STL Science Center

STL Science Center

12 October 2011

Discovery of Mammoths?

Can an animal that existed in cooperation, at times, and at odds, the other times, with human beings be truly "discovered"? Smilodon had a discovery story. Mammoths, however, don't have a true discovery story. This is partly due to the fact that even the first cave paintings discovered contained images of mammoths. Their relation to existing elephants made the discovery of a hairy elephant less amazing and frightening than some other extinct animals. However, the Siberian natives have been finding mammoth remains for centuries and trading the ivory tusks. The story goes that the belief surrounding the remains was told of a giant mole creature which died when reaching the surface, thus leaving bones and ivory scattered on the ground. The word mammoth comes from a native Siberian word.

Europeans began researching mammoths in 1728 with Hans Sloane leading the way; the first frozen mammoth to be studied in Europe was found at the same time by the German Daniel Messerschmidt. Sloane had remains brought from Siberia and upon publishing his work is noted as being the first scientist to recognize that the mammoth was some sort of elephant and not a giant or underground behemoth. Unfortunately, despite his discovery, Sloane explained the presence of an elephant in Siberia by stating that Siberia had once been tropical and the elephants had died during the great flood discussed in the bible.

Georges Cuvier was the next scientist to make great headway in the study of mammoths. In 1796 Cuvier released evidence that mammoths were an entirely new species of animal and not an elephant. His theory of an extinct elephant was not widely celebrated but other scientists went on to name mammoths, the first being the Woolly Mammoth named by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1799 as Elephantus primigenius and then it was renamed to Mammuthus primigenius in 1828 by Joshua Brookes.

Mammoths, meanwhile, were also being found in North America. In North Carolina in 1743 slaves dug up the remains of a Woolly Mammoth but, due in part to the experiences of some of the African native slaves, was identified by the teeth as an African Elephant. in 1806 William Clark, of prior Lewis and Clark fame, found mammoth remains in Kentucky under orders from President Jefferson to find fossils. Jefferson apparently indulged in paleontology whenever he could and is given credit to making the mammoth an adjective in using it to describe a wheel of cheese he received.

Mammoth skeletons are still found today in Siberia, La Brea, and other sties around the Northern Hemisphere. Frozen mammoths are recovered now and again mostly in areas like extreme northern Siberia. The latest to be found was named Lyuba and placed on display in a carefully regulated display case and has been a traveling exhibit in many museums across North America in the past few years. Lyuba was found in Siberia in 2007 on the Yamal Peninsula.

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