Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: Mammoth Distortions Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Eric A. Powell

The archaeological record shows that Ice Age humans probably hunted mammoths, or at least scavenged their carcasses. But if our ancestors were as successful hunting these hulking creatures as their modern-day counterparts, the adventurers and scientists featured in Richard Stone's Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant (London: Fourth Estate, 2002; $26), then they must have been hard-luck hunters indeed.

(Fourth Estate)

Stone, the European bureau chief of Science magazine, covered two separate expeditions in the late 1990s that combined media hype, dubious research aims, and real science in quixotic quests to find preserved mammoth remains in the icy margins of northern Siberia (as the book unfolds, the reader may conclude that some of the researchers are working on the margins of science as well). The first expedition, the brainchild of Japanese geneticist Kazufumi Goto and backed by eccentric millionaire Kazutoshi Kobayashi (who imports feces-eating flies from Russia to clean up farm animal excrement), took as its premise that if preserved mammoth semen could be recovered from the tundra, then the species could be revived via genetic engineering. Stone portrays Goto and company sympathetically, but there is no getting around the expedition's inherent kookiness. Though Goto and his team eventually make it to Siberia, they do not, of course, find any mammoth semen.

Not that there aren't frozen mammoth carcasses to be found in Siberia. In a thorough chapter on the history of mammoth research in Russia, Stone relates several spectacular finds. Beginning in the eighteenth century, discoveries of intact mammoths made northern Siberia famous as the domain of "rats beneath the ice," as the local Dolgan people dubbed mammoth remains.

The second expedition, a consortium headed by French adventurer Bernard Buigues, was also out for frozen mammoth, but did a better job of tapping scientific expertise. Russian and European paleontologists lent the project some much-needed credibility. A visit from American paleontologist Ross MacPhee, who is on his own quest to find evidence for a massive plague he feels may have wiped out the mammoths, made the expedition seem downright legitimate.

Ultimately, the team did recover mammoth remains, though not a fully preserved mammoth. If all this seems familiar, it's because the expedition was the focus of two popular Discovery Channel documentaries. Stone visited the expedition while the camera crew was at work, and here is where the book really takes off as a behind-the-scenes look at "adventure science" and the entertainment industry. The extent to which the television producers, who hold the expedition's purse strings, dictate the course of the expedition is shocking. The most egregious example of television triumphing over science comes when the expedition airlifts an ice block containing the (meager, as it turns out) remains of a mammoth back to base. The TV crew convinces Buigues to affix the mammoth's tusks, removed three years earlier, to the block with metal collars, making the hunk of ice more telegenic as it swings from the helicopter. The stunt was justified in retrospect as "honoring" the mammoth.

The somewhat-successful Buigues expedition has given new hope to those bent on cloning mammoths. In fact, plans are afoot to create a "Pleistocene Park" in northern Siberia, the centerpiece of which would be a herd of cloned mammoths. Surprisingly, Stone himself succumbs to the promise of resurrecting the extinct mammal. "Whether it is five years, five decades or five centuries from now, woolly mammoths will once again walk on the earth," he writes. Stone seems convinced, but this entertaining book probably won't spark a run on reservations for Pleistocene Park anytime soon.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America