Rossdavidh's Reviews > Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age

Mammoths by Adrian Lister
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Mammoths, and the similar and closely related mastodons, were a big part of early human life. Early humans built shelters out of their bones, drew pictures of them on the walls of caves, and at least occasionally hunted them for food. Early humans thought about mammoths a lot. Then, after having survived for millions of years, through ice age and thaw and ice age and thaw, they vanished, from every continent on the earth where they once had lived. You and I missed seeing a live mammoth by only a few thousand years, which given that they lasted for millions of years is really bad luck. Or, perhaps, bad sportsmanship on the part of our ancestors.

Given that they went extinct quite recently, compared to for example the dinosaurs, there are still mammoth corpses coming to light from the ice of Siberia from time to time. You can actually see mammoth skin, mammoth hair, mammoth trunks. Scientists can sequence mammoth DNA, they can analyse the contents of mammoth stomachs to see what exactly they were eating (the ones that were about to die, anyway). When you see artists' conceptions of what dinosaurs looked like, there is a lot of guesswork, and even basic features such as "did they have feathers" have been subject to revision. This books, with its many drawings of mammoths of various kinds, is relying on a lot less guesswork and a lot more data. One of the great things about it is the copious, generous abundance of illustrations.

This is not to say, of course, that there aren't any mysteries, or at least topics of dispute. The biggest, is probably what exactly led to their extinction. To me, the answer is glaringly obvious: we did. Or, our ancestors. The big meat goes extinct on every continent we arrived on, not long after we arrived, from the end of the last Ice Age through to the settling of Madagascar probably less than 2000 years ago. In the more recent examples, there is ample historical evidence to prove that we drove the big animals to extinction through overhunting. There is no reason to believe our distant ancestors did otherwise. But, the idea that driving species to extinction is an age-old tradition of homo sapiens is disturbing to a lot of scientists, who are human after all and cannot 100% avoid letting their professional judgement be swayed by emotions. So, there is a chapter late in the book with a lot of special pleading, arguing that it is not an open and shut case. Whatever.

But, even in this chapter, and really throughout the entire book, we get a great overview of all that is known about these giants, how they lived, and what they lived on and among. It's not as good as getting to see the real thing, but it's as close as we're going to get (in our lifetime, anyway), and it's a wonderful gift to your imagination to picture what it must have been like to look out and see such a mountain of shaggy, ivory-tusked, lumbering life go by. No wonder they drew pictures on the walls of caves. Sitting there, looking at the images of these creatures, I am doing very nearly the same, and it is as enchanting for me as it was for my ancestors 20,000 years ago.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 17, 2019 – Shelved
August 17, 2019 – Shelved as: black

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