Alaskan Muck: Buried Elephants in the Arctic

Towards the end of July in 1816 the Russian vessel Rurick, commanded by Lieutenant Kotzebue, was passing through Behring’s Straits.

The Rurick had been specially equipped by Count Romanzoff at his own expense, and had been provided with everything necessary to insure the success of an exploring expedition. Her commander was a tried sailor ; her surgeon. Dr. Eschscholtz, was a man of great ability ; and the poet and naturalist Chamisso was also on board.

The Rurick, though frequently beset by fogs, passed Behring’s Straits safely, and on the 1st of August entered a great sea-sound, which extended for two hundred miles into the Arctic lands of North America.

Kotzebue and his companions were the first Europeans who had visited these regions, and they gazed on the newly-discovered lands with the greatest interest and delight. As they sailed up the broad sea-sound towards the east they saw that the land to the south was a vast plain, which was perfectly flat, and extended as far as the eye could reach.

This boundless plain had not a rock or tree to break the monotony of its surface, but it was brilliantly green with grass and moss, and bright with beautiful flowers. A placid river wound through the verdant expanse, and lakes and swamps appeared on its broad surface, while in the distance were snow-clad mountains. On the northern shores the hills were higher, but they were only gently-rolling uplands.

At length the Rurick cast anchor near a large island, which was green with moss and on which willow bushes were growing, which were the only trees seen in the neighbourhood.

This island Kotzebue named Chamisso Island, and the bay around he called Eschscholtz Bay, in honour of the Rurick’s doctor.

On the east coast of this bay there were cliffs 120 feet high, and above them a boundless plain covered with moss — which rendered its aspect brilliantly green — stretched away to the horizon.

On the 8th of August a striking discovery was made.

On that day Dr. Eschscholtz found a long line of cliffs of ice, the tops of which were covered with moss and grass. When this strange place was examined it was found that the ice-cliffs were 80 feet high, and that their sloping fronts were furrowed by streams of water derived from the melting of the ice, and which ran into the sea at the foot of the cliffs.

The top of these ice-cliffs was covered by a thin layer of moss only a foot thick, but on this verdant carpet flowers and small bushes were vigorously growing.

The most wonderful thing, however, connected with these cliffs of ice was that between the thin layer of moss at the top of the cliffs and the great masses of ice below was a bed of clay, less than a foot thick, and in this clay were the hones and teeth of many animals.

Among these were especially the tusks and teeth of the Mammoth, the great fur-clad elephant of the northern regions, with which the Russians were well acquainted, owing to the abundance of its remains in Siberia.

At the spot where these bones were discovered in the ice-cliffs at Eschscholtz Bay, Kotzebue and his companions noticed a smell like burnt horn, which perplexed them greatly, and which they describe in the following words : “ We could not assign any reason for the strong smell like burnt horn which we perceived at this place.” This strange discovery of elephants’ bones in cliffs of ice, and in a desolate region where the reindeer is the only animal found in the present day, naturally excited much interest, and fresh light was soon to be cast upon it.

Before proceeding further let us describe the elephant, the bones and tusks of which were found by Kotzebue in such an extraordinary situation.

This elephant was of a species which became extinct long ago, and differed considerably from any elephant now living. Its name is the Mammoth, and it was confined to the northern regions of the globe. The Mammoth (or Elephas primigenius) was much larger than any existing elephant, and was also more clumsy and bulky. Its hair was of three different kinds. First came a thick crisp wool of a clear fawn colour ; then a longer kind of hair ten inches in length ; and last of all thick bristly hair of a reddish-brown colour, which was often nearly two feet in length. In addition to this great red-hairy covering, the Mammoth had a long flowing mane which reached from the head to the tail. The tusks of the Mammoth were not straight like the present elephant’s, but were in the form of huge circles, the points of the tusks curving so far back- wards that they almost touched the animal’s forehead. The ends of the ears of the Mammoth were also covered with tufts of long hair, and another great bunch of hair covered the end of its tail. Such was the Mammoth, the great hairy elephant of the North, the remains of which Kotzebue discovered in the ice-cliffs at Eschscholtz Bay, in the desolate regions of Arctic America.

In 1824 Captain (afterwards Sir John) Franklin set out to descend the Mackenzie River in North America, and to examine the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the west of the mouth of that river.

In order to assist Franklin, H.M.S. Blossom, a frigate of 16 guns, commanded by Captain Beechey, was ordered to pass through Behring’s Straits, and to wait for Franklin’s arrival in Kotzebue Sound. Thus an opportunity would be afforded for examining scientifically the ice-cliffs discovered by Kotzebue, and for bringing home some of the elephants’ tusks and bones which were embedded in them. Beechey vividly describes his approach to Behring’s Straits, and the eagerness of all on board to examine this wonderful passage between Asia and America. It was towards the end of July, in 1826, that the Blossom approached Behring’s Straits. The night was beautiful, and perfectly calm and serene. The sky was cloudless, and the midnight sun — which was hardly more than its own diameter above the horizon — shone brightly over the waters. The sea was smooth, the wind was fair, and the sea-birds in flocks hovered around the vessel. As they sailed through the Straits they enjoyed a wonderful prospect, for they were able to see both continents — Asia on the left, and America on the right. They entered Kotzebue Sound on July 22, and beheld the great moss-covered plains and swamps stretching away in endless monotony ; and at last the Blossom anchored in Eschscholtz Bay.

An exploring party soon set out to examine Kotzebue’s ice-cliffs, and a most thorough examination of them was made by the English naval officers. Beechey and his companions found that these cliffs extended for several miles along the shores of the bay, and that they were 90 feet high ; but they were decreasing in height, for the ice had melted much since Kotzebue’s visit.

Beechey and his party also came to the conclusion that the cliffs were not formed of pure ice, as Kotzebue had stated, but that they consisted of frozen mud and gravel, with an external casing of ice ; and they further discovered similar cliffs of frozen mud all round the shores of Kotzebue Sound.

The bones and tusks of the Mammoth, buffalo, deer, and horse were found in the ice-cliffs, and particularly beneath them. At the foot of the cliffs the debris which had fallen from them had formed a shoal, in which many tusks of elephants and musk-oxen were discovered.

Like Kotzebue and his party, Beechey noticed the strong smell which proceeded from decaying animal remains, of which Mr. Collie — who accompanied Captain Beechey — says : “ A very strong odour, like that of heated bones, was exhaled wherever the fossils abounded.’’

Beechey also found Mammoths’ bones in other places on the shore of Kotzebue Sound, and perceived the strong smell at some spots where no tusks or teeth of elephants or of any other animals could be discovered.

The officers of the Blossom observed a large river flowing into Kotzebue Sound from the south-west, which they named the Buckland, in honour of that eminent geologist. They proceeded up it for a long distance, until they met with pine trees scattered here and there and musk-oxen began to show themselves, although none had been seen at Eschscholtz Bay.

The hostility of the Eskimo, however, soon forced the explorers to return.

The result of Beechey’s exploration was, that Kotzebue’s statement of the bones of the Mammoth being found in the ice-clifls was fully confirmed : but Beechey stated that these cliffs were not formed of pure ice, but of frozen mud and gravel, and that the ice formed only a thick external coating, a few feet deep, over the face of the cliffs.

In 1848 H.M.S. Herald, commanded by Captain Kellet, entered Kotzebue Sound to assist in the search for Sir John Franklin. The vessel had on board many scientific officers, who gave a most interesting account of the strange regions around Eschscholtz Bay.

From Norton Sound right up to Point Barrow the whole country was a vast level moorland, green with mosses and lichens and plentifully adorned with brightly coloured flowers. The alder and willow formed low bushes, and at Wainwright Inlet, a boundless plain, without tree or shrub, and covered with mosses and lichens, appeared in sight, and extended to the horizon.

Great bogs and swamps were visible on this dreary expanse, and reindeer, bears, and wolves were wandering over its desolate surface, the only animals to be seen in this solitary wilderness.

The ice-cliffs at Eschscholtz Bay were thoroughly examined by the officers of the Herald, and the results of their investigations were very striking. The cliffs were found to extend along the southern shores of the bay for a distance of seven miles, and to be from forty to ninety feet high.

They were formed of three distinct strata.

On the top was a thin layer of decayed vegetable soil, from two to five feet thick, and formed by the decay of mosses, lichens, and willow bushes.

Then came a layer of clay, sand, and gravel, from two to twenty feet thick, full of bones, teeth, and even hair of animals.

In this bed of earth the tusks of elephants (Mammoths) abounded, no fewer than eight being brought away ; the longest of these, though broken, was 11 feet 6 inches in length, and weighed 243 pounds.

The other bones discovered at this place belonged to the musk-ox, buffalo, horse, and deer.

Like all the other explorers who had visited the spot, the officers of the Herald observed the strong smell at the place where the bones were discovered, which they also noticed at other places on the shores of Eschscholtz Bay, and which, doubtless, proceeded from decaying animal remains.

The position of the bones in the ice-cliffs is admirably described by Dr. Goodridge of the Herald who says that “ a Mammoth tusk having been noticed protruding from the ground, was traced downwards by digging to the depth of eight feet, and the skull, with a quantity of hair and wool was found lying on a thin bed of gravel, beneath which was solid transparent ice.

Enveloping the bones there was a bed of stiff clay, several feet in thickness, and mixed with them a small quantity of sticks and vegetable matter. A strong, pungent, unpleasant odour, like that of a newly-opened grave in one of the crowded burial-places of London, was felt on digging out the bones, and the same kind of smell, in a less degree, was perceptible in various other places where the cliffs had fallen.”

Below the bed of sand and gravel containing the remains of elephants and other animals, the officers of the Herald found that the cliffs consisted of pure ice, from twenty to fifty feet in height. The ice was solid, but was yearly decreasing in thickness, and on its melting, the peat and gravel fell down, causing icy rubble, but the bottom was pure ice, and this was quite solid at the bottom of the cliff.

Thus Kotzebue’s statement was confirmed, and the opinion of Beechey — that the ice was a mere coating over the sand and gravel — was shown to be erroneous.

It followed also that the climate of Eschscholtz Bay must have for some time been growing warmer, in order to account for the continual decay of the ice-cliffs.

At the mouth of the Buckland, cliffs of ice were also discovered, but no bones were found in them.

A third scientific examination had, therefore, fully confirmed the announcement of the discovery of elephants’ bones in the Arctic regions, and had demonstrated that in former times — not very long ago, speaking geologically — the climate of the frozen regions of the North was much warmer than it is at present, and that in that period enormous herds of animals lived and flourished in what is now a desolate wilderness.

More than this, recent investigations have brought to light the fact that, scattered all over Alaska, in its central forests and in its southern uplands, bones and tusks of Mammoths are found in great numbers.

Sir H. Howorth mentions that some time ago a skeleton of a Mammoth was found near the sources of the Yukon, and Dr. Dali refers to the finding of fossil ivory in Alaska, from the Mammoth (and perhaps also from the Mastodon), in the following words : “ Fossil ivory is not uncommon in many parts of the valleys of the Yukon and the Kuskoquim. It is usually found on the surface, not buried as in Siberia ; and all that I have seen has been so much injured by the weather that it was of little commercial value. It is usually blackened, split, and so fragile as to break readily in pieces. A lake near Nushagak, the Inglutalik River, and the Kotto River, are noted localities for this ivory,”

The ice-cliffs in Kotzebue Sound were examined by Dr. Dali in 1880, and by Mr. Nelson in 1881, and the bones of Mammoths were again found in them by these explorers.

On the banks of the lower and middle Yukon also Mammoths’ bones have been found in great abundance, and they have also been met with along the course of the Porcupine River. It is also singular to note that the remains of the Mammoth have been discovered in the desolate islands of St. George and St. Paul, which belong to the Pribilof group, and in the island of Unalaskha a tooth of a Mammoth was lately brought to light.

Let us now sum up the results of these discoveries.

All round the flat shores of Kotzebue Sound there are bones of Mammoths and traces of their remains, and in addition to the tusks and teeth of these great elephants, there are found in the same region abundant remains of buffaloes, wild horses, musk-oxen, and deer; we may, therefore, conclude that the frozen soil in this portion of the Arctic regions is full of the remains of these animals, which all perished at the same period, and which no longer live in this region of the frozen North.

How the tusks, teeth, and bones of the elephants got into the ice-cliffs at Eschscholtz Bay we do not decide, and doubtless if the other ice-cliffs in this dreary region were thoroughly explored they would also be found to be full of Mammoths’ remains, for the strong smell which has been found to come from these cliffs, in many places where no elephants’ bones have been discovered, shows that decaying animal matter is present in them in great quantities.

More than this, the whole region of Arctic America, from Kotzebue Sound as far north as Point Barrow, abounds in elephants’ bones.

This part of Alaska is a vast flat moorland covered with moss, and without a tree or even a bush, and the soil only a few feet below the surface is permanently frozen. On these great plains, long ago, where now only a few reindeer and arctic foxes occasionally appear, there flourished in olden times a hardy vegetation, and vast herds of elephants, buffaloes, and musk-oxen wandered to and fro, which in some inexplicable manner were all swept away by an extraordinary catastrophe, accompanied by a change of climate equally remarkable.

Let us now turn to Siberia, and we shall find that precisely similar phenomena are presented in that wonderful country.

Siberia may be said to consist of two great zones or regions which, roughly speaking, divide the country into two divisions. As we proceed from the south towards the north, and leave the steppes behind us, we enter the great forest region. This extends from the Urals to Kamtschatka, and reaches north as far as the Arctic Circle, whilst in the valleys the forests extend still further to the north.

Beyond the great belt of forests comes the region of the Tundras, which are bare moss-covered plains without bush or tree, and which extend in dreary monotony to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Now, the remains of the Mammoth and rhinoceros are found in both regions, but they chiefly abound in the great moss-covered plains of the Tundras.

When the Russians entered Siberia they heard from the natives strange stories about gigantic animals which lived underground, and which came up during the night.

The Chinese also related how great beasts lived in Siberia in hidden caverns and holes in the depths of the earth, and that now and then they became visible.

These strange stories had a basis of fact in them, for they were founded on the undoubted truth that from time to time perfect bodies of the Mammoth and rhinoceros had been discovered in the frozen soil of Siberia.

Isbrant Ides, who traversed the Chinese Empire in 1692, relates some extraordinary circumstances connected with these discoveries, and after speaking of the annual inundations of the Siberian rivers, he says : “ The masses of earth deposited by these inundations remain on the banks, and becoming dry, we find in the middle of them the teeth of the Mammoth, and sometimes even the Mammoth entire. A traveller who lived with me in China, and who employed a whole year in seeking for their teeth, assured me that he once found in a piece of frozen earth the head of one of these animals, with the flesh decomposed, with the tusks attached to the muzzle like those of elephants, and that he and his companions had great trouble in extracting them, as well as in separating some of the bones of the head, and among others that of the neck, which was still stained with blood ; that having, finally, searched further into the same mass of earth, he found there a frozen foot of monstrous size, which he carried to the city of Tragan. The foot was, from what the traveller told me, of the circumference of a large man about the middle of the body.”

The people of the country have various opinions about these animals.

The idolaters, like the Yakoutas, the Tunguses, and the Ostiaks, say that the Mammoths lived in spacious caverns which they never left ; that they could wander here and there in these caverns ; but that since they lived in these places the floors of the caverns have been raised, and afterwards sunk so as to form now a profound precipice ; they are also convinced that a Mammoth dies the instant he sees the light, and they maintain that it is thus those have perished which are found on the banks of the rivers near their dens, from which those individuals inconsiderately strayed.

The old Russians of Siberia believe that the Mammoths are only elephants, though the teeth found be a little more curved and thicker in the jaw than in that animal.

“ Before the deluge,” they say, “ the country was warmer, and the elephants which basked in the waters, and were afterwards interred in the mud, more numerous. The climate became very cold after this catastrophe ; the mud froze, and with it the bodies of these elephants, which the frozen earth preserved uncorrupted till the time when the thaw revealed them.”

These remarks doubtless made little impression at the time ; but they were soon to receive a complete confirmation.

In the middle of last century the Russians were very active in exploring the northern coasts of Siberia, and among those who then voyaged along the dreary coasts, none were more active than two brothers named Laptew, who from 1738 to 1745 voyaged to and fro from the mouth of the Yenesei on the west, to the country of the Tchoutchis on the east. Whilst making their voyages the Laptews were told by the native Siberians that the bones, and even the bodies of huge Mammoths, were being continually found on the shores of the frozen ocean, and some of these bodies were even covered with hair and were in a perfect state of preservation. None of these discoveries, however, had as yet been examined by competent naturalists, but this needful verification was soon to take place.

In the winter of 1771, some native Siberians (Yakuts) were hunting on the banks of the river Vilui, which falls into the I.ena, nearly two hundred miles north of Yakutsk. The country on the banks of the Vilui is mountainous, and the hills are covered with dense forests full of bears and wolves. The Yakuts, whilst hunting near the Vilui, were amazed at finding the body of a huge animal, half buried in the frozen sand, near a low gravelly hill on the banks of the river. The animal was a rhinoceros, and the carcase was lying on its right side in the sand, and was in a good state of preservation. The flesh was perfectly preserved, and was covered with skin which resembled tanned leather, and even the eyelids had escaped decay. Strange to say, the body bore upon it stiff bunches of hair as stiff as bristles, so that the animal might be called the hairy rhinoceros. The horns were gone, but traces of them could be discovered.

When a Russian official reached the spot the body had considerably decayed, and the flesh (like the remains at Eschscholtz Bay) exhaled a strong pungent odour. The soil near the Vilui is of an extraordinary character, for it is perpetually frozen at a depth of a few feet below the surface, and the rays of the sun in the brief summer never thaw the ground, in the most exposed situations, beyond a depth of two yards.

The body of the rhinoceros had consequently been preserved from decay, by the frozen soil by which it was surrounded. In 1772, fortunately for science, the celebrated naturalist Pallas was at Irkutsk, and thoroughly examined some of these remains. He was struck with their excellent preservation, and with the amount of hair which still remained on some of the limbs. Concerning the last feature, he writes : “ We have never, so far as I know, observed so much hair on any rhinoceros which has been brought to Europe in our times, as appears to have been presented by the head and feet we have described.” Some remains of this rhinoceros are now to be seen in the Zoological Museum at St. Petersburg.

In 1787 we hear of another similar discovery.

The river Alaseya rises in hills west of the Kolyma, and after pursuing a winding course through swamps and moss-covered plains, falls into the Arctic Ocean at a point some distance to the east of the mouth of the Lena. Now, in 1787 the river washed away a portion of its bank, and disclosed the body of an enormous Mammoth, which was standing upright.

It was as perfectly preserved as when it was entombed, as it was still covered with skin, and in some places with hair.

Now, it has been argued by some that the Mammoths did not live in northern Siberia, but that they had their abode in the more genial regions far to the south, and that their bodies were carried down by the great Siberian rivers for hundreds of miles, until they reached the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

This cannot have been the case with reference to the elephant (Mammoth) found on the banks of the Alaseya, for this river is of comparatively short length and does not rise in the warm southern regions. It has its source in the intensely cold portion of north-eastern Siberia, and is but some five or six hundred miles in length, while its basin in its upper part is quite shut in by high wooded hills.

It is certain, then, that the Mammoth found near the Alaseya could not have been washed from far-off southern regions, but must have lived where the Siberians discovered its body ; and this conclusion is made still more certain by the fact that the body, when discovered, was not lying on either of its sides, but was standing upright.

The next discovery of a Mammoth’s body to which I shall refer is still more interesting, and was fortunately examined by a competent naturalist.

In 1799 the Tungusian chief, Ossip Schumakoff, while hunting for Mammoths’ bones in the dreary wastes near the mouth of the Lena, saw the body of a monstrous animal standing upright in an icy cliff, and he immediately recognised the animal as a Mammoth.

It was several years, however, before the ice was sufficiently thawed for the body to be reached, but at last the front of the cliff melted, and the carcase of the huge fur-clad elephant fell on a bank of sand. Schumakoff, who had often returned to the spot, then cut off the tusks, and left the body to be a feast for the bears and wolves.

In 1806, a Scotch naturalist named Adams was at Yakutsk, and hearing of the discovery he hurried to the place ; he was, however, too late. Wolves and bears had devoured nearly all the flesh, so that little more than the skeleton of the Mammoth remained. Still, he succeeded in collecting many pounds weight of hair, and he detached a portion of the hide which was covered with thick fur ; he also observed that the animal was furnished with a long mane. The description given by Adams of the Mammoth, and of the place where its body was found, is so interesting that I will quote his own words. He says :

“ The place where I found the Mammoth is about sixty paces distant from the shore, and nearly one hundred paces from the escarpment of the ice from which it had fallen. This escarpment occupies exactly the middle between the two points of the peninsula, and is two miles long ; and in the place where the Mammoth was found this rock has a perpendicular elevation of thirty or forty toises. Its substance is a clear, pure ice ; it inclines towards the sea ; its top is covered with a layer of moss and friable earth fourteen inches in thickness. During the heat of the month of July a part of this crust is melted, but the rest remains frozen. Curiosity induced me to ascend two other hills at some distance from the sea ; they were of the same substance, and less covered with moss. In various places were seen enormous pieces of wood of all kinds produced in Siberia ; and also Mammoths’ horns in great abundance appeared between the hollows of the rocks ; they were all of astonishing freshness. The escarpment of ice was from thirty-five to forty toises high ; and according to the report of the Tungusians, the animal was, when they first saw it, seven toises below the surface of the ice.”

This account, it will be noticed, calls to mind the ice-cliffs in Kotzebue Bay.

Adams saw cliffs of pure ice, covered with moss, containing Mammoths’ tusks and remains, and he observed drift-wood on the icy shores : these were the very phenomena observed by Kotzebue when examining the ice-cliffs at Eschscholtz Bay.

Adams brought away nearly all the bones of the Mammoth, as well as portions of its hide and hair, and the skeleton is now in the Zoological Museum at St. Petersburg.

After the discovery of the Mammoth, which was examined by Adams, many more bodies were found, and the finding of the carcases of these great hairy elephants has gone on in Siberia down to the present day.

Near the river Tas, in northern Siberia, another body was found by the Samoides in 1839, which was discovered buried in frozen gravel, and retained its flesh and thick red hair.

In fact, it seems quite certain that all northern Siberia is one great graveyard of Mammoths, and that these gigantic elephants are buried in the icy soil in vast numbers, and also that their bodies are still covered with flesh, skin, and thick hair.

But the most interesting account of the finding of a Mammoth’s body is that which is given by a German engineer in the Russian service, called Benkendorf. It appears that in the summer of 1846 Benkendorf was surveying, in a steam-launch, the river Indigirka, which falls into the Arctic Ocean some distance to the east of the mouth of the Lena. The country was flooded, and the Indigirka, swollen by the melting snows, foamed furiously along and tore up its banks in all directions. While examining the flooded country, and standing on the flat moss-covered banks of the river, Benkendorf and his companions saw a huge black mass floating amidst the rushing waters, which they speedily recognised as the body of a Mammoth. They made the carcase fast with ropes and chains, and next morning they succeeded in bringing the body to the bank ; the appearance it then presented shall be described in Benkendorf’s own words, who, after telling how the gigantic elephant’s body was brought to land, proceeds as follows :

“ Picture to yourself an elephant with the body covered with thick fur, about thirteen feet in height and fifteen in length, with tusks eight feet long, thick, and curving outward at their ends, a stout trunk of six feet in length, colossal limbs of one and a half feet in thickness, and a tail naked up to the end, which was covered with thick tufty hair. The animal was fat and well grown ; death had overtaken him in the fulness of his powers. His parchment-like, large, naked ears lay fearfully turned up over the head ; about the shoulders and the back he had stiff hair about a foot in length, like a mane. The long outer hair was deep brown, and coarsely rooted. The top of the head looked so wild, and so penetrated with pitch, that it resembled the rind of an old oak tree. On the sides it was cleaner, and under the outer hair there appeared everywhere a wool, very soft, warm, and thick, and of a fallow-brown colour. The giant was well protected against the cold. The whole appearance of the animal was fearfully strange and wild. It had not the shape of our present elephants. As compared with our Indian elephants, its head was rough, the brain-case low and narrow, but the trunk and mouth were much larger. The teeth were very powerful. Our elephant is an awkward animal, but compared with this Mammoth, it is as an Arabian steed to a coarse, ugly, dray-horse. I could not divest myself of a feeling of fear as I approached the head ; the broken, widely-opened eyes gave the animal an appearance of life, as though it might move in a moment and destroy us with a roar.”

Most unfortunately the banks of the river were being rapidly undermined by the rushing flood, and so a sudden rush of water almost swallowed up the party, and swept away the body of the Mammoth, which was never seen again.

Such are some of the principal discoveries of Mammoths’ bodies in Siberia, and they probably form but a very small number compared with those finds which have occurred, and are constantly taking place, without being reported. For we must bear in mind that the bodies of the Mammoths are found in desolate wildernesses, into which Europeans rarely penetrate, and in which wandering tribes of native Siberians are the only human beings. These Siberians also are often very disinclined to report discoveries of Mammoths, because it might bring the Russian traders into the districts, or might lead to their being compelled by Europeans to assist in bringing the carcases of the great elephants to the nearest Russian settlement. Hence we may safely conclude that every year bodies are being found, and no report whatever is given of the discoveries.

In fact, it is now quite certain that the whole of the north of Siberia, from the Kara Sea to Behring’s Straits, is one vast graveyard of elephants, and that in the frozen soil of these desolate plains the bodies of these great animals are buried in vast numbers.

More than this, the bones, tusks, and teeth of the Mammoth are found in enormous quantities scattered over the ground and buried in the soil of northern Siberia. So numerous are these relics on the plains along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, that the native Siberians are busy all through the brief summer collecting Mammoths’ tusks and teeth, which they sell to the Russian traders. Bodies of the Mammoths are only occasionally discovered, but their tusks and teeth can be found in countless numbers.

Still more extraordinary is the fact that in the Arctic Ocean, to the north of Siberia, there are desolate islands covered with ice nearly all through the year, which are literally packed with bones of elephants, rhinoceroses, and buffaloes !

These islands lie in the Polar Sea, north of the mouth of the Lena, and are known as the New Siberian Islands, while others nearer the shore are called the Liakoff Islands, after their discoverer.

The quantity of fossil ivory that has been taken away from these islands is most extraordinary.

In 1821 a supply amounting to 20,000 pounds was obtained from the New Siberian Islands, and for scores of years ivory hunters have enriched themselves at these wonderful islands, whilst the supply seems to be practically exhaust- less, and even the sea appears to contain in its bed an unlimited supply of ivory.

Northern Siberia is at present an icy wilderness, in which the summer lasts little more than two months. The ground is permanently frozen at a depth of only five or six feet beneath the surface, and this perpetually frozen soil extends downwards to an unknown depth. The only vegetation found in the great plains of northern Siberia is composed of mosses, lichens, and a few feeble flowers, so that the reindeer, arctic fox, and bear alone can exist in these icy regions, which have well been called “ The grave of Nature.”

Common sense says that the Mammoths could never have lived in northern Siberia when that country possessed its present icy climate, for these great elephants could then have obtained no food.

At a former period, then, this dreary region must have enjoyed a temperate climate, and when forests overspread the Siberian plains which reach to the Arctic Ocean, the Mammoth, rhinoceros, and buffalo wandered over them in vast numbers.

How were these great animals destroyed?

We do not know.

Perhaps a tremendous flood rolled over the country and buried the Mammoths in vast sheets of mud, gravel, and sand.

Then the climate must have changed.

The soil must have frozen, and thus the bodies of these gigantic elephants were entombed in a vast icy graveyard.

Be this as it may, the Mammoth is gone for ever.

Tartars declare that it is still seen at break of day, in the uncertain light of early morning, on the banks of lakes, but that when observed it instantly plunges into the water and disappears.

Cossacks report that in their wanderings in solitary wildernesses they have seen it alive, and have traced it to its hidden lair. And even some men of science imagine that it may still be living in the unexplored solitudes of Alaska.

But these are all idle fancies.

The Mammoth has passed away.

Long ages ago its doom came suddenly upon it, and the mighty fur-clad giant, which wandered over all the northern regions of the globe, and which had its special home in Siberia, is now a relic of a former world, and a mystery to men of science.

The Buried Elephants In The Arctic Regions
Rev. D. Gath Whitley
Gentleman’s Magazine – Volume 277 – July-December 1894

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13 Responses to Alaskan Muck: Buried Elephants in the Arctic

  1. Sheila Hendry says:

    Excellent and exciting read, thank you.

  2. Sheila Hendry says:

    ” The impact itself lit up the Northern horizon, the prolonged flash of light was blinding. The updraft plume threw a massive chunk of heated atmosphere into space. The pressure dropped suddenly, bringing down the atmospheric temperature and for a few seconds the mammoths were exposed to the glacial void of space, and the flash-freezing began. Some mammoths died at this point from suffocation.

    This freezing in a vacuum might explain a very peculiar ‘oxygen free’ ice that was found underneath the frozen mammoths:
    Then hurricane force winds started blowing super-cooled air toward the impact zone to refill the vacuum. This supernatural freezing wind lasted for hours. If the cone of ablation was 400 km in radius, hurricane force winds (200 km/h) would blow for two hours to refill the void. It froze the mammoths and many other creatures to the core.

    While some mammoths remained frozen to the ground in their upright position, others were blown away and/or bombarded with flying/drifting debris (trees, boulders), this might explain the numerous broken bones found during the autopsies. ”

  3. malagabay says:

    ”This freezing in a vacuum…”

    This line of argument needs a lot of thinking through…

    A “vacuum” implies a lot of cell damage.

    More than 30 passengers from India experienced bleeding from the nose and ears after pilots on their plane “forgot” to turn on cabin pressure,

    During climb, the crew forgot to select bleed switch due to which cabin pressure could not be maintained. As a result, oxygen masks got deployed,” Lalit Gupta, joint director general working for the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, told Newsweek.

    Flight passengers suffer nose, ear bleeding after crew ‘forgot’ to turn on cabin pressure – Herb Scribner – Deseret News – 20 Sept 2018

    A “vacuum” [i.e. no air and no liquid] implies slow, radiative cooling i.e. cell damage

    This rapid freezing is usually done by submerging the sample in liquid nitrogen or a mixture of dry ice and ethanol. Liquids are usually used because their thermal conductivity is about 40 times greater than air.

    Something the size of a mammoth would be Baked-Alaska-In-Reverse
    i.e. frozen to a crisp on the outside but body-temperature in the middle.

    And then things get complicated…

  4. malagabay says:

    For his Polar Lab residency, architect Christoph Kapeller took a small plane across the Brooks Range to the Itkillik River to study a prehistoric ice formation called a Yedoma. Yedoma is a type of Pleistocene-age (formed 1.8 million to 10,000 years before present) permafrost that contains a significant amount of organic material with ice content of 50–90% by volume. Thawing yedoma is a significant source of atmospheric methane which accelerates climate change. Kapeller also visited the permafrost lab and interviewed scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

  5. oldmanK says:

    Very intriguing; made me ask what scenario can absorb the several apparent anomalies? Trawling around:
    a) says mammoths were around on Wrangle Island up to 1650bce
    b) in UK mammoths survived up to 12000bce; the end of the YD
    c) apparently mammoth meat made good burgers

    It would seem that mammoths were widespread, but that statement needs qualifying. The anomalies arise because what Dodwell’s discerned in earth dynamics was swept under the carpet.
    It would appear that mammoths were – and moved to – wherever supported them. With today’s obliquity their far northern haunts provided food and some respite from naked apes. But whenever tilt changed abruptly to low the ones in the cold were then drenched, mauled by flood, and fast frozen where they stood.
    Mammoths are by design sturdy, well engineered to withstand cold and with tusks that were really obsolete weapons – unneeded -. It is a sign of a long-lived design/evolution that, thus, was at one time prolific.
    Interesting reading:

  6. Sheila Hendry says:

    In reply to your ” A “vacuum” implies a lot of cell damage.”.

    It’s not so much about the vacuum of space …. but the sudden temperature drop; almost instantaneous…which would freeze the blood before the cells ruptured. If the object was big enough to put a hole in the atmosphere it would be pushing the upper atmosphere in front of it…therefore not enough oxygen and instant suffocation and instant freezing.

  7. Damian says:

    If the Earth experienced a burst of expansion, a rapid increase in the surface area would cause a thinning of the atmosphere which would be more extreme at the poles?
    This has been my favourite series so far, love your work 😁

  8. CW says:

    Tim… thanks for mucking around in Alaska! Some of your best work ever. Velikovsky would have followed your research with fascination. Regarding the mammoth and related extinctions Velikovsky wrote, in Earth in Upheaval: “(These species) expired not because of a lack of food or inadequate organic evolution, inferior build or lack of adaptation. Plentiful food and superb bodies and fine adaptation and solid procreation, but no survival of the fit. They died as if a wind had snuffed life out of them all, leaving their cadavers, with no sign of degeneration, in asphalt pits, in bogs, in sediment, in caverns… A few may have endured for a while, but (in a changed world they eventually) followed the rest in a losing battle for existence.”
    For Velikovsky this exterminating catastrophe was caused by disturbances in terrestrial rotation, due to interactions with Venus circa 1450 BCE (the Exodus disaster) and again 50 years later.

  9. THX1138 says:

    Temperature is a measure of how much random kinetic energy the particles have, which is related to the rate of particle collisions and how fast they are moving. The temperature affects the degree of plasma ionization. Electric fields aligned (parallel) with local magnetic fields (“force-free” condition) can form in plasma. Particles accelerated in field-aligned conditions tend to move in parallel, not randomly, and consequently undergo relatively few collisions. The conversion of particle trajectories from random to parallel is called “dethermalization”. They are said to have a lower “temperature” as a result. Analogy: think of the vehicular motion in a “destruction derby” as “hot”, collision-prone random traffic, and freeway vehicular movement in lanes as “cool”, low-collision, parallel aligned traffic.

    Essential Guide to the EU – Chapter 3 Plasma – The Thunderbolts Project ™

  10. Yry says:

    Very instructive read and nice maps, thank you again.

    That vacuum would induce cell damage, I should have known just
    looking at astronauts accidents!


    Excerpt from Ignatius Donnelly’s book “Ragnarok: The Age Of Fire And
    Gravel” 1883.

    ” But in Siberia where, we have seen, some of the large mammalia were
    caught and entombed in ice, and preserved even to our own day, there
    was no ‘smashing’ and ‘crushing’ of the earth, and many escaped the
    snowsheets, and their posterity survived in that region for long ages
    after the Glacial Period, and are supposed only to have disappeared in
    quite recent times.
    In fact, within the last two or three years a Russian exile declared that
    he had seen a group of LIVING MAMMOTHS in a wild valley in a remote
    portion of that wilderness.”

    ==> Note by Yry: this should be around 1880 CE since Donnelly’s book
    was published in 1883.

    Cfer Duke Univ. Library:
    at page 56

  11. Peter Davis says:

    Great stuff. Having surfed in on a arctic fossil hunt, I found your work along the lines I was seeking. Thank you for your work! I’ve read most of the Alaskan Muck series and love it! Please do not think me unappreciative when I recommend another source for this kind of exploration/explanation. I imagine you have seen and perused its contents already, but if not, please take a look at – the site presents the Hydroplate theory of Dr. Walt Brown, who has been considering many of these issues since the late 1960s, and fully his thoughts in a book online and in print. It is a powerful and complete work and I highly recommend it. As I now recommend your work as well. Best wishes!

  12. Pingback: Fear Porn Friday: Climate Change | MalagaBay

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