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.
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.
Our feet anchor us to the ground. Just as my Pleistocene ancestors could read the tracks of mastodons, so I now gaze down at an elephant’s prints in the dust. Her back feet are oval and her front feet round. City slicker that I am, even I can tell the direction she is going.
The sand beneath our feet is the color of a lion’s coat, studded with brittle leaf litter. Morula walks through it without making a sound. Shock-absorbing pads on the soles of her feet cushion each footstep, smother crushed leaves.
I step on a dry leaf and it crackles into powder.
The brand name of my boots imprints within the outline of my soles; a clever advertisement made with each step. All of my weight concentrates in two small points of contact with the earth, so I make deeper impressions than Morula’s footprints. Each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch; Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium pizza pan.
She can step on a snake and not kill it.
Morula lifts her foot and grains of sand roll down slope into the crater of her footprint.
Following two paths, the one beneath her feet and the one in her mind, Morula strolls on. Dust rises, a half shadow that marks her passage, before it collapses again to the ground.
There is a before and an after to each moment of our lives, paths we follow and paths we do not.
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.
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.