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The prehistoric Mammoth preserved in ice

Posted in Animals, Biology, Prehistory, Science on Friday, 30 September 2011

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This edited article about prehistoric animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

Mamoths, picture, image, illustration

Mammoths of the Ice Age by Angus McBride

Cautiosly, the fur-clad man peered into the huge block of ice. With a gasp of horror, he flung his hands in front of his face and rushed from the scene.

Trembling, he returned home. Two summers had passed since Ossip Shumakhov had first glimpsed the ominously dark shadow within the ice, but only on that fateful day in 1801 were his worst fears realised. The figure had been the complete carcass of a woolly mammoth – a ferocious beast whose tusks were as long as the body of a grown man.

But it was not the size of the huge animal which worried Shumakhov. He was frightened of the curse. Had not a friend and his family died not so long ago after making a similar discovery?

His superstitious fears increased when he, too, fell ill shortly afterwards. It was with a mixture of relief and amazement that he eventually recovered. With his health and confidence restored, Shumakhov was persuaded in March, 1804, to guide a Russian ivory merchant to the lonely spot in the wilds of Siberia where he had seen the monster. The ice had completely melted and the tusks were there for the taking . . . as was the meat.

When a scientific expedition arrived to examine the remains, the carcass was found to have been ravaged by wolves and other carnivores which had found the meat edible, although it was more than 30,000 years old. Fortunately, enough of the mammoth remained to be transferred to a museum at Leningrad, U.S.S.R., where it is still on display.

Such an event is extremely rare in palaeontology, the study of ancient life forms. Generally, only the harder and more resistant parts of plants and animals survive as fossils after their burial beneath newly deposited sediments.

However, these, often turned to stone by chemical processes within the rocks, are able to throw light upon the creatures which once walked upon our earth. Yet it is only during the last two centuries that palaeontology has graduated from an obscure and undeveloped subject into a science of the utmost importance.

From earliest times, fossil remains have fired the imagination. A tribe of North American Indians, the Navaho, told tales of strange creatures which roamed the plains.

Similarly, a 14th century scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, described finding an ancient giant. However, this oversized man was supposed to have crumbled to dust on contact and so no evidence remained to support Boccaccio’s claim.

As a more scientific approach was adopted in the interpretation of fossils, workers found their findings increasingly at variance with the beliefs of the church authorities, for whom anything was heretical if it conflicted with the Bible.

The common belief in Noah’s Flood was one of the great stumbling blocks which faced scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci. He could not persuade others to accept new theories about the changing land and sea levels to explain why fossilised fish and shell fragments were found on mountain slopes and other areas far from the oceans.

A Swiss palaeontologist, Johann Scheuchzer, went as far as to attribute some skeletal remains to “one of those in famous men whose sins brought upon the world the dire misfortune of the deluge.”

They turned out to be fragments from a lizard-type animal.

However, belief in the flood upon which Scheuchzer and others depended so heavily to support their theories was gradually weakened by the development of new instruments and techniques during the 17th century. With the aid of the microscope, the pioneering British scientist Robert Hooke paved the way for future research and set palaeontology on a firm foundation.

Not only did he maintain that fossils were of organic origin, but he also presented many original ideas. These included using fossils as indicators of past climates and as guides to the relative ages of the rocks in which they were situated.

Nearly one hundred years later a young engineer from Oxford. William Smith, put some of these ideas into practice. While engaged in canal construction he was able to collect a large number of fossils.

Rather than treat them merely as curiosities, he produced a system in which he related various species to particular periods of time in geological history.

Thus he was able to place in an age sequence the successive layers of rock found resting one upon the other beneath the surface of the earth.

This was but one aspect of the work which earned Smith the title of the “Father of Geology”.

The earth is some 4,000 million years old. It was about 600 million years ago that the numbers of the world’s first inhabitants suddenly and dramatically increased. Fossils from earlier times are scarce, the oldest being a type of algae dating back nearly 3,000 million years.

Once these primitive animals had established themselves, more complex varieties appeared. Shellfish, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and even insects are all represented in the fossil record. This fact helped Charles Darwin with his famous theory of evolution. Life-size reconstructions of ancient creatures can now be made by studying the fossil traces. Scientists have even been able to make a reasonable representation of a dinosaur from a careful study of its footprints.

Not the least in importance are the signs of early human life. After the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s book Origin of Species, a great deal of effort was channelled into the search for man’s ancestors. Intense excitement was generated when Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have unearthed part of the “missing link” between man and ape in a gravel pit near the Sussex village of Piltdown.

Forty years later this “find of the century” was revealed as one of the greatest scientific hoaxes of recent years. New methods of analysis showed conclusively in 1953 that not one of the bones could have come from the Piltdown gravel.

Neither was their age as great as the hundreds of thousands of years which had been claimed for them. In fact, the oldest remains were only 50,000 years old, while the skeleton’s jaw bone had come from a modern orang-utan. The whole claim had been no more than a cleverly executed hoax.

Despite this, palaeontology soon reasserted itself. It was destined to play a major role in bringing about the acceptance of one of the most revolutionary ideas in geology.

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