Man's best woolly friend

June 14, 1996

Some extinct animals have an enduring fascination for ourselves. Massive animals like dinosaurs and mammoths engender a sense of awe, but unlike fanciful depictions of prehistoric humans fighting off predatory dinosaurs, although separated by 60 million years of evolutionary history, early humans actually did live alongside mammoths and certainly interacted with them.

Mammoths may have been hunted by prehistoric humans, although they would have been formidable opponents. There are many paintings of mammoths on cave walls, giving some indication of the interest prehistoric humans had in them, and the ivory from their tusks was used for sculptures and engraving. Most significant, however, were the bones of the mammoths used for providing shelter and fire. The treeless steppes where mammoths roamed could literally have been uninhabitable for early humans without the mammoths to provide building material, using skulls, jaws and limb bones as building blocks, and fuel, using their bones as a substitute for wood. One of the best things about Mammoths is its success in giving some idea of the way of life on the mammoth steppe, the area of land now covering much of Eurasia and North America that in the ice age was a southern extension of the present-day Arctic tundra.

The mammoth steppe was home to many large mammals, mostly now extinct. Bison, horses and woolly rhinoceroses in addition to woolly mammoths and many smaller animals lived there in a rich environment of grasses, sedges and low scrubby vegetation that is no where present today, and with the disappearance of the mammoth steppe went the large animal species that lived in it. The tundra of today in the far north is a poor substitute, with its short growing seasons and long winter nights.

All this is brought to life by Mammoths, a delightful book that describes the biology and life style of mammoths. These topics are well covered at a general level with a minimum of scientific jargon. More importantly the book gives new insights into the position of these fascinating creatures in their environments, their evolution and eventual demise, and the inter-relationships between mammoths and prehistoric humans. These can be read with profit by anyone interested in the evolution of life and in particular with the world in transition during the last ice age.

Peter Andrews is an anthropologist, Natural History Museum, London.


Author - Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn
ISBN - 0 7522 1604 X
Publisher - Boxtree
Price - £17.99
Pages - 168

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