Guest “Pleistocene elephant hunting” by David Middleton

“The body of this mammoth was found perfectly preserved in the Siberian tundra with food still in its mouth and stomach indicating that it froze instantly while grazing.”

The Day After Tomorrow, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow is one of my all-time favorite bad science fiction movies. It ranks right up there with another Roland Emmerich masterpiece, 2012. These movies manage to be superbly entertaining, while getting the science even wronger than Armageddon, the greatest bad science fiction movie ever made. The Day After Tomorrow was based on Art Bell’s The Coming Superstorm. The late Art Bell was the originator of the late night (early morning to me) radio program Coast to Coast AM.

The notion of “flash-frozen” mammoths is so wide-spread, that in some circles (particularly Art Bell, Immanuel Velikovsky, Charles Hapgood, Randall Carlson fans) it is considered common knowledge. It is often cited as “evidence” to support claims that a sudden catastrophic event plunged the Earth back into an “ice age,” instantly freezing Mammoths and other megafauna, while they were eating.

The source of this myth is quite elusive. Author Jason Colavito, did a pretty good job of unpacking it in these blog posts:

Flash-Frozen Mammoths and Their Buttercups: Yet Another Case of Repetition and Recycling of Bad Data

2/6/2016

I wasn’t planning on doing more on frozen mammoths after yesterday’s discussion of dining on them, but I found myself increasingly intrigued by the fact that so many fringe history claims for flash-frozen mammoths and eating mammoth steaks trace back to a single 1960 article by Ivan T. Sanderson in the Saturday Evening Post. He was not the first to report the claims (having apparently learned of them from Immanuel Velikovsky, according to secondary sources), but his piece directly or indirectly bequeathed the story to biblical creationists like Donald Patten (who claimed Alaskan restaurants served mammoth in the twentieth century), Charles Hapgood (a close friend of Sanderson’s), David Childress, Graham Hancock, and a host of others. So I went to the library to get a copy to find out exactly what Sanderson said.

[…]

Sanderson also asserted that the mammoth had been frozen so quickly that its last meal of buttercups were still freshly in bloom in its mouth. “Upon the [tongue] and between the teeth, were portions of the animal’s last meal, which for some incomprehensible reason it had not had time to swallow.” This one fact gave rise to a 56 years of speculation about “instant” freezing of the mammoths in some catastrophist disaster. The scientist who studied the mammoth in situ, Dr. Otto Herz, had written that “more [food] is found on the tongue and between the teeth,” and he assumed that the mammoth died while he was eating, tumbling off a cliff or down a slope to his death. He wrote that the mammoth was not flash-frozen, but rather likely died in a mud pit that froze over shortly after the animal’s death and became buried under layers of dirt. The decrepit state of the flesh reported by the explorers is more than enough to refute Sanderson’s misimpression that the mammoth was fresh enough to eat.

 

It’s interesting that the report of finding the remains of buttercups in the mammoth’s stomach gradually morphed under catastrophist and creationist influence into something it was never intended to be. Modern writers routinely claim that the mammoth died instantly with “buttercups in its mouth,” or some variation thereof. 

[…]

Jason Colavito

After a bit more research, Mr. Colavito determined that the origins of the myth were even older than he thought:

The Claim of Flash-Frozen Mammoths Is Older Than I Thought

10/13/2018

A publisher has asked me to assemble a proposal for a short book on the myths and legends associated with the Giza Pyramids, notably the medieval legends of the Muslim world, so I am going to be taking some time today to work on this. In the meantime, I wanted to share something interesting I ran across in reading about Graham Hancock’s new book, America Before. Do you remember the popular claim that there were wooly mammoths flash-frozen in the Arctic as a result of a catastrophic change in climate, perhaps due to a shifting of the poles? It turns out that this claim is much older than I had imagined.

[…]

It goes back all the way to 1822, when George Cuvier—the many who was among the first to suggest that fossil elephant bones had been mistaken in ancient times for the bones of Giants—could not fathom how well-preserved wooly mammoths might have been extracted from the Siberian ice. In his Discours sur les Révolutions du Globe, Cuvier, a committed catastrophist who believed that massive disasters caused extinctions, wrote about his belief that the mammoths had been frozen instantly…

[…]

From there, the claim was picked up by none other than Louis Figuier, the geologist who later identified the eruption of the Thera volcano with the destruction of Atlantis. Figuier explicitly cites Cuvier among his sources, but in his World Before the Delugehe is decidedly less catastrophist in explaining the origins of the frozen mammoths than his predecessor…

[…]

So how did these nineteenth century ideas end up in Velikovsky’s work and Sanderson’s? That answer is depressingly familiar. Ignatius Donnelly selectively cited both accounts in his lesser-read book Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. He omits the last half of the Figuier quotation to eliminate the reasonable explanation for the mammoths’ frozen state, and he places this before a part of the quotation from Cuvier, suggesting (wrongly) that Cuvier was right and a great catastrophe—a comet strike, whose effects he calls “the Drift”—instantly flash-froze the mammoths. “These citations place it beyond question that the Drift came suddenly upon the world, slaughtering the animals…” he wrote.

 

From here it is child’s play to see how generations of fringe writers have recycled Donnelly’s deceptive presentation of evidence and thus reproduced Cuvier’s archaic catastrophism by ignoring the two centuries of scholarship that followed.

Jason Colavito

Here’s a classic example:

The Mammoths
Northeast Siberia, which was not covered by ice in the Ice Age, conceals another enigma. The climate there has apparently changed drastically since the end of the Ice Age, and the yearly temperature
has dropped many degrees below its previous level. Animals once lived in this region that do not live there now, and plants grew there that are unable to grow there now. The change must have occurred quite suddenly. The cause of this Klimasturz has not been explained. In this catastrophic change of climate and under mysterious circumstances, all the mammoths of Siberia perished.

[…]

However, if geological processes are slow, the mammoths would not have been trapped on the isolated hills. Besides, this theory cannot be true because the animals did not die of starvation. In their stomachs and between their teeth undigested grass and leaves were found. This, too, proves that they died from a
sudden cause. Further investigations showed that the leaves and twigs found in their stomachs do not now grow in the regions where the animals died, but far to the south, a thousand or more miles away. It is apparent that the climate has changed radically since the death of the mammoths; and as the bodies of the animals were found not decomposed but well preserved in blocks of ice, the change in temperature must have followed their death very closely or even caused it.

Immanuel Velikovsky, 1950, 1965

Add Immanuel Velikovsky to the very long list of “geo-mythologists,” who have waxed eloquently about the geological principle of Uniformitarianism, without bothering to look it up.

Uniformitarianism

The concept that the present is the key to the past; and that past geologic events are to be explained by the same physical principles that govern the present.

Dictionary of Geological Terms, Anchor Books, 1976

This bit is priceless:

The climate there has apparently changed drastically since the end of the Ice Age, and the yearly temperature has dropped many degrees below its previous level.

Velikovsky

There have been times during the Pleistocene Epoch when NE Siberia was warmer than today. Unfortunately, those were the “super-interglacials”… The most recent of which, MIS-11c, occurred about 400,000 years ago (Melles et al., 2012). Yes, I realize Velikovsky died long-before this was published, but he did have access to the vast majority of “the two centuries of scholarship that followed” Cuvier.

Well-preserved mammoth carcasses

The “funny thing” is that almost all of the well-preserved mammoth carcasses date back older than 20,000 years ago.

NameLocation of discoveryDate of discoveryAge (14C yr BP)
Adams mammothSiberia1799[1][2]35,800±1200[1][3]
Beresovka MammothSiberia1900[4]44,000±3,500[4]
Fairbanks Creek Mammoth (Effie)[5]Alaska1948[5]21,300±1,300[5][6]
Fishhook Mammoth[7]Siberia1990-1992[7]20,620±70[7]
Jarkov Mammoth[8][9]SiberiaJuly 1997[8]20,390±160[8]
Kirgilyakh (Magadan) Mammoth (Dima)[8][10]SiberiaJune 23, 1977[10]41,000±900[10]
Lyuba Mammoth[11][12]SiberiaMay 2007[11]41,700+700/-550[11]
Malolyakhovsky Mammoth[13] Buttercup[14]Siberia2012[13]28,610±110[13]
Yuka Mammoth[16][17]SiberiaAugust 2010[17]34,300+260/−240[17]
Sopkarga Mammoth (Zhenya)[18][19]SiberiaAugust 28, 2012[18][19]43,350±240[19]
Khroma Mammoth[20]SiberiaOctober 2008[20]greater than 45,000[21]
Yukagir mammothSiberiaAutumn of 200222,500 cal. BP [22]

Wikipedia

The carcass that perpetuated the flash frozen myth was most likely the Beresovka (Beresovky) Mammoth, first unearthed in 1901.

Berezovsky Mammoth
Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Saint Petersburg, Russia
One of the most well-preserved mammoth specimens in the world.

MAMMOTHS ONCE ROAMED ACROSS THE Northern Hemisphere and their remains are scattered across the region. The Zoological Museum in Saint PetersburgRussia contains a large collection of mammoth remains, including some very exclusive specimens. Most are skeletal remains or tusks.

[…]

The Berezovsky mammoth was discovered in 1900 near the Berezovka River in Russia. The body was excavated in 1901 and brought to Saint Petersburg. It had been inside the permafrost for about 44,000 years and was very well preserved.

The Berezovsky mammoth was a male who fell off a precipice and died immediately. The body has only a few marks and part of the trunk is missing along with most of the hair. His body is prominently displayed in a glass casket. Some samples of flesh from the Berezovsky mammoth can be found in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

[…]

Altas Obscura

I have not been able to locate an accessible scientific publication on the Beresovka (Beresovky) Mammoth; so I can’t provide the basis for the 44,000 year age. If I had to guess, it would be that it returned an infinite 14C age, if radiometric dating was attempted.

However, I was able to locate full text versions of a few of the references cited in the Wikipedia table. Here are some summaries of the ages of the carcasses and likely causes of death where necropsies were feasible.:

Lyuba and Khroma

Last Terrifying Moments of Baby Mammoths Revealed
By Tia Ghose July 14, 2014

The frightening last moments of two baby mammoths that died thousands of years ago are now being revealed, thanks to CT scanning.

The 1- and 2-month-old woolly mammoth calves, which were discovered in different portions of Siberia, choked on mud after falling into water more than 40,000 years ago, new research suggests.

The mud was like a “really thick batter that they got clogged in their trachea and they were unable to dislodge by coughing,” said study co-author Daniel Fisher, the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. “It basically prevented them from taking them another breath.”

[…]

The 1-month-old calf mummy, named Lyuba, was discovered in 2007 by a reindeer herder on the banks of a frozen river on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Lactic acid-producing bacteria had colonized Lyuba’s body, essentially “pickling” her and making her unappetizing to would-be scavengers, Fisher said.

A mammoth-ivory hunter found the second mummy, which researchers named Khroma after the river in Yakutia in which she was found, frozen upright in permafrost. Scavengers — possibly Arctic foxes and ravens — devoured Khroma’s heart and lungs, as well as parts of the trunk and skull, between the time she was discovered in 2008 and the time scientists could retrieve her body, Fisher said.

[…]

Live Science

Fisher et al., 2012 provided the following radiometric age estimates for Lyuba:

AMS age estimates for Lyuba, Center for Isotope Research, Groninger University

Sample #14C AgeMaterial dated
GrA-35690 36,690 (+320, -280) Skin
GrA-35859 37,150 (+280, -250) Skin
GrA-41246 41,910 (+550, -450) Bone collagen (rib)
GrA-41861 41,700 (+700, -550) Plant remains from small intestines

Table 1 from Fisher et al., 2012

Lyuba was almost too old to be accurately dated by 14C.

Fisher et., 2012 had this to say about Lyuba’s cause of death:

We do not regard cause of death as a question that is necessarily, or even generally, answerable in studies of fossil material, but in this particular instance, data on the condition of Lyuba’s respiratory tract provide unusual detail. The single most important factor is the distribution of fine-grained vivianite in her bronchial passages. In drowning, inspired air is typically retained until build-up of carbon dioxide triggers a reflex to exhale and gasp for newair. If the body is submerged, this leads to aspiration of a large volume of water
(complete flooding rarely occurs; Edmonds, 1998). If particulate matter, such as the vivianite we are trying to explain, is drawn in with the water, it tends to be distributed throughout much of the lung, especially given the forcefulness of reflexive inhalation. This contrasts markedly with what we see in Lyuba. Following aspiration of water, there may be attempts to clear the airway of fluid, but consciousness is usually lost quickly (Edmonds, 1998). After this, passive flooding may bring some additional particulates into the lung, but the competence of this process for entrainment and transport of sediment is minimal. We have considered the suggestion that the fine-grained vivianite might have been introduced after death by current action, but this process, called “draught filling” (Seilacher, 1971) requires a path for through-going fluid movement (incompatible with the cul-de-sac geometry of the mammalian lung) and thus cannot fill a space completely.

As an alternative to drowning, we propose that Lyuba died of asphyxia or suffocation after forceful, reflexive inhalation of a viscous “mud” composed of the fine-grained vivianite that now occupies her trachea and bronchi. We treat below associated factors that may help to explain circumstances leading to this end, but our central tenet is that there is no force other than the reflexive inhalation of a frantic animal that would be capable of drawing a continuous column of sediment into the airway. If this material had been suspended in a liberal amount of water, it would have been carried more pervasively into peripheral parts of the lung. If that had happened, with sediment or without, we would describe the process as drowning, but if the material being transported is so viscous that it cannot penetrate beyond the bronchi, ending with fatal airway obstruction, then the process is better described as asphyxiation.

Fisher et al., 2012

Subsequent work (Fisher et al., 2014) determined that aspiration of sediment was the most likely cause of death. Khroma appears to have also died from aspirating sediment.

Both Lyuba and Khroma died from aspirating sediment, Lyuba in a lacustrine setting, and Khroma in some
setting that also resulted in a mid-thoracic fracture. Khroma, for example, could have been a victim of a mud flow or an instance of bank collapse that produced this trauma.

[…]

While climate and habitat may have been similar for these two animals, the populations to which
they belonged were separated by nearly 5,000 km. In addition, these mammoths clearly differed in geologic age, even if to an extent that is not well constrained.

Fisher et al., 2014

Khroma’s age can only be estimated to be greater than 45 ka.

Her AMS assay returned an ‘‘infinite’’ result, indicating only that her age is greater than 45,000 yrBP.

Fisher et al., 2014

Buttercup

Woolly mammoth ‘autopsy’ provides flesh and blood samples

‘Buttercup’ had at least 8 calves, may have had gallstones
Emily Chung · CBC News · Posted: Nov 26, 2014

A frozen woolly mammoth found with a pool of liquid blood last year in Siberia has undergone the animal version of an autopsy, revealing new information and providing blood and tissue samples that may be used to clone the extinct ancient mammal.

The well-preserved mammoth, nicknamed Buttercup, was discovered buried in the ice on Maily Lyakhovsky Island in May 2013. Researchers were particularly excited to find what looked like liquid blood in pockets of ice under the animal’s belly.

[…]

Like a ‘piece of steak’
What remained of the mammoth’s flesh was the highlight. While many mammoths found in permafrost are dried up and mummified, “this was really juicy,” said Herridge, who likened the appearance of the muscle to a “piece of steak — bright red when you cut into the flesh and then as it hit the air, it would go brown.”

[…]

CBC News

Grigoriev et al., 2017 determined that Buttercup died approximately 28,600 years ago.

Results of age analysis of the Malolyakhovsky mammoth

Sample #Material dated14C Age
GrA-60021hair28,570 (±150)
GrA-60044bone28,650 (±160)

Table 2 from Grigoriev et al., 2017

While they were not able to determine a likely cause of death, they did estimate that Buttercup was ~50 years old at the time of death, and they were able to determine that she probably became mired in a water-filled depression.

The animal appears to have been trapped in a depression that accommodated about half the body volume. Water was probably already present in this depression and froze, preserving part of the carcass. The carcass remained in excellent condition for thousands of years because the severe climatic conditions of the Arctic islands kept it locked inside almost pure ice that never melted.

Grigoriev et al., 2017

Yuka

Woolly Mammoth Mummy Yields Well-Preserved Brain
By Agata Blaszczak-Boxe November 07, 2014

The mummified brain of a well-preserved woolly mammoth found in the Siberian permafrost is the only mostly intact mammoth brain known to science, which has been described in a new study.

The mummified carcass of the 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth, which included the brain with folds and blood vessels visible, was found in August 2010 on the Laptev Sea coast near Yukagir, Russia. The mammoth, named Yuka, was 6 to 9 years old when it died, the researchers found.

[…]

Live Science

Yuka lived and died near the end of the Kargin interstadial.

According to radiocarbon dating (34,300 + 260/−240 yr BP), the Yuka mammoth lived during the termination of the Kargin Interstadial. The presumed climatic optimum for the Kargin Interstadial in the Laptev Sea region occurred between ca. 44–32 kyr BP (see review in Wetterich et al., 2014).

Rudaya et al.,, 2014

Lost & Found: The Fishhook Mammoth

The Fishhook or Hook Mammoth is a 20,620 +/- 70 BP old woolly mammoth carcass. It was discovered in the estuary of the Upper Taimyra River, Taimyr Peninsula, Siberia, in 1990 and some parts of the carcass were removed in 1990 and 1992. After the site had been flooded for 8 years, it was rediscovered in 2000. In May 2001 the remains were excavated as a part of the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus program “Who or What Killed the Mammoths”. The remaining parts of the carcass, including soft tissue, fur and underfur were exctracted from the frozen ground together with the surrounding sediments to learn more about the environment and the time of death of the Fishhook Mammoth.

Mol et al., 2001

Jarkov Mammoth

This male individual of the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, died at an age of 47–49 AEY, on the Taimyr Peninsula, ca. 20,380 BP.

Moi et al., 2006

Sopkarga Mammoth

The accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating of the mammoth remains at the University of
Georgia, United States (UGAMS12565, 12566, 12567: pelvis, muscles, and wool) and at Groningen
University, the Netherlands (GrA57 723: a fragment of tibia) gave 37,830 ± 160 BP [6].

Since the discovery of the Berezovka mammoth in 1901 [7], it has not been possible to comprehensively
investigate localities containing well-preserved bodies of woolly mammoths in permafrost. The Sopkarga
mammoth presents a rare opportunity for such a study. The geological age of the Sopkarga mammoth is from the Karginsky epoch. The site is located near the studied sections of this interval [3–5]. The Karginsky
interstadial corresponds to the Molotkov Horizon (thermochron) of northeastern Siberia (24,500–48,000 BP). It also regionally correlates with the Middle Valdai interglacial of the Russian Plain, corresponding to the Würm II of Western Europe and marine isotopic stadial-3 (MIS-3) [8].

Maschenko et al., 2014

FYI: Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Dating

In another “first” since the Berezovka mammoth…

For the first time since the discovery of the Berezovka mammoth, a penis could be located on the body of an adult male of M. primigenius. Its position on the mammoth body in situ (along the anterior margin of the pubic bones and lower margin of the ishium) corresponded to the retracted state (Fig. 1b). The penis base was embraced by ligaments occurring immediately below the muscle ring around the anal part of the rectum. The total length of the penis is 980 mm (as measured on May 16, 2013).

Maschenko et al., 2014

Now, that’s some dedicated science!

And that’s all the time I have to dedicate to Pleistocene elephant hunting for now…

If any Immanuel Velikovsky, Charles Hapgood, Randall Carlson and/or Art Bell fans have any actual scientific references to mammoths having been flash-frozen during the Younger Dryas (or whenever), please list them in the comments section. I genuinely did try to find some… I even downloaded a PDF of Worlds in Collision… It’s a HOOT!

References

American Geological Institute. Dictionary of Geological Terms. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.

Fisher, Daniel C., Alexei N. Tikhonov, Pavel A. Kosintsev, Adam N. Rountrey, Bernard Buigues, Johannes van der Plicht. “Anatomy, death, and preservation of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) calf, Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia”. Quaternary International. Volume 255, 2012. Pages 94-105. ISSN 1040-6182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2011.05.040.

Fisher, D., Shirley, E., Whalen, C., Calamari, Z., Rountrey, A., Tikhonov, A., . . . Lazarev, P. (2014). “X-ray computed tomography of two mammoth calf mummies”. Journal of Paleontology, 88(4), 664-675. doi:10.1666/13-092

Grigoriev, Semyon E., Daniel C. Fisher, Theodor Obadă, Ethan A. Shirley, Adam N. Rountrey, Grigory N. Savvinov, Darima K. Garmaeva, Gavril P. Novgorodov, Maksim Yu. Cheprasov, Sergei E. Vasilev, Artemiy E. Goncharov, Alexey Masharskiy, Viktoriya E. Egorova, Palmira P. Petrova, Eya E. Egorova, Yana A. Akhremenko, Johannes van der Plicht, Alexei A. Galanin, Sergei E. Fedorov, Evgeny V. Ivanov, Alexei N. Tikhonov. “A woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) carcass from Maly Lyakhovsky Island (New Siberian Islands, Russian Federation)”. Quaternary International. Volume 445, 2017. Pages 89-103. ISSN 1040-6182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.007.

Lacombat, Frédéric. (2016). Khroma: Autopsy of a story. Bulletin du Musée d’Anthropologie prehistorique de Monaco. 6. 149-154.

Melles M, Brigham-Grette J, Minyuk PS, Nowaczyk NR, Wennrich V, DeConto RM, Anderson PM, Andreev AA, Coletti A, Cook TL, Haltia-Hovi E, Kukkonen M, Lozhkin AV, Rosén P, Tarasov P, Vogel H, Wagner B. “2.8 million years of Arctic climate change from Lake El’gygytgyn, NE Russia”. Science. 2012 Jul 20;337(6092):315-20. doi: 10.1126/science.1222135. Epub 2012 Jun 21. PMID: 22722254.

Mol, D., Tikhonov, A.N., MacPhee, R.D.E., Flemming, C., Buigues,B., De Marliave, C., Coppens, Y., Agenbroad, L.D., 2001b. “The Fishhook Mammoth: rediscovery of a woolly mammoth carcass by the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus Team, Taimyr Peninsula, Siberia”. In: Cavarretta, G., Gioia, P., Mussi, M., Palombo, M.R. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st International Congress La Terra degli Elefanti/The World of Elephants, Rome, October 16–20, 2001,
pp. 310–313.

Mol, Dick, Alexei Tikhonov, Johannes van der Plicht, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, Regis Debruyne, Bas van Geel, Guido van Reenen, Jan Peter Pals, Christian de Marliave, Jelle W.F. Reumer. “Results of the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus Expeditions on the Taimyr Peninsula, Arctic Siberia, Russian Federation”. Quaternary International. Volumes 142–143, 2006. Pages 186-202. ISSN 1040-6182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2005.03.016.

Rudaya, Natalia., Albert Protopopov, Svetlana Trofimova, Valery Plotnikov, Snezhana Zhilich. “Landscapes of the ‘Yuka’ mammoth habitat: A palaeobotanical approach”. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. Volume 214, 2015. Pages 1-8. ISSN 0034-6667, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.revpalbo.2014.12.003.

Velikovsky, Immanuel (1950). Worlds in Collision, Macmillan. ISBN 1-199-84874-3. Delta printing—January, 1965.

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July 27, 2021