, mastodons and mammoths share many characteristics with surviving elephants. They have the same basic body shape, a trunk and tusks. But they also differ in many ways.
The most striking, of course, is that suit of hair.
Morula rubs her left haunch against the gnarly trunk of the Motsheketsane. She has a relatively naked body – obviously a fur coat is useless under the brassy African sun. Her body size, thick skin and subcutaneous fat all help to keep her warm when temperatures occasionally, very occasionally, dip below freezing.
If you shaved a mammoth, or a mastodon, parked it in a zoo, and sold tickets, most people would believe they’re seeing an elephant. But if I put the three cousins on display side-by-side, almost anyone could tell the difference between them.
Of course, bringing to life two extinct species is an impossibility, unless, well . . . . I make things up. Which is an acceptable thing to do as long as I confess that I’m doing it.
So I import to Africa two distinct species that never walked the continent: Mammut americanum (the American mastodon) and Mammuthus columbi (the Columbian mammoth). Both lived exclusively in North America, where fourteen thousand years ago, they could be found, almost literally, in my backyard.
I position Morula between two cousins she will never meet – a mastodon to her right and a mammoth on her left. Oddly enough, because everyone’s related, they don’t really look that much out of place. Of course, this is all in my imagination, so anything is possible.
Columbia, the mammoth, is gigantic – at least four feet taller than Morula – with absolutely spectacular tusks. Curving out, then inward, they nearly cross each other. Even though I’m speculating about them, I don’t overdo their length. At eight feet long, they’re only half the size of the longest mammoth tusks ever recorded.
As soon as she solidifies in my fantasy, Columbia lifts the tip of her trunk and takes a discreet sniff at Morula: Who’s this?
The top “finger” of her trunk is four inches long and the bottom “thumb” two inches – a bit longer than the fingers of Morula’s trunk tip. Columbia’s could pluck out single petals from spring flowers or extract the newest, sweetest stems from the short grasses of the Pleistocene parklands.
She is completely cloaked in rich, russet fur, trunk and all, right down to her toes. Her ears are oval-shaped and small, dainty really, about fifteen inches from top to bottom. Since she lives near Pleistocene ice sheets, she has no need to dissipate heat through her ears.
She quickly loses interest in the smell of an unfamiliar elephant and strolls over to pick out dry blades from a field of African grass, leaving cratered footprints in the dust. Except for their size, I can’t tell them apart from Morula’s.
Columbia wraps her trunk around a wad of grass, from right to left, and rips out a clump. She stuffs the grass between elephant-like molars. As she eats, I hear a phantom fart. She lifts the small, triangular anal flap at the base of her short, stubby tail and drops a pile of dung, which looks exactly like Morula’s latest offerings.
I’m having way too much fun with my mammoth.
Conjuring Mammut americanum, the American mastodon, proves trickier. I can’t quite bring him into focus. Although entire frozen, mummified mammoth carcasses have been unearthed in Siberia – complete with tongues hanging out of their jaws – we know mastodons only by their bones. So when I give Americanum a chestnut-colored shag – short and tangled hair on the top of his low-crowned head, thick and matted fur along his flank – I’m just agreeing with what’s been written elsewhere. A shaggy fur coat is probably a safe bet, since Americanum ranged just south of the Pleistocene ice sheets, mingling with mammoths in the cold wet climate of North America.
Americanum is about the same height as the average African elephant. His back, instead of sloping, like Columbia’s, or saddle-shaped, like Morula’s, is straight – he has no neck. His skull is flatter and longer, without Columbia’s high-domed head or Morula’s rounded crest, and his jaws are elongated. He actually has a chin.
I give my made-up mastodon huge tusks the same length as Columbia’s. While her tusks curve out and then in, like an extravagant Bavarian moustache, his are a classic pitchfork shape. One is a full six inches shorter than the other – Americanum is a lefty. Laterality – right or left-handedness – is present in all proboscidean species.
Both mammoth and mastodon tusks grew to great lengths – a 16-foot mastodon tusk was found in Greece in 2007. The record for African elephants is 11 feet.
Americanum’s tusks, like those of all his cousins, grew as tree rings grow, with varying rates for bad years, good years, summer, spring, winter, fall. Just as African elephants do, he experienced musth after his late teens and began aggressively fighting with other males over receptive females. Fighting caused battle scars to his tooth sockets, tusks and skull. So, although Americanum is stocky, bulky and seemingly without much personality, he‘s not just some docile herbivore. He’s a bull in the prime of his life. Lucky for me, I didn’t conjure him up when his testosterone levels were elevated.
Americanum joins Columbia at a rainbush, but of course he takes no notice of her, nor she of him. How can they? They’re both just figments of my imagination.
He reaches into the bush, plucks a branch of dull green leaves, shoves it into his mouth and chews up and down, like I do, instead of forward and back, like Morula and Columbia. Each ridge on Americanum’s small molars is shaped like a woman’s torso: two breasts with pointed nipple-like chewing surfaces and a valley between them. He has only three to four ridges (sets of breasts) per molar. His common name, mastodon, is a combination of the Greek words for breast (mastos) and tooth (odõn.)
In contrast, the molars of Columbia and Morula are ridged plates: teeth that look like elongated dishes set to dry edgewise in a rack, each plate bonded to the next by enamel. Their molars work like huge horizontal vegetable graters, grinding food back and forth across sharp, upright edges. Morula’s teeth have ten ridges, while Columbia has twenty-seven, due to her exclusive diet of trees.
Doug shows me Morula’s molars. “Open up,” he tells her. She curls her trunk back over her head and he stretches to his tiptoes, pulls her lower gums wide with his hands.
“Very good, my girl.”
If there were dentists for elephants, Morula would be a patient patient.
Doug lets go of Morula’s lower jaw and she swings her trunk down but keeps her mouth open. He grabs a fistful of “elephant candy” and slides his arm into her mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treat he rubs her tongue. She rapidly flaps her ears. “Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues.” Doug says. “It’s kind of like a handshake.”
I re-conjure Morula’s elephant cousins and find them still eating – Columbia at the rainbush, Americanum pulling up grass. I watch them fondly; they are like old friends in new clothes. But they are rapidly becoming distressed in the African heat. They sway from side to side and flap their small ears like tiny surrender flags. So even though I’ve fallen in love with these ghosts, with elephants who no longer exist, I come to my senses and banish them back to the past, where they are extinct once again.