Saturday, 17 December 2011

Woolly Mammoths: A Survival Guide

Russian scientists claim they are close to cloning woolly mammoths. I'm going to assume we've all seen Jurassic Park, and so we all know what happens when scientists clone extinct animals: one day they break free and seek revenge!
So I thought I'd take this time to consult our mammoth-hunting ancestors and offer you a survival guide for when the inevitable happens.

Spotting a woolly mammoth
A mammoth is any member of the extinct species mammuthus. They usually have tusks and in more northern, colder regions also have thick woolly fur. Height and weight obviously vary from species to species, but the largest are thought to have been 4m high and 6-8 tons in weight. Since they all unhelpfully died out before the invention of cameras, here's a skeleton and an artist's impression:

 The ones the scientists are trying to recreate are the larger types, so we won't concern ourselves with dwarf mammoths just now. Suffice to say that they are adorable.

Mammoths should also not be confused with mastodons, which look similar, but are actually not very closely related.

So, once they're roaming about, how can we expect these behemoths to behave?
Well, we think they usually grazed on grass, like really big cows. They also tended to live in herds, though these were structured in a way more similar to elephants: a matriarch would lead a herd of females, while bulls remained solitary or banded into loose groups.They probably also exhibited similar kinds of protective behaviour, so if you're hoping to pick off a little one for dinner, I'm afraid you might be out of luck.

To recap: these megafauna are four metres tall, weigh six tons, live in fiercely protective familial groups and have whacking great tusks to boot? How are we meant to kill them again?

Mammoth hunting went on mostly in the Mesolithic, so people would have been equipped with stone tipped arrows, hafted stone spears and seriously cool composite weapons (pictured below). This particular composite arrow is from a bog in Scania, Sweden and dates to c. 7000–6000 cal BC (so produced after mammoths died out in Eurasia and the Americas c. 12,000 BC). The stone is attached only by resin in this example, but in other cases the stone has been attached by making a slot in the wood, putting the stone in and then leaving it in water to swell overnight. My archaeology department had a go at this a few years back, and the tools are still firmly attached. Composite tools range from small projectile points, to rounders-bat-sized maces and axes. You can learn more about this particular projectile here. 

You'd have to be a pretty good shot to kill a mammoth with a single arrow (not to mention able to draw a ridiculously strong bow), and you might not want to get close enough to hit it with your axe. However, palaeo-Americans seem to have been able to do just that. Their distinctive Clovis Point arrows have been found in mammoth remains in several sites in the western USA, though it is probable that these kills were achieved as a group. 

In fact, most mammoth hunting was achieved in groups. These groups would most likely be entirely male (sorry, ladies), and armed with spears, and possibly nets. They would lie in wait for a lone mammoth, and ambush them rather than chase the herd to cut a single animal out. It has also been suggested that, where land relief allowed, whole herds were stampeded over a cliff. This is an extrapolation of later Native American hunting of bison, and has not (to the best of my knowledge) been substantiated. However, it does seem a fairly logical practice: if I had a handy cliff, I'm sure I'd rather chase something over it, than have to kill it myself with a spear.

If worst comes to worst, and you're forced to flee the mammoths: don't panic. If you don't stampede them you might be okay. And if you do, well, they were probably able to run faster than humans, so you'd better hope you're in shape or that you've got a handy friend to trip in sacrifice. 

Oh, and don't forget to watch out for nearby giants. I hear they get pretty pissy if you upset their mammoths.


  1. Some good hints and tips there. Fascinating stuff about how people used to make weapons, they sound pretty good.

    Do you have any advice about how to survive if in an urban area? Will bricks-and-mortar keep the hairy beasts at bay, or will more substantial defences be needed? How much do these things weigh - could you successfully take them down by ramming them in a Nissan Micra?

  2. They weigh in at 6-8 tons. I'm not sure how heavy your Nissan Micra is, but I'm willing to bet it'd leave a pretty sizeable dent in your car. You'd probably also have a really angry mammoth at that point.