More About Mammoths

My Hawaiian friend sent me a book recently which arrived immediately after I reviewed The Call of Distant Mammoths - Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared, by Peter D. Ward for last month’s book review. This was an interesting coincidence in that this book is: Mammoths, by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn. Originally published in 1994 by Macmillan at $30.00 in hardcover you can look for this in libraries or on the used book market. Mammoths is a large format book of 168 pages.

I am not familiar with the authors so the biographical information from the dust jacket will have to do. Lister is a lecturer in biology at University College, London and one of the leading authorities on Mammoth evolution and biology. Bahn is widely published in the field of archaeology and apparently contributes his expertise in the areas of the interrelationship between mammoths and man.

Mammoths is a book of only five chapters covering the first 139 pages: Origins, Mammoths Unearthed, The Natural History of Mammoths, Mammoths and Human Culture, and Extinction. The final portions of the book include additional worthwhile reading including: a Glossary, Interpreting the Evidence, Maps of Mammoth Sites, Guide to Sites and Museums, a Bibliography, and Index. I’ll discuss some of these sections in some detail later. Besides the text, this is a well illustrated work with many artists renditions of mammoths in their natural habitat plus photographs of actual remains (both skeletal and in the flesh) and human cave art and artifacts. I would estimate that to ½ of each page is taken up by an illustration of some sort.

In the Origins chapter you will learn that there was more than one kind of mammoth. Most of us are most familiar with the wooly mammoth and associate that animal with the Pleistocene ice ages. At least four other mammoths are discussed. Some of these were ancestral and at least one lived at the same time but probably not in the same habitat. As a matter of fact, elephants also lived at the same time as the mammoths. The evolution and worldwide distribution of mammoths is presented and related to climate changes and land mass distribution. One of the interesting sections concerns dwarf mammoths which evolved on isolated islands.

One of the most interesting chapters for me was Mammoths Unearthed. I was amazed at the number of specimens that have been and continue to be found. There is much about preservation and the methods by which the animals possibly became trapped and buried. Thanks mostly to frozen specimens from Siberia we know a tremendous amount of information about internal and external anatomy of the wooly mammoth. In addition, digestive tract remains have revealed data on their diet. This chapter has a number of interesting accounts of the scientific expeditions that recovered the frozen remains. Of course freezing is not the only preservation method presented. The Columbian mammoth skeletal finds at La Brea and elsewhere in the world are covered in detail.

The Natural History of Mammoths chapter, as you might imagine, discusses subjects like diet, disease, "family life", life cycle, reproduction, ontogeny, and behavior. The data which supports the information given on these subjects comes from the fossil remains of their bodies, stomach contents, and the cave art of early man. Many inferences are also drawn from modern elephant behaviors.

Mammoth and Human Culture is yet another fascinating section. Cave art illustrations are well represented as well as artifacts made from mammoth tusks and bones. The use of mammoth bones and tusks as building materials in western Russia and eastern Europe is covered extensively. The debate about this use revolves around whether the mammoths were killed for the bones or whether early humans just collected the remains they found lying around. An interesting factoid from this chapter is that the oldest boomerang at 23,000 years was made from mammoth ivory in Poland!

The final chapter on extinction presents much of the same information that Ward’s book covers. However, Mammoths authors come to different conclusions preferring a multi-causal reason for mammoth extinction. This book is three years older which may enter into the difference of opinion.

Overall I’d certainly recommend Mammoths to those of you who have an interest in the ice age. I actually read most of the book twice. It’s written for a popular audience and makes reading an entertaining and informative experience.

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