Earlier this afternoon, Twitter friend Ivy McAllister called my attention to a curious video clip. Posted at io9 from a report in the sensationalist rag The Sun, the snippet is said to show a living woolly mammoth crossing a river in Siberia. Humbug. The blurry video appears to show a brown bear with a fish in its mouth — the flopping, dangling fish could be mistaken for a trunk in the wide shot, but on close inspection the supposed “trunk” doesn’t attach to the animal’s skull like a true prehensile proboscis should. Also telling is the fact that the video doesn’t show the animal coming out of the water, when most of its body might be seen and confirm the nature of the beast. I would truly love to see a living woolly mammoth, but I’m sorry to the say that there is no mammoth in that video.
The speculation surrounding the video reminded me of a mammoth misunderstanding which occurred over a century ago. I originally posted the story at the ScienceBlogs incarnation of Laelaps. Read on for a revised and reposted version of the tale — “Killing the Last Mammoth.”
In October of 1899, McClure’s Magazine ran a strange article by Henry Tukeman. The piece, titled “The Killing of the Mammoth,” began with a letter penned by a recently deceased chap named Horace Conradi which released Tukeman from his promise to keep the slaughter of what may have been the last living mammoth a secret. Tukeman could finally relate his fantastic adventure to eager readers.
Tukeman’s tale began among the Alaskan wilderness in 1890. Exactly why Tukeman was there is left to the reader’s imagination — Tukeman only stated that he had traveled to Fort Yukon and had resolved to stay the winter in the harsh climate. During his time there, he showed some pictures of African game animals to a Native American named Joe who became very excited the moment Tukeman turned to an illustration of an elephant. Joe already knew of such a creature. He had seen one himself in the Alaskan forest.
Joe’s encounter with the animal had occurred while he was out hunting with his son. They were looking for beaver and other game when they had come across a huge animal, the Tee-Kai-Koa, bathing in a lake. Joe’s son shot but did not kill the behemoth, and, afraid of what such a great beast might do when wounded, Joe and his son fled for home.
Tukeman was fascinated by Joe’s story. The animal sounded just like a woolly mammoth. If such a creature survived, it presented a unique (and lucrative) opportunity to collect an animal that was supposed to be extinct. As soon as the winter freeze ebbed, Tukeman resolved, he would visit the spot where Joe had seen the mammoth with another Native American, Paul, as his guide. The mammoth trackers set out as soon as summer arrived.
Tukeman and Paul soon found signs they were on the right track. A cave “paved” with the numerous remains of mammoths was a sure sign that the creatures lived in the Alaskan forests. And Tukeman didn’t let the mammoth graveyard go to waste. The hunter used the bones to test the strength of his firearms against the skeletal architecture of the mammoths. His bullets punched right through vertebrae and skull bones — bringing down the mammoth might be easier than he thought.
The hunters finally located a living mammoth on Aug. 29, but they did not immediately try to slaughter the beast. Joe had said that the mammoth he had seen followed the smoke from the gun his son had fired. Perhaps, Tukeman reasoned, mammoths were attracted to smoke so that they could stomp out forest fires before flames turned into infernos. Self-assured of his speculation, Tukeman and Paul spent nearly a month and a half creating a fire pit that would no doubt draw the mammoth. When the mammoth arrived, it would be occupied with putting out the fire while the hunters fired from perches built high in the trees.
The mammoth did not disappoint. Upon sniffing the smoke from the trap, the beast immediately tried to stamp out the flames. Tukeman and Paul could not miss. The hunters fired, over and over again, until blood oozed out of scores of bullet wounds in the animal’s flesh. It was clearly suffering under the weight of its injuries, blood trickling from its mouth and trunk, but still it did not fall. Even a head shot failed to bring it down immediately, but after a few more moments the mammoth slumped forward onto the ground and collapsed. The Tee-Kai-Koa was dead.
Paul and Tukeman skinned their prize and collected its bones, taking measurements of the mammoth’s internal organs as they went. The two stayed in the mammoth valley for the winter, and, once warmer spring weather began to clear their path, Tukeman and Paul transported the collected remains out by sleigh. Tukeman had no doubt that the bones and hide would be of great interest to museums all of the world, but the best offer came from Conradi — the man who had put a gag order on Tukeman until 1899. The plan was for Tukeman to stay silent while Conradi presented the mammoth as a discovery he had made himself.
It was a fantastic tale. Tukeman had not only seen a living mammoth, but had brought it back for study. As he affirmed several times in his piece, the skeleton was donated to the Smithsonian where it could be appreciated by some of the nation’s finest scientists.
If only Tukeman’s story were true. Tukeman’s yarn was written as a work of fiction based on rumors of living mammoths which circulated through newspapers from time to time. The short story had not been intended to deceive readers, but the “mammoth mania” soon deluged the magazine and the Smithsonian with letters concerning Tukeman’s story. As printed in a a subsequent article meant to set readers straight on mammoths (reprinted in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution) a McClure’s editor wrote:
Ever since the appearance of that number of the magazine the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution … have been beset with visitors to see the stuffed mammoth, and our daily mail, as well as that of the Smithsonian Institution, has been filled with inquiries for more information and for requests to settle wagers as to whether it was a true story or not.
Sadly, the “Conradi Mammoth” didn’t exist. The Smithsonian didn’t even have a mammoth skeleton, much less the body of the last living member of the species. Frederic Lucas, a paleontologist at the museum, hoped that someone would take inspiration from the fictional McClure’s tale and provide the funds for the Smithsonian to obtain a mammoth skeleton of its own.
But there may have been a small grain of truth to Tukeman’s tall tale. Explorers who ventured to Alaska claimed that Native Americans were indeed familiar with what mammoths looked like. This was not because there truly was a lost Valley of the Mammoths. Instead, one naturalist proposed that he may have inadvertently provided the basis for rumors about living mammoths.
In 1885, zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend was aboard the Corwin when it stopped at Cape Prince of Wales, the easternmost portion of the American side of the Bering Strait. Native Americans soon came by with mammoth tusks and bones — they often carved ornaments, soup ladles, and other objects out of the fossil ivory. The fossils had been brought to the ship for barter.
The crew asked whether the bones and tusks had come from live or dead animals. The Native Americans replied that the remains had not come from living animals, though exactly what sort of animal the remains represented was a mystery. But Townsend recognized the bones. He pulled a few books with illustrations of mammoths — such as the skeleton on display in St. Petersburg, Russia — to show the curious crowd. The Native Americans copied these drawings, and Townsend also gave them a quick sketch of what a living mammoth might have look like.
Years later, at a meeting of the Biological Society of Washington, Townsend speculated that these drawings were reproduced and shared so regularly that indigenous peoples all over Alaska became familiar with mammoths without ever actually seeing one. This might explain why some Native Americans seemed to be familiar with the extinct animal — they had previously heard about mammoths or seen the drawings.
Townsend’s explanation for modern mammoth myths seemed plausible enough, and it was adopted by paleontologist Frederic Lucas and naturalist G.F. Kunz. Townsend, in his efforts to spread scientific understanding, had accidentally given journalists fuel to write sensationalist stories. Indeed, Tukeman’s story only built on reports of living mammoths that had already appeared in newspapers all over the country. The McClure’s story was not designed as a hoax, but since it complemented what had already appeared in a “reliable” reporting, the idea of a living mammoth did not seem outlandish.
But Townsend may have taken too much credit for the gradual proliferation of modern mammoth myths. While isolated bones and tusks are difficult to interpret, mammoths are sometimes discovered with skin and other soft tissues intact. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting the fourth floor fossil halls of the American Museum of Natural History, look behind the mammoth and mastodon skeletons to see one such specimen from Alaska — “Effie“, a partial baby mammoth which was found in an exceptional state of preservation. And, as historian Adrienne Mayor has documented in Fossils Legends of the First Americans, mammoth remains have frequently been found in places important to Native American myths and legends. The Inuit legend of Kilukpuk — a monster equipped with large tusks and said to burrow through the earth — compares closely with myths associated with Siberian mammoths. Intact, frozen mammoth bodies were probably powerful sources of inspiration to anyone who stumbled across them.
Even though we often note when a new fossil species is described, we should remember that zoologists and paleontologists were not the first people to wonder about fossils. Prehistoric remains have puzzled us for centuries, and it is not at all surprising that enigmatic bones should be incorporated into legends and other cultural traditions. If anecdotes about the familiarity of Native Americans with mammoths were at all true, the connection might have more to do with well-preserved mammoth bodies than skeletal sketches.
Lucas, F.A. 1897. Biological Society of Washington – 271st Meeting, Saturday, January 30. Science. V (112). p. 319.
Tukeman, H. 1899. The Killing of the Mammoth. McClure’s Magazine, Vol 13. pp. 505-514