1902 Encyclopedia > Mammoth


MAMMOTH, a name commonly given to one of the numerous extinct forms of Elephant, Elephas primigenius of Blumenbach and most subsequent authors.1 Probably no animal which has not survived to the historic period has left such abundant and well-preserved evidence of its former existence. The discovery of immense numbers, not only, as in the case of most extinct creatures, in the form of fragmentary bones and teeth, but often as more or less entire carcases, or "mummies" as they may be as they may be called, with the flesh, skin, and hair in situ, in the frozen soil of the tundras of northern Siberia, has for a long time given great interest to the species, and been the cause of many legendary stories among the natives of the lands in which they occur. Among these one of the most prevailing is that the Mammoth was, or still is, an animal which passes its life habitually in burrows below the surface ofhte ground, and with immediately dies if by any chance it comes into the upper air.

The general characteristics of the animals of the order Proboscridea, to which the Mammoth belongs, are given in the article MAMMALIA (p.423). Its positions is also there indicated as a member of the most highly specialized section of the group of Elephants, that called by Falconer Euelephas, which also contains the modern Asiatic species. Of the whole group it is in many respects, as in the size and form of the tusks, and especially the characters of the molar teeth, the farthest removed from the primitive Mastondian-like type, while its nearest surviving relative, E. indicus, has retained the slightly more generalized characters of the Mommoth’s contemporaries of more southern climes, E. columbi of America, and E. armeniacus of the Old World, if, indeed, it can be specifically distinguished from them.

The tusks or upper incisor teeth were doubtless present in both sexes, but probably of smaller size in the female. In the adult males they often attained the length of from 9 to 10 feet measures along the outer curve. Upon leaving the head they were directed at first downwards and outwards, then upwards and finally inwards at the tips, and generally with a tendency to a spiral form not seen in other species of Elephant. Different specimens, however, present great variations in curve, from nearly straight to an almost complete circle.

It is chiefly by the characters of the molar teeth that the various extinct modifications of the Elephant type are distinguished. Those of the Mammoth (see fig. 2) differ from the corresponding organs of allied species on (1) great breadth of the crown as compared with the length, (2) the narrowness and crowding or close approximation of the0 ridges, (3) the thinness of the enamel and its straightness, parallelism, and absence of "crimping" as seen on the worn surface, or in a horizontal section of the tooth. The molars, as in other Elephants, are six in number on each side above and below, succeeding each other from before backwards. Of the these Dr Falconer gave the prevailing "ridge-formula" (or number of complete enameled ridges in each tooth) as 4, 8, 12, 12, 16, 24, as in E. indicus. Dr Leith Adams, working from more abundant materials, has shown that the number of ridges of each tooth, especially those at the posterior end of the series, is subject to very great individual variation, ranging in each tooth of the limits; 3 to 4, 6, to 9, 9 to 12, 9 to 15, 14 to 16, 18 to 27, — excluding the small plates called "talons" at each end of the tooth. Besides these variations in the number of ridges or plates of which each tooth is composed, the thickness of the enamel varies so much as to have given rise to a distinction between a "thick-plated" and a "thin-plated" variety,—the latter being most prevalent among the specimens from the Arctic regions, and most distinctively characteristic of the species. From the specimens; with thick enamel plates the transition to the other species or varieties mentioned above, including E. indicus, is almost imperceptible.

The bones of the skeleton generally more resemble those of the Indian Elephant than of any other known species, out the skull differs, in the narrower summit, narrower temporal fossae, and more prolonged incisive sheaths, required to support the roots of the enormous tusks. Among the external characters by which the Mammoth was distinguished from either of the existing species of Elephant was the dense clothing, not only of long coarse outer hair, but also of close under woolly hair, of a reddish-brown colour, evidently in adaptation to the colour, evidently in adaptation to the colder climate which it inhabited. This character, for a knowledge of which we are indebted to the well-preserved remains found a northern Siberia, is also represented in the rude but graphic drawings of prehistoric age, found in caverns in the south of France.1 In size different individuals varied considerably, but the average height does not appear to have exceeded that of either of the existing species of Elephant.

The geographical range of the Mammoth was very extensive. There is scarcely in England in which some of his remains have not been found either in alluvial deposits of gravel or in caverns, and numbers of its teeth are from time to time dredged up from the bottom of the sea by the fishermen who ply their trade in the German Oc_an, having been washed out of the water-worn cliffs of the eastern counties of England. In Scotland and Ireland its remains are less abundant, but they have been found in vast numbers at various localities throughout the greater part of central Europe (as far south as Santander in Spain and Rome), northern Asia, and the northern part of the America continent, though the exact distribution of the Mammoth in the New World is still question of debate. It has not hitherto been met with in any part of Scandinavia or Finland.

In point of time, the Mammoth belongs exclusively to the post-Tertiary or Pleistocene epoch of geologists, and it was undoubtedly contemporaneous with man in France, and probably elsewhere. There is evidence to show that it existed in Britain before, during, and after the glacial period.

As before indicated, it is in the northern part of Siberia that its remains have been found in the greatest abundance, and in quite exceptional conditions of preservation. For a very long period there has been from that region a regular export of Mammoth ivory in a state fit for commercial purposes, both eastward to China and westward to Europe. In the middle of the 10th century an active trade was carried on at Khiva in fossil ivory, which was fashioned into combs, vases, and other objects, as related by Abú ’l Kásim, an Arab writer of that period. Mid dendorff reckoned that the number of tusks which have yearly come into the market during the last two centuries has been at least a hundred pairs, and Nordenskiöld from personal observation considers this calculation as probably rather too low than too high. They are found at all suitable places along the whole line of the shore between the mouth of the Obi and Behring’s Straits, and the farther north the more numerous do they become, the islands of New Siberia being now one of the most favourite collecting localities. The soil of Bear Islands and of Liachoff Islands is said to consist only of send and ice with such quantities of Mammoth bones as almost to compose its chief substance. The remains are not only found around the mouths of the great rivers, as would be the case if the carcases had been washed down from more southern localities in the interior of the continent, but are imbedded in the frozen soil in such circumstances as to indicate that the animals had lived not far from the localities in which they are now found, and they are exposed either by the melting of the ice in unusually warm summers or by the washing away of the sea cliffs or river banks by storms or floods. In this way the bodies of more or less perfect animals, often standing in the erect position, with the soft parts and hairy covering entire, have frequently been brought to light.

References to the principal recorded discoveries of this kind, and to the numerous speculation to which they have given rise, both among the ignorant peasant and learned academicians, will be found in Nordenskiöld’s Voyage of the Vega (English translation, vol. i. 1881, p. 398 sq.) and in a series of papers in the Geological Magazine for 1880 and 1881, by H. H. Howorth. For the geographical distribution and anatomical characters, see Falconer’s Palaeontalogical Memoirs, vol. ii., 1868 ; Boyd Dawkins "Elephas primigenius, its range in space and time," Quart. Jour. Geol. Soc. Xxxv. P. 138 (18790 ; and Leith Adams, "Monograph of British Fossil Elephants," part ii., Palaeontographical Society, 1879. (W. H. F.)


FOOTNOTE (p. 447)

1 The word Mammoth was introduced into the languages of western Europe about two centuries ago from the Russian, and is thought by Pallas and Nordenskiöld to be of Tartar origin, but others, as Witzen, Strahlenburg, and Howarth have endeavoured to prove that it is a corruption of the Arabic word Behemoth, or great beast.

FOOTNOTE (p. 448)

(1) The best-known of these is the etching upon a portion of tusk found in the cave of La Madelaine in the Dordogne, figured in Christy and Lartet’s Reliquiae Aquitanicae, and in many other works bearing on the subject of the antiquity of man.

.(2) The present manager, Mr F. Klett, has undertaken the difficult task of a thorough survey, the results of which, so far as completed, are presented in the accompanying map. The portion beyond River Hall is supplemented from an older survey by Stephen, the guide.

The above article was written by: Sir William H. Flower.

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