Primal life force under the ice

August 8, 2003

Scientists exhuming mammoth remains must respect the beast's mythic status, argues David Anderson.

I met my first woolly mammoth in the spring of 1995. I was travelling with Evenki reindeer herders on a plateau above the Siberian town of Igarka. Our caravan was stopped by a blizzard that obscured everything but the reindeer tracks ahead of us. My travelling mate, Volodiia, removed an intricately carved mammoth-ivory button from his pocket, whittled off several slivers and threw them to the hungry flames of our tin stove. Within an hour of that ritual, a cold front passed overhead bringing calm, clear weather in its tow. We proceeded to our camping spot on a path opened up for us by the mammoth khele that Volodiia had called.

Until that day, I had rather assumed that mammoths were extinct. But Siberian Evenkis, in their minds, can bring forth the long-dead animals from their subterranean resting places.

They are not the only ones. Scientists also wish to summon the supposedly extinct back to life. Since 1998, scientific expeditions have scoured tundra lake shores for melting bundles of bones, fur and skin that for them could literally become a living, breathing mammoth. For most scientists, the fresh-frozen remains offer suggestive clues as to the biology of creatures that perished 10,000 years ago and the climate they endured.

Others, however, take inspiration from the film Jurassic Park. They speculate that by discovering coherent mammoth DNA they can "retrobreed" the beast by implanting a hybrid zygote in the womb of an Asian elephant.

The ideas of the applied palaeontologists are hailed as the "forefront" of science, while those of the hunters are dismissed as belonging to the dark realm of superstition. But both show an equally avid interest in forging relationships with buried creatures. The attempts to resurrect the mammoth in flesh or mind lie in the history of human curiosity and are linked to the very conception of mortality, creation and extinction.

There is a certain majesty in the palaeontologists' quest. The scientific frontiersmen I have interviewed wax eloquently about the sensual richness of their finds. In these circles, jokes abound about furtive dinners cooked with "fresh" bone grease and strips of meat, supposedly consumed in error.

It's true that there is something entrancing about the unforgettably musty odour of mammoth fur. One feels as if by touching and smelling these deeply frozen remains, one has touched a root of life itself. But one is dogged by a sense of impropriety - what right do we have to touch and smell an animal that has rested beneath the surface for 10,000 years?

According to Evenki folklore, the khele is an extremely powerful figure.

Together with a primal serpent, the mammoth created the world's landscape as we know it today. Full of pity for human hunters, who had no firm place to make a home, it scraped earth out of the silt of the primal sea, using its tusks to carve river valleys and its feet to stamp lakes. Indeed, the khele had to be stopped from reducing the landscape to a swamp of intersecting tributaries and lakes. Condemned by his efficiency, the great powers sent the khele underground where, to this day, he swims in the subterranean firmament, occasionally becoming exposed to a roaming hunter or palaeontologist.

The frozen remains suggest a slumbering life form that could, theoretically, be brought back to full vibrancy. But, for the Evenki, such a prospect brings the threat that its primal power might again run amok.

They have a simple rule of thumb: mammoth remains can be used only if they "present themselves". In return, the hunter should leave a gift. No one should deliberately seek them, let alone violate the surface of the earth to uncover them. The mammoth is represented on the Siberian shaman's costume as an aquatic moose - a huge fish-like creature with horns, though seldom a trunk. Its remains are respected as active agents in their own right.

The French palaeontologist Georges Cuvier was the first European to reassemble the mammoth in his mind by examining its bones in 1796. In doing so, Cuvier felt he was mimicking the action of the creator. Indeed, his mammoth became a test case for the existence of revolutionary "catastrophes" in natural history, which eventually forced the revision of our ideas of genesis and creation.

By the mid-19th century, our palaeolithic ancestors - and, by extension, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic thought to have survived them - were painted as villains responsible for exterminating the mammoths. To a great extent, the attempts to breathe life back into the creature are seen by some scientists as a way of assuaging the hurt done by our ancestors while at the same time proving the power of laboratory techniques.

This moralistic myth leaves an unfortunate imbalance in the way that indigenous people and scientists work together to recover mammoth flesh. In many scientific works, including that of Cuvier, the Siberian people's view of mammoths is often represented as "quaint" or "superstitious" but rarely causes much reflection. The most important message is rarely referenced - that meddling with mammoths must be done thoughtfully.

In 1999, the Dolgan hunter Konstantin Zharkov discovered a 34kg tusk protruding from a mass of flesh and fur near the village of Novorybnoe in eastern Taimyr. French polar explorer Bernard Buigues encouraged a US TV company to back an innovative excavation. Instead of thawing the mammoth, a block of earth was extracted and transported by helicopter to an underground ice cellar, where it sits frozen to this day. Analysis revealed that it was not the "holy grail" of applied palaeontology - a complete frozen specimen. But the block still attracts palaeobotanists and palaeontologists who can recreate a picture of the steppe where the mammoth lived and died.

The 2m deep pit left by the excavation stretched Dolgan common sense to its limits. Some suggested that a white reindeer should be thrown in, or at the very least a white dog. In the end, the hole was appeased with only a few coins. It is whispered that Zharkov's family suffered multiple tragedies directly linked to the exhumation. Zharkov's mammoth certainly marks a bittersweet shift in the relations between the scientists and the indigenous hunters who guide them. The brutal transformation of the Russian economy means few Dolgans or Evenkis can afford to refuse an invitation to prospect for mammoth remains. But they do so at the cost of betraying their own way of knowing and admiring submerged forms of life.

This late Pleistocene grazer has found fertile ground in the imaginations of western palaeontologists. But the creature has long been known and understood by other cultures. It must be remembered that indigenous people brought the animal to the attention of science. Siberian attempts to draw our attention to lessons of the mammoth provide an important corrective to the Promethean themes in modern science.

Evenki and Dolgan folklore harbours a beautiful and vibrant view of the world. Life can be explicit and implicit, submerged "below" the gaze of people. Mammoths "swim" in a parallel world that ordinarily should not intersect our own. The knowledge of their existence lends a sense of majesty to their feeling for the land. In a technical sense, their view is not that different from the palaeontologists'. For scientists, the embers of life embedded in frozen DNA are also alive at a scale beyond ordinary human perception. The difference is that this can be savoured only through analysis in a distant laboratory.

Building a relationship with extinct mammoths is an extremely old mythic interest for everyone. Of course, there are today no Evenki or Dolgan eyewitnesses to the khele 's creation of the earth's surface. The view of some palaeontologists is similarly abstract. Exhuming and processing frozen mammoth remains is idealistically represented as being the same as touching a pure, living mammoth. Yet, in the unlikely event that viable DNA is located and used to successfully breed a new animal, the result would be a palaeofied Asian elephant rather than the reincarnated prey of our Ice Age ancestors.

What is real in this debate is how we build a relationship to creatures, and through them articulate our own respect for nature. The Evenki and Dolgan world view allows mammoths to co-exist and act in our world while respecting their status as subterranean creatures. It is possible for scientists to accommodate that. Buigues' expedition perhaps offers the best compromise by burying the laboratory in the Siberian permafrost to keep mammoths frozen, submerged and on-site. By not transgressing a very old sense of order, we can respect the special way in which frozen mammoth material is still considered "alive". For both, it is the mythic imagination that lends a sense of wonder to the world - and this sense is poorly served by attempts to turn ideas into living flesh.

David G. Anderson is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.

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