25,000-year-old mammoth tusk ivory sculpture

Archaeological evidence from 30,000 to 10,000 B.C. shows that early homo sapiens built 40-foot-long and 12-foot-wide animal skin dwellings in southern Russia. Winter dwellings found in Czechoslovakia that back to 10,000 B.C. had round plans, animal-skin rugs, beds and hearths made with bones and animal dung.

Modern humans generally didn't live in caves, it is thought, because they were too dark although cave mouths may have been used for shelter. Caves, archaeologist contend, were used primarily for religious and artistic purposes.

It has been theorized that modern human families lived in small settlements made up of moss-covered huts during the winter and carried reindeer skin tents with them when they followed game during the summers. Families may have slept under bearskin bedding and children may have been rocked to sleep in reindeer-skin cradles. Their equivalent of hot chocolate may have reindeer fat mixed with boiling water. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

A 15,000-year-old modern human hut was excavated in the Ukraine southeast of Kiev at the junction of two Dnieper River tributaries. About eight feet high and the size of a small bedroom, it was held up with a retaining wall made of stacked mammoth bones. This is the oldest example of human's living in a shelter other than a cave. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986].

Four 15,000-year-old huts made from mammoth bones and tusks near the village Mezhirich in Ukraine were quite sophisticated. The walls were made of leg bones and skulls piled one another. The roof was made of tusks likely covered by hide. They contained the mandibles or more than a hundred mammoths, probably taken from a nearby mammoth "graveyard." Some have described them as proto yurts. Pits were dug in to the permafrost nearby may have been used to store frozen meat for a year-round meat supply. The site is viewed by some as an early village.

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Mammoth Cliff Kills

mammoth bone hut

About 350 pairs of antlers, 5,000 reindeer molars, thousands of vertebrae and foot bones, and part of a mammoth skeleton were found in a huge fire pit under a 100-foot-cliff in southern France. These remains are offered as proof that modern humans hunted entire herds of animals by driving them off cliffs. It is also believed that modern human hunters ambushed animals at narrow passes, attacked prey vulnerable during river crossings and ambushed prey at water holes during the dry season. [Source: John Pfieffer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The bones of 1,000 mammoths have been found in Czechoslovakia and the remains of 10,000 wild horses that were driven over a cliff at various times have been found near Soultré-Pouilly in Burgundy, Solutré, France. The bones under the cliffs at Soultré-Pouilly are three feet thick and cover 2.5 acres.

It had previously been suggested that Neanderthals drove mammoths off a cliff on what is now the British island of Jersey. Research published in 2014 said that new evidence makes the case that it would have been impossible to stampede mammoths to their deaths at site in Jersey.Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: ““Heaps of mammoth and woolly rhino bones found piled up at the foot of a cliff were thought to be the grim results of Neanderthals driving the beasts over the edge. The piles of bones are a major feature at La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey, one of the most spectacular Neanderthal sites in Europe. But the claim that they mark the remains of mass slaughter has been all but ruled out by a fresh investigation. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 28, 2014 \^^/]

“Researchers have found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that mammoths and other weighty beasts would never have ventured up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom. "I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place." \^^/

“Hundreds of thousands of stone tools and bone fragments have been uncovered at the Jersey site where Neanderthals lived on and off for around 200,000 years. The site was apparently abandoned from time to time when the climate cooled, forcing the Neanderthals back to warmer territory. Scott and her colleagues drew on a survey of the seabed that stretches away from the cliff to reconstruct the landscape when the Neanderthals lived there. The land, now submerged under higher sea levels, was cut with granite ravines, gullies and dead-end valleys – a terrain perfect for stalking and ambushing prey. "The site would have been an ideal vantage point for Neanderthal hunters. They could have looked out over the open plain and watched mammoths, woolly rhinos and horses moving around. They could see what was going on, and move out and ambush their prey," said Scott. Details of the study are published in the journal Antiquity. |=|

“The researchers have an alternative explanation for the bone heaps. Neanderthals living there may have brought the bones there after hunts, or from scavenged carcasses, and used them for food, heating and even building shelters. Older sediments at the site are rich with burnt bone and charcoal, suggesting the bones were used as fuel. The heaps of bones were preserved when Neanderthals last abandoned the site, and a fine dust of silt blew over and preserved the remains. |=|

45,000-Year-Old Woolly Mammoth Found in the Arctic with Spear Wounds

In 2012, a 15-year-old male Woolly mammoth was found on the eastern bank of the giant Yenisei River in northern Siberia. Known variously as the Zhenya mammoth, after the boy who found it, or the Sopkarginsky mammoth, deriving from the location where it was found, it was hunted and killed by early hunters using weapons and tools made of bone and stone according to forensic analysis of the remains – which included still-preserved soft tissue.[Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “In August of 2012, an 11-year-old boy made a gruesome discovery in a frozen bluff overlooking the Arctic Ocean. While exploring the foggy coast of Yenisei Bay, about 2000 kilometers south of the North Pole, he came upon the leg bones of a woolly mammoth eroding out of frozen sediments. Scientists excavating the well-preserved creature determined that it had been killed by humans: Its eye sockets, ribs, and jaw had been battered, apparently by spears, and one spear-point had left a dent in its cheekbone—perhaps a missed blow aimed at the base of its trunk. [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, January 14, 2016 ^]

“When they dated the remains, the researchers got another surprise: The mammoth died 45,000 years ago. That means that humans lived in the Arctic more than 10,000 years earlier than scientists believed, according to a new study. The find suggests that even at this early stage, humans were traversing the most frigid parts of the globe and had the adaptive ability to migrate almost everywhere. ^

“Most researchers had long thought that big-game hunters, who left a trail of stone tools around the Arctic 12,500 years ago, were the first to reach the Arctic Circle. These cold-adapted hunters apparently traversed Siberia and the Bering Straits at least 15,000 years ago (and new dates suggest humans may have been in the Americas as early as 18,500 years ago). But in 2004, researchers pushed that date further back in time when they discovered beads and stone and bone tools dated to as much as 35,000 years old at several sites in the Ural Mountains of far northeastern Europe and in northern Siberia; they also found the butchered carcasses of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, reindeer, and other animals. The Russian boy’s discovery—of the best-preserved mammoth found in a century—pushes back those dates by another 10,000 years. A team led by archaeologist Alexei Tikhonov excavated the mammoth and dubbed it “Zhenya,” for the child, Evgeniy Solinder, whose nickname was Zhenya. ^

“The big surprise, though, is the age. Radiocarbon dates on the collagen from the mammoth’s tibia bone, as well as from hair and muscle tissue, produce a direct date of 45,000 years, the team reports online today in Science. This fits with dating of the layer of sediments above the carcass, which suggest it was older than 40,000 years. If correct, this means the mammoth was alive during the heyday of woolly mammoths 42,000 to 44,000 years ago when they roamed the vast open grasslands of the northern steppe of the Siberian Arctic, Pitulko says. Researchers also have dated a thighbone of a modern human to 45,000 years at Ust-Ishim in Siberia, although that was found south of the Arctic at a latitude of 57° north, a bit north (and east) of Moscow. “The dating is compelling. It’s likely older than 40,000,” says Douglas Kennett, an environmental archaeologist who is co-director of the Pennsylvania State University, University Park’s accelerator mass spectrometry facility. However, he would like the Russian team to report the method used to rule out contamination of the bone collagen for dating—and confirmation of the dates on the bone by another lab, because the date is so critical for the significance of this discovery. ^

“Mammoths and other large animals, such as woolly rhinoceros and reindeer, may have been the magnet that drew humans to the Far North. “Mammoth hunting was an important part of survival strategy, not only in terms of food, but in terms of important raw materials—tusks, ivory that they desperately needed to manufacture hunting equipment,” Pitulko says. The presence of humans in the Arctic this early also suggests they had the adaptive ability to make tools, warm clothes, and temporary shelters that allowed them to live in the frigid north earlier than thought. They had to adapt to the cold to traverse Siberia and Beringia on their way to the Bering Strait’s land bridge, which they crossed to enter the Americas. “Surviving at those latitudes requires highly specialized technology and extreme cooperation,” Marean agrees. That implies that these were modern humans, rather than Neandertals or other early members of the human family. “If these hunters could survive in the Arctic Circle 45,000 years ago, they could have lived virtually anywhere on Earth,” says Ted Goebel, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, College Station.” ^

Evidence of Mammoth Hunting in the Arctic 45,000 Years Ago

Ann Gibbons wrote in Science: “The injuries reminded Tikhonov of more modern human hunting practices. Elephant hunters in Africa, for example, often target the base of the trunk to cut arteries, causing the animal to bleed to death. The mammoth also had injuries to its jaw that suggest the tongue was cut out. Pieces of the tusk were removed, perhaps to get ivory to produce tools. “This is a rare case for unequivocal evidence for clear human involvement,” says lead author Vladimir Pitulko, also of the Russian Academy of Sciences. [Source: Ann Gibbons, Science, January 14, 2016 ^]

“The injuries also fit with the pattern of damage seen on another butchered mammoth in Yana, also in Siberia, according to the authors. “One can almost see the blow-by-blow battle between people and mammoth fought on those frozen plains,” says Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist at Arizona State University, Tempe, who was not involved with the study. “The impact wounds on the bones with embedded stone fragments is conclusive evidence that people slayed this mammoth.” ^

“Dr Pitulko told The Siberian Times: “Most likely the hunters threw relatively light spears. It is a usual hunting tactic, in particular in elephant hunts, which is still practiced in Africa. “An elephant is bombarded with a large number of light spears. Then, pierced with such ‘needles’ like a hedgehog, the animal starts losing blood. Even a light spear can penetrate quite deep and injure the vital organs. The mobility of the animal is seriously limited, and then it is soon possible to finish it with a strait blow. I think that the same happened to the Sopkarginsky mammoth.” [Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

“He said: “The most remarkable injury is to the fifth left rib, caused by a slicing blow, inflicted from the front and somewhat from above in a downward direction. Although it was a glancing blow, it was strong enough to go through skin and muscles and damage the bone. A similar but less powerful blow also damaged the second right front rib. Such blows were aimed at internal organs and/or blood vessels. The mammoth was also hit in the left scapula at least three times. Two of these injuries were imparted by a weapon, which went downwards through the skin and muscles, moving from the top and side. These markings indicate injuries evidently left by relatively light throwing spears. /~\

““A much more powerful blow damaged the spine of the left scapula. It may have been imparted by a thrusting spear, practically straight from the front at the level of the coracoid process. The weapon went through the shoulder skin and muscle, almost completely perforating the spine of the scapula. Taking into account the scapula’s location in the skeleton and the estimated height of this mammoth, the point of impact would be approximately 1500 mm high, in other words, the height of an adult human’s shoulder.” /~\

Anna Liesowska wrote in the Siberian Times: “Another injury – possibly evidence of a mis-directed blow – was spotted on the left jugal bone. The blow was evidently very strong and was suffered by the animal from the left back and from top down, which is only possible if the animal was lying down on the ground. Dr Pitulko, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in St Petersburg, believes that it was ‘the final blow’, which was aimed to the base of the trunk. Modern elephant hunters still use this method “to cut major arteries and cause mortal bleeding”. Yet in this case the prehistoric hunters obviously missed and struck the jugal bone instead. /~\

“Luckily the spear left the clear trace on the bone, making possible to learn what kind of weapon it was. The bone was studied with X-ray computed tomography – a CT scan – by Dr Konstantin Kuper, from the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics in Novosibirsk. He also created a 3D model of the injury in the bone. This led to the conclusion that the tip of the weapon was made of stone and had a thinned symmetric outline – and was relatively sharp. /~\

“Paleontologist Dr Alexei Tikhonov, from the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, who lead the excavations, said: “It’s hard to say which blow was the mortal one, at least judging by the traces on the bones. There was quite a strong blow to the scapula, yet I think it was rather the totality of wounds that caused the death. It is interesting that the most of the injuries are on the left side of the animal. I would suppose that the hunters could attack the mammoth which was already lying on the ground. When we examined the skull, we noticed the abnormal development of the upper jaw. We believe that this mammoth got a kind of injury at a very young age, which impacted on its left side. There was no left tusk and I presume that the left side was weak, so it could help the hunters kill the animal.” /~\

Butchering 45,000-Year-Old Mammoth Found in the Arctic

Anna Liesowska wrote in the Siberian Times.“The injuries found on the bones also gave clues what did the hunters with the mammoth after they killed it. The right tusk had the traces of human interference on the tip of the tusk. They did not try and pull the entire tusk off the killed mammal but instead tried to remove “long slivers of ivory with sharp edges, which were usable as butchering tools”, said Dr Pitulko. A butchery mark was also found on the fifth left rib, seen as evidence that the hunters cut meat from the carcass to take it with them. Ancient man also extracted the mammoth tongue, seen as a probable delicacy to these hunters. [Source: Anna Liesowska May 30, 2016 /~]

“Yet the theory that the animal was butchered does not convince all experts. Dr Robert Park, a professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, wrote in an email to Discover, that the skeleton is not consistent with other evidence from early human hunters. He wrote: “The most convincing evidence that it wasn’t butchered is the fact that the archaeologists recovered the mammoth’s fat hump. Hunter-gatherers in high latitudes need fat both for its food value and as fuel. So the one part of the animal that we would not expect hunters to leave behind is fat.” /~\

“But Dr Pitulko countered: “Yes, ancient man – and not so ancient, in fact – has used and uses animal fat as fuel and food, nothing to argue about here. Why in this very case they did not use their prey in full is impossible to say. “There may be dozens of reasons, for example – they could not – the carcass was lying at the water’s edge, and it was late autumn. Or they did not have time: the carcass fell into the water on thin coastal ice. Or it did not correspond to their plans – they killed the poor animal just to have a meal and replenish the supply of food for a small group.” /~\

“They might have killed another animal nearer to their camp, and so abandoned this one. He said “a thousand and one reasons” might explain not purloining the fat. The expert added: “I believe that the main reason for hunting mammoths were their tusks. Mammoth as a source of food wasn’t very necessary although I believe they were useful. “People needed tusks because they were living in landscapes free of forests, so called mammoth steppe. In the course of time, a technology to produce spears out of tusks was developed.”

Extinction of Woolly Mammoths

The last Woolly mammoths died out only 3,800 years ago (700 years after the pyramids) on the Wrangel island north of Siberia. The Woolly mammoths that lived on the island were smaller than other Woolly mammoths. They stood only six feet at the shoulder. Animals that evolve on islands are usually smaller than their mainland counterparts.

It is not clear why the Woolly mammoths became extinct possible explanations include overhunting by humans, rapid climate change, a mysterious virus, perhaps some combination of these. Many Woolly mammoths are believed to have died out after the end of the most recent ice age. It has been suggested they may have been done in by human hunters and a diet of low-nutrient mosses that took over the grassland after the Ice Age.

Predation by early men and the shrinking of Ice Age grasslands are both believed to have led to the sudden extinction of the Woolly mammoth, cave bears, mastodons, saber tooth tigers, cave lions, Woolly rhinoceros, steppe bison, giant elk, and the European wild ass. Other species such as the musk ox and saiga antelope managed to survive in only small pockets. The mass extinctions are believed to have been partly the result of these animals having never been hunted by humans and having little fear of them.

Hunters May Have Made Woolly Mammoths Go Extinct

In 2010, AP reported, “During the last Ice Age, shaggy mammoths, woolly rhinos and bison lumbered across northern Siberia. Then, about 10,000 years ago - in the span of a geological heartbeat, or a few hundred years - the last of them disappeared. Many scientists believe a dramatic shift in climate drove these giant grazers to extinction. But two scientists who live year-round in the frigid Siberian plains say that man - either for food, fuel or fun - hunted the animals to extinction. [Source: AP, November 29, 2010 ^^^]

"Paleontologists have been squabbling for decades over how these animals met their sudden demise. The most persuasive theories say it was humanity and nature: Dramatically warming temperatures caused a changing habitat and brought a migration of men armed with deep-piercing spears. No one knows for sure what set off global warming back then - perhaps solar activity or a slight shift in the Earth's orbit. But, in an echo of the global warming debate today, Sergey Zimov, director of the internationally funded Northeast Science Station, and his son Nikita say man was the real agent of change. ^^^

"For the Siberian grasses to provide nutrition in winter, they needed to be grazed in summer to produce fresh shoots in autumn. The hooves of millions of reindeer, elk and moose as well as the larger beasts also trampled choking moss, while their waste promoted the blossoming of summer meadows. As the ice retreated at the end of the Pleistocene era - the final millennia of a 1.8 million-year- long epoch - it cleared the way for man's expansion into previously inaccessible lands, like this area bordering the East Siberia Sea" ^^^

Mammoth Genome Achieved in 2008

In 2008, scientists announced that theu had deciphered much of the genetic code of the woolly mammoth, the first time researchers have spelled out the DNA of an extinct species. Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “The million-dollar mammoth study resulted in a first draft of the animal's genome, detailing the ice age creature's more than 3 billion DNA building blocks. The research published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature also gives scientists new clues about evolution and extinction."This is an amazing achievement," said Alex Greenwood, an Old Dominion University biology professor who studies ancient DNA and was not involved in the mammoth research. [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, November 19, 2008 ||||]

“To obtain the DNA, scientists relied on 20 balls of mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost. The new study, which is about 80 percent complete, provides a letter-by-letter genetic code mapping out most of the mammoth's DNA. Think of it as an instruction sheet on how to build a mammoth.||||

“Elephants and mammoths diverged along evolutionary paths about 6 million years ago, about the same time humans and chimps did, Schuster said. But there are twice as many differences between the genetic makeup of chimps and humans as those between elephants and mammoths. "Primates evolved twice as fast as elephants," Schuster said. But some animals such as rodents have had even more evolutionary changes, indicating that their development might have to do with size or metabolism, said study co-author Webb Miller. ||||

“Another interesting finding: In the 50 or so species with mostly mapped genomes, there are certain areas where the genetic code is exactly the same in all the animals — except the mammoth.In other animals, these proteins "stayed the same for a very long time," said Miller, professor of biology and computer science at Penn State. "I don't know what it means. All I did was find them." ||||

“Miller and Schuster noticed that most of the mammoths they examined had far less genetic diversity than other species still alive, and that may also give a clue to the biology of extinction. So the two are also applying what they learned from the Siberian behemoth to their other efforts to help save Australia's endangered Tasmanian devil, which has the same lack of genetic diversity. ||||

Mammoth Genome Provides Basis for Mammoth Cloning

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “The Woolly mammoth genome sequencing “project marks the first time researchers have spelled out the DNA of an extinct species, and it raised the possibility that other ancient animals such as mastodons and sabertooth tigers might someday walk the Earth again. "It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?" asked Stephan Schuster, a Penn State University biochemist and co-author of the new research. "I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it." [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, November 19, 2008 ||||]

“Schuster said researchers should someday be able to recreate any extinct creature that lived within the last 100,000 years as long as it got trapped in permafrost and had hair. That leaves out the Jurassic period, the time of dinosaurs, from about 140 million to 200 million years ago. So Earth's real-life sequel to extinction is far more likely to be "Ice Age 3" than "Jurassic Park IV." In 2005, “Japanese scientists said they hoped to find frozen mammoth sperm and impregnate an elephant and raise the offspring in a safari park in Siberia. But using genetics to engineer a mammoth makes more sense, Schuster said. ||||

“Anthropology professor Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said he no longer considers such ideas impossible. Poinar, who wasn't part of Schuster's study but consulted on the movie "Jurassic Park," said director Steven Spielberg may have had it right when he told skeptical scientists: "This is the science of eventuality." ||||

“There are two possible ways to use this new genetic map to make a mammoth, and both involve creating a mammoth embryo and implanting it into its elephant cousin. Both methods are incredibly complex and rely on intricate genetic manipulation because the mammoth DNA is not suitable for cloning. One approach requires scientists to start with an elephant cell and genetically engineer it to match the DNA code of a mammoth.The other method involves synthetic biology in which scientists would create life forms from scratch. Once this technique is developed — and leaders in the field say it is just three to 10 years away — scientists would follow the mammoth recipe to build a mammoth cell. An easier option would be to examine what makes the mammoth different from its closest cousin, the African elephant, and create a hairy hybrid to sit in zoos. "People would like to see a hairy elephant," said George Church, director of computational genomics at Harvard Medical School.” ||||

Japanese Plan to Reproduce a Woolly Mammoth

Kagoshima University professor Kazufumi Goto believes that is possible to produce a living Woolly mammoth by: 1) breeding a mammoth (using its sperm from a mammoth to fertilize the egg of Asian elephant and repeatedly breeding the offspring to get an animal closer and closer to a mammoth; and 2) cloning a mammoth using DNA taken from a part of a mammoth and fusing it in the egg of an Asia elephant that has been stripped of its elephant genes so the baby would be a mammoth not a hybrid.

In 1990, Goto led a team that produced a healthy calf using the sperm from a dead bull. In 1996, Goto began his search for male Woolly mammoths with sperm-fill reproductive organs near Yakutsk, Siberia, where numerous frozen Woolly mammoths have been found.

The chance of finding DNA intact in frozen mammoth sperm is still very remote. Goto has offer $10,000 for mammoth tissue with intact DNA. If a viable embryo is produced it will shipped after five cell divisions to a lab in Thailand at Mahidol university, which has successfully fertilized Asian elephant eggs in vitro. The embryo would then be implanted in a surrogate and ideally emerge as a Woolly mammoth 600 days later.

New research announced in the late 1990s suggest that the idea of bringing a Woolly mammoth back to life may be not as far-fetched as once thought. About 80 percent of the mammoth genome has been pieced together from samples taken from two carcasses found in Siberia. Among the discoveries related to this is that mammoth are much more closely related to modern elephants than previously thought.

The biggest obstacle to overcome will be getting a mammoth cell into good enough shape to inject into a an egg. In most cloning cases a cell is taken from a live animal and injected into the egg. Obviously things are different with a cell taken from a mammoth carcass that as been sitting around for 10,000 years. Instead do being neatly arranged the chromosome are in little pieces and they will have to be reconstructed, something that is far beyond the reach of today's science.

In the early 2000s, scientists at Kinki University in Wakayama tried to clone a mammoth using skin, leg muscle tissue and bone from a mammoth found 1,200 kilometers north of Yakutsk in Siberia.

Stepping Up Efforts to Resurrect a Mammoth in Japan

In January 2011 it was announced that a team of researchers would make a serious attempt to bring back to life a mammoth species using new cloning technologies after obtaining tissue from the carcass of a mammoth preserved in a Russian mammoth research laboratory. "Preparations to realize this goal have been made," Prof. Akira Iritani, leader of the team and a professor emeritus of Kyoto University, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 13, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun, “Under the plan, the nuclei of mammoth cells will be inserted into an elephant's egg cells from which the nuclei have been removed to create an embryo containing mammoth genes. The embryo will then be inserted into an elephant's womb in the hope that the animal will give birth to a baby mammoth." [Ibid]

Researchers from Kinki University's Graduate School of Biology-Oriented Science and Technology began the study in 1997. On three occasions, the team obtained mammoth skin and muscle tissue excavated in good condition from the permafrost in Siberia.However, most nuclei in the cells were damaged by ice crystals and were unusable. The plan to clone a mammoth was abandoned.

In 2008, Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama of Kobe's Riken Center for Developmental Biology succeeded in cloning a mouse from the cells of mouse that had been kept in deep-freeze for 16 years. The achievement was the first in the world. Based on Wakayama's techniques, Iritani's team devised a technique to extract the nuclei of eggs — only 2 percent to 3 percent are in good condition — without damaging them.

In the spring of 2010, the team invited Minoru Miyashita, a professor of Kinki University who was once head of Osaka's Tennoji Zoo, to participate in the project. He asked zoos across the nation to donate elephant egg cells when their female elephants died. The team also invited the head of the Russian mammoth research laboratory and two U.S. African elephant researchers as guest professors to the university. The research became a joint effort by Japan, Russia and the United States.

If a cloned mammoth embryo can be created, Miyashita and the U.S. researchers, who are experts in animal in vitro fertilization, will be responsible for transplanting the embryo into an African elephant. The team told the Yomiuri Shimbun if everything goes as planned, a mammoth will be born in five to six years. "If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed [the mammoth] and whether to display it to the public," Iritani said. "After the mammoth is born, we'll examine its ecology and genes to study why the species became extinct and other factors."

Scientists a Step Closer to Cloning Mammoths

In December 2011, Kyodo reported: “The thighbone of a mammoth found in August in Siberia contains well-preserved marrow, increasing the chances of cloning one of the extinct beasts, Japanese and Russian scientists confirmed recently. The teams from the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum in eastern Russia and Kinki University's graduate school in biology-oriented science and technology will launch full-fledged joint research next year to clone the giant mammal, which is believed to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago, they said. [Source: Kyodo, December 4, 2011 \=/]

“By transplanting nuclei taken from the marrow cells into elephant egg cells whose nuclei have been removed through a cloning technique, embryos with a mammoth gene could be produced and planted into elephant wombs, as the two species are close relatives, they said. Securing nuclei with an undamaged gene is essential for the nucleus transplantation technique, but doing so from mammoths is extremely difficult and scientists have been trying to reproduce a mammoth since the late 1990s, they said. \=/

“In the Sakha Republic, global warming has thawed its almost permanently frozen ground, leading to numerous discoveries of frozen mammoths. But cell nuclei are usually damaged or have not been kept in a frozen state even when they have been found in a good overall condition, a Russian museum official said. This time, however, there is a high likelihood that biologically active nuclei can be extracted as the frozen marrow found when museum scientists cut open the thighbone Nov. 13 was fresh and in excellent condition, according to the official. The bone was found near Batagay in northern Sakha. \=/

“The technique for extracting nuclei, meanwhile, has improved dramatically in the past few years and some undamaged nuclei have been successfully taken from badly preserved mammoth tissue fragments, albeit at low rates, said the Kinki University team based in Osaka Prefecture. \=/

“The museum, located in the republic's capital, Yakutsk, soon notified the Japanese side, with which it has had close ties through joint research since 1997, including professor Akira Iritani and associate professor Hiromi Kato. Iritani confirmed that the outstanding condition of the marrow has increased the chances of cloning a mammoth, and said the Japanese team will try to obtain elephant eggs for the research project, although he added this would not be easy.” \=/

Sooam Biotech’s Effort to Bring Back the Mammoth

Carl Zimmer wrote in National Geographic: “armed with the new cloning technologies, researchers at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul have teamed up with mammoth experts from North-Eastern Federal University in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.” In the summer of 2012 “they traveled up the Yana River, drilling tunnels into the frozen cliffs along the river with giant hoses. In one of those tunnels they found chunks of mammoth tissue, including bone marrow, hair, skin, and fat. [Source: Carl Zimmer, National Geographic, April 2013]

“The tissue is now in Seoul, where the Sooam scientists are examining it. “If we dream about it, the ideal case would be finding a viable cell, a cell that’s alive,” says Sooam’s Insung Hwang, who organized the Yana River expedition. If the Sooam researchers do find such a cell, they could coax it to produce millions of cells. These could be reprogrammed to grow into embryos, which could then be implanted in surrogate elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relatives.

“Most scientists doubt that any living cell could have survived freezing on the open tundra. But Hwang and his colleagues have a Plan B: capture an intact nucleus of a mammoth cell, which is far more likely to have been preserved than the cell itself. Cloning a mammoth from nothing but an intact nucleus, however, will be a lot trickier. The Sooam researchers will need to transfer the nucleus into an elephant egg that has had its own nucleus removed. This will require harvesting eggs from an elephant—a feat no one has yet accomplished. If the DNA inside the nucleus is well preserved enough to take control of the egg, it just might start dividing into a mammoth embryo. If the scientists can get past that hurdle, they still have the formidable task of transplanting the embryo into an elephant’s womb. Then, as Zimov cautions, they will need patience. If all goes well, it will still be almost two years before they can see if the elephant will give birth to a healthy mammoth. “The thing that I always say is, if you don’t try, how would you know that it’s impossible?” says Hwang.”

The “genome-retooling method could theoretically work on any species with a close living relative and a genome capable of being reconstructed. So even if the Sooam team fails to find an intact mammoth nucleus, someone might still bring the species back. Scientists already have the technology for reconstructing most of the genes it takes to make a mammoth, which could be inserted into an elephant stem cell. And there is no shortage of raw material for further experiments emerging from the Siberian permafrost. “With mammoths, it’s really a dime a dozen up there,” says Hendrik Poinar, an expert on mammoth DNA at McMaster University in Ontario. “It’s just a matter of finances now.” Though the revival of a mammoth or a passenger pigeon is no longer mere fantasy, the reality is still years away. For another extinct species, the time frame may be much shorter. Indeed, there’s at least a chance it may be back among the living before this story is published.”

Recreating the Mammoth Steppe

Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha in northern Siberia, told The New Yorker: We are not trying exactly to reconstruct the mammoth steppe ecosystem, because we don’t have the mammoth. But we are trying to reconstruct the highly productive steppe ecosystem.”

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Zimov brought in reindeer and a breed of very cold-hardy horses known as Yakutians. A few years ago, he imported five European bison to the park, but only one—a male—survived the second winter. “Now we are looking for girlfriends,” Zimov said. Several musk oxen were also brought in, but they, too, were all males. “We also search females for them,” Zimov told me. The Pleistocene Park, which is in northeastern Siberia, is so remote that almost no one who isn’t conducting research there has ever visited it.” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

Carl Zimmer wrote in National Geographic: Zimov “has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra. [Source: Carl Zimmer, National Geographic, April 2013]

“In recent years Zimov has tried to turn back time on the tundra by bringing horses, muskoxen, and other big mammals to a region of Siberia he calls Pleistocene Park. And he would be happy to have woolly mammoths roam free there. “But only my grandchildren will see them,” he says. “A mouse breeds very fast. Mammoths breed very slow. Be prepared to wait.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFPand various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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