The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Woolly Mammoths:
Evidence of Catastrophe?

Sue Bishop
Philip Burns

Select one:

Woolly Mammoths Remains: Catastrophic Origins?

By Sue Bishop

Since Ted Holden has repeatedly insisted that the mammoth whose remains were found in Siberia in 1901 was preserved by some great catastrophe as described in Velikovsky's books, I decided to research the topic. I found several books on the subject, including the original book written by one of the scientists who actually examined, preserved and transported the mammoth remains from Siberia.

Preservation of the mammoth remains was somewhat different than has been imagined by the uninformed. The mammoths were 'mummified', a process that is quite easily done in a cold environment. Guthrie compares it to the process that packaged meat undergoes in a freezer.

The following is from Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe by Guthrie:

"The word mummy has long been used to describe carcasses preserved in northern permafrost. Some have objected to this usage on the basis that preservation by freezing is unlike 'real' mummification of an embalmed or dried corpse. However, frozen carcasses, like Dima and Blue Babe, (two well preserved carcasses described in his book, Dima is a baby mammoth, Blue Babe is a bison) are indeed desiccated and fully deserve to be called mummies." (Guthrie 1990)

"Underground frost mummification should not be confused with freeze-drying, which occurs when a body is frozen and moisture is removed by sublimation, a process accelerated by a partial vacuum. ... I have often freeze-dried items, sometimes inadvertently, during our long Alaskan winters, where the temperature seldom rises above freezing for eight months of the year." (Guthrie 1990)

"However, the desiccation of fossil mummies is quite different than freeze-drying. Moisture contained in a buried carcass is not released to the atmosphere but is crystallized in place, in ice lenses around the mummy. This process is more comparable to tightly wrapped food left too long in a freezer. When a stew is first frozen, it swells to a somewhat larger size, bulging the sealed plastic container. The longer it stays in the freezer, month after month, the more the moisture begins to separate, forming ice crystals inside the container. The stew itself shrinks and desiccates. Year follows year, and the stew becomes more and more desiccated, as ice segregates from it. Eventually, the stew has become a shriveled, dehydrated block; unlike freeze-drying in which the object theoretically retains its original form, the stew is shrunken in size and surrounded by a network of clear ice crystals. Soft tissue becomes mummified and shrunken down, looking like a desiccated mummy dried in the sun. These two processes of cold mummification and freeze-drying were not distinctly understood by people unfamiliar with long winters and the back corners of deep freezers." (Guthrie 1990)

The picture in the Sutcliffe book shows the front leg of the Berezovka mammoth. The muscles are dried straps over the bones, quite as Guthrie describes, looking very mummified.

As for instant freezing, as claimed by Ted Holden, there is no evidence of that. The Berezovka mammoth shows evidence of having been buried in a landslide, the cold mud acting as preservative and the underlying permafrost completing the process by freezing the carcass.

E. W. Pfizenmayer was one of the scientists who actually recovered and studied the Berezovka mammoth. I was able to obtain his book, Siberian Man and Mammoth through interlibrary loan. It's quite interesting, the mammoth story is only a part of his book, he also commented at length on people who were living in Siberia at the time of the scientists' journey to get to the site of the mammoth.

Pfizenmayer says about the mammoth:

"Baron E. von Toll, the well-known geological explore of Arctic Siberia, who perished while leading the Russian expedition in 1903, had covered in 1890 most of the sites of previous finds of mammoth and rhinoceros bodies in carrying out his professional investigations. In doing so he had established that the mammoth found by Adams in 1799 buried at the mouth of the Lena in a crevice of a cliff from 200 to 260 feet high, and sent by him to St. Petersberg, had been frozen in a bank of diluvial ice on the slope of the river. This ice bank was not (as Adams believed and stated in his description of the site of the find) the remains of the old drift-ice whose crevices had been filled with mud. The fissures in the bank of diluvial ice on the Lena, which was far bigger than ours, had, according to Toll's findings, gradually filled with earth from the top downwards, and its upper surface covered with alluvial soil to such an extent that a fair number of the tundra plants were able to take root on it.

"Toll concluded that this particular Siberian ice was in no case recent, but was the remains of diluvial inland ice, which once covered the whole world, and then was gradually overlaid with earth, surviving to this day in the Arctic regions in ice-banks of varying extent.

"Our investigations confirmed his opinion. They proved that the animal had been preserved in the same way as Adams's mammoth, according to Toll, had been. In both cases the bodies had been enbedded in fissures of the diluvial inland ice. Then when the temperature fell the mud disappeared and the ice in which they were fast frozen had kept them, complete with their soft parts, in a state a preservation through the ages.

"Before I arrived at the site, Herz had partially dug away the hill of earth round the body, and so both the forefeet and the hind feet were exposed. These lay under the body so that it rested on them. When one looked at the body one had the impression that it must have suddenly fallen into an unexpected fissure in the ice, which it probably came across in its wanderings, and which may have been covered with a layer of plant-bearing mould. After its fall the unlucky animal must have tried to get out of its hopeless position, for the right forefoot was doubled up and the left stretched forward as if it had struggled to rise. But its strength had apparently not been up to it, for when we dug it out still farther we found that in its fall it had not only broken several bones, but had been almost completely buried by the falls of earth which tumbled in on it, so that it had suffocated.

"Its death must have occurred very quickly after its fall, for we found half-chewed food still in its mouth, between the back teeth and on its tongue, which was in good preservation. The food consisted of leaves and grasses, some of the later carrying seeds. We could tell from these that the mammoth must have come to its miserable end in the autumn."


"Lapparent attributes the extinction of the mammoth to a gradual increase in cold and a decrease in the supply of food, rather than to a cataclysmic flood." (Guthrie 1990)

"...Quackenbush (1909) concluded that the partial mammoth mummy from Eschscholtz Bay, Alaska, was so deteriorated as to exclude 'sudden fall in temperature" theories...'" (Guthrie 1990)

I am still doing research on Mammoth diet and climate at the time of the burial of the Berezovka mammoth. Types of data being studied, stomach and mouth contents of the said mammoth, stomach contents of other mammoths found. Lake bottom sediment cores, showing pollen and vegetation over the last 10,000 years. Comments by Guthrie on how the climatic changes of the ice age affected the ratio of edible vegetation from then to present. Estimation of snow depths on the Mammoth Slope are also being covered and have a large bearing on extinction of the mammoth and other large Ice Age mammals.

Recent Mammoths

Ted keeps trying to date mammoths within the last 3000 years. In my research I found absolutely nothing that was dated at that time period. The following is from On the Track of the Ice Age Mammals by Sutcliffe:

"The absolute age in years of the frozen carcasses was for a long time a subject of speculation. During recent years, with the availability of Carbon 14 dating, the exact age of many of them has become known, with surprising results. Their ages fall into two main groups, one ranging in age from 45,000 years to 30,000 years and a smaller number of remains from 14-11,000 years old.

"Although skeletal remains lacking soft parts are known from the period 30-12,000 years ago, there is very little carcass material of this age. A tendon on a 22,000-years-old bone of a lion from Alaska is one of the rare examples. As we have already seen, this intervening period was a time of massive glacial advance, the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere expanding to their maximum extent about 18,000 years ago. There were minor, more temperate periods from about 45-25,000 years ago and about 12-11,000 years ago. It was apparently during these ameliorations that most of the known carcasses became frozen. This appears to be a climate-related depositional phenomenon, related to the amount of available water (which reached its minimum at times of glacial advance) and does not reflect an absence of mammoths from the areas in question. Under cold arid conditions, with little moisture to supply mudflows, carcasses would have tended ultimately to rot on the surface with only the bones surviving for potential fossilization. Under moister conditions summer mudflows could rapidly have covered carcasses lying in their paths, which became permanently frozen when the permafrost level rose above them the following winter."

Mammoth Carcass Radiocarbon Dates

Earlier Age Group


        Adams (Lena River) Mammoth, 1799	36,000-37,000 years
        Beresovka mammoth, 1900			more than 39,000
        Shandrin mammoth, 1971			42,000 years
        River Indigirka woolly rhino		38,000 years
        Selerikan horse, 1968			35,000-40,000
        'Dima', 1977				40,000
        Khatanga mammoth, 1977			more than 50,000


        Fairbanks, mammoth hair			32,000-34,000
        Fairbanks, bison, 1951			31,000
        Fairbanks, bison, 1979			36,000

Later Age Group


        Taimyr Peninsula mammoth, 1948		11,500
        River Berelekh mammoth remains, 1970	12,000
        Yuribemammoth, 1979		        9,700


        Fairbanks, mammoth			15,400
        Fairbanks, another bison		12,000
        Fairbanks, hoof of horse, 1981		17,200
        Fairbanks, musk ox			17,000

NOTE: The Beresovka mammoth is the one that Ted kept claiming was 'instantly frozen' by catastrophe. This is totally untrue, according to the scientists who did the actual research in 1900.


Sutcliffe, Anthony J., On the Track of the Ice Age Mammals, Harvard University Press, 1985.

Guthrie, R. Dale. Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe, 1990, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Pfizenmayer, E. W., Siberian Man and Mammoth, 1939. Blackie and Son, London

Woolly Mammoths: Suited for Cold?

By Philip R. Burns (Ted Holden) writes:

Again, the basic misunderstanding. As I see it, the question regarding mammoths in the Liakhovs, Novo-Sibirsk etc. is not whether the handful of preserved specimens we find were frozen, petrified, mummified, are in suspended animation etc. etc. That may be interesting in its own way, but is a sort of a diversion.

The question is, how given anything like the standard version of Earth history, did vast herds of such large creatures ever find food when the entire territory is covered by ice ten months of the year? Elephants are gluttonous; they spend most of their waking hours eating, in fact, McGowan has stated that he does not understand how anything ever ate enough to get bigger than elephants since there would not appear to be time in the day for it.

Velikovsky claims that these vast herds, the remnants of which are seen in those arctic circle island groups, were peacefully grazing on vast fields which were in temperal zones, when the entire surface of the Earth shifted due to one of the catastrophes he discusses, that they very quickly thus ended up in arctic regions along with their fields, and froze to death or otherwise died due to effects of the catastrophe itself.

Despite the efforts of several of the t.o crew, I have yet to hear another explanation of this phenomenon which makes any sense to me.

Mr. Holden again raises some questions about the ice age in Siberia and the presence of mammoths there. Hence, I will post my previous answer with a few modifications.

We should start by asking: what kind of animals were these woolly mammoths which inhabited the Siberian steppes? Were they suited to living in a cold climate?

Yes. We determine this by examining preserved mammoth specimens. We begin by comparing the bodies of mammoths of those of existing members of the Elephantidae (the African Loxodonta and Asian Elephas). In comparison to those of modern elephants, the bodies of mammoths were compressed lengthwise. Mammoth trunks were shorter than those of modern elephants. Mammoth ears were small, even compared to the smaller ears of today Asian elephants (the ears of African Loxodonts are much larger). Mammoth tails were much shorter than those of elephants.

Modern elephants do not have a thick covering of hair. Woolly mammoths were covered with the same kind of double fur coat as we find on other large mammals in northern climates today. The dense insulating inner coat consisted of a fine wool. The long, shaggy outer coat (some hairs as long as 50 cm) was composed of guard hairs. It appears that the mammoth changed its hair at the beginning of summer. This happens in many other arctic mammals today.

In addition to the fur coat, woolly mammoths also possessed a three-inch-thick layer of fat underneath their skin as well as an additional fat reserve stored in a hump above the shoulders.

Most mammoths, including the Siberian varieties, were about the same size as modern elephants or slightly smaller. Some were larger, such as the North American Imperial Mammoth, which reached a height of fourteen to fifteen feet (4.5 to 5 m) at the shoulder. The Siberian mammoths were smaller; about 9 feet (3 m) at the shoulder for males and 7 1/2 feet (2.5 m) for females.

Mammoth tusks also differed from those of modern elephants. Mammoth tusks curved down to form a broad bow close to the ground. This answers the question of how mammoths could break through ice-covered ground to look for forage. Even assuming that the Siberian ground was frozen -- it usually was NOT so frozen in the Pleistocene -- the mammoth could use its tusks to break through the ice and snow. Is there any evidence that mammoths actually did this? Yes. Wear patterns on mammoth tusks suggest that the mammoths used their tusks as excavation tools.

All of these items indicate that the woolly mammoth was well adapted to surviving in a cold climate. They illustrate adaptation typical of those seen in other mammals which extend their ranges into colder climates. The body increases in bulk while the total amount of exposed body surface decreases (compressed body length of mammoths, short tails and trunks, dense fur coat). There is no reason to doubt that mammoths could live in cold climates as long there was adequate forage.

(Incidentally, even modern Asian elephants tolerate cold fairly well. Elephants lived as far north as the Honan province in China into early historical times (1500 B.C.). Asian elephants also lived in what is now Syria, Iraq, and Iran. African loxodonts used to inhabit the whole of the African continent into historic times.)

Was there adequate forage for animals the size of mammoths in the steppes? The current climate of the subarctic Siberian steppes could not support large herds of mammoths assuming they required a similar volume of food as modern elephants. Much of Siberia today is covered by deeply and permanently frozen ground known as permafrost. The existing tundra vegetation is tough, low, slow-growing, and laced with bitter chemicals. These chemicals may have evolved as a defense against foraging.

However, the Siberian steppes during the last ice age were not covered in ice and snow as they are now, nor was the ground frozen. The reason is that so much of the available water was locked up in the arctic ice pack -- primarily in North America -- that the subarctic steppes were much drier than today. As a result, the Siberian soil thawed to a greater depth and supported a richer variety of plant life. This included nutritious grasses. The stomach contents of preserved mammoths indicate that they fed on such grasses, as well as mosses, sedges, herbaceous pollens and spores, and fragments of willow and bilberry. Some rare poppies and buttercups have also been found in addition to small amounts of arboreal material such as larch needles, willows, and tree bark. Such variety indicates the mammoths lived in a variety of climates in Siberia. These ranged from dry and steppe-like to slightly wet to swampy to arctic/alpine.

Mammoth trunk tips were bi-lobed, useful for collecting herbaceous food. Relatively little arboreal material has been found in mammoth stomachs. Modern elephants, in contrast, prefer an arboreal diet, and their trunk tips are of unequal size.

The greater abundance and variety of steppe vegetation during the ice ages explains how the steppes could support large grazing animals like mammoths. The mammoths may also have migrated south in the winter and north in the summer. Modern elephants are great travellers, so possibly mammoths were too.

How old are the frozen mammoth remains from Siberia? They fall into two main groups, one dating from about 45,000 BP to 30,000 BP and the other from 14,000 to 11,000 BP. This does not mean that mammoths were not present in Siberia from 30,000 BP to 14,000 BP. Instead, this indicates the climatic conditions were not right for the formation of frozen carcasses. There are plenty of fossil bones of mammoths from 30,000 to 14,000 BP. This was a period of massive glacial advance, resulting in extremely dry conditions in Siberia. In these dry conditions, mammoth carcasses would tend to rot on the surface and/or be eaten by predators. In times of glacial retreat, when the climate was moister, summer mudflows and floods could rapidly cover carcasses. These covered carcasses would then become permanently frozen as the permafrost layer closed in above them during the following winter.

Was the climate warmer or colder in Siberia at the time the mammoths lived there? Well, both. It appears that at some periods the climate was warmer, at others it was colder. This is inferred by comparing the modern ranges of the plants found in mammoth stomachs as well as by astronomical calculations of temperature similar to those presented at various times in the past in this news group. The mammoths thrived in either case. The determinative factor was the decreased moisture so that the ground did not become permanently frozen as it is today. As a result, the "mammoth steppe" biome, comprised of grasses, succulent herbs, and wormwood, thrived. This biome disappeared around 9000 BP except for some small patches. It was replaced by the current boggy tundra vegetation and permafrost. The mammoths, having lost their source of food, disappeared in Siberia at about the same time. It is possible that predation by man was also partly responsible. The earliest human remains in Siberia date from the end of the last ice age.

What caused the ice ages? There have been many explanations proposed, none of which appears to be solely adequate. These include:

  1. Variations in the earth's orbital characteristics (angle of the ecliptic, eccentricity of the orbit, precession of the equinoxes). While this is sometimes touted as being "the" explanation of the ice ages, it cannot be the sole explanation since there have been long periods without glaciation during which Earth's orbital elements matched those of recent glacial periods. The patterns of ice advance and retreat DURING an ice age do seem to track the variations in orbital characteristics.
  2. Excessive volcanic activity -- perhaps resulting from impacts of meteors, asteroids, or comets; or perhaps associated with the collision of detached land masses with continents proper (e.g., India with the rest of Asia).
  3. Meteoritic and/or cometary impacts resulting in a kind of "nuclear winter." This includes the possibility of regular comet showers caused by a distant unseen solar companion (often called "Nemesis") deflecting outlying cometary bodies into the inner solar system.
  4. Passage of the solar system through interstellar dust clouds as the solar system moves up and down through the plane of the galaxy.
  5. "Fast" slippage of the earth's crustal plates on the underlying magma, perhaps caused by imbalances in the distribution of ice on continental surfaces. (This no longer appears to be a viable theory.)
  6. Variations in solar output. Perhaps the sun is a long-period irregular variable star.
  7. Changes in ocean currents and temperatures caused by shifting continental configurations.

I'm sure there are other explanations I can't bring to mind right now.

Regardless of the combination of mechanisms, there have been patterns of alternating retreat and advance of glaciers, differences in global and local temperature, and differences in moisture. The climate in the subarctic regions changed several times over the course of the last set of ice ages. This is very important: the climate was not always the same as it is now in Siberia.

The mammoths managed to survive all these changes except the last one, when humans finally penetrated into Siberia. There are a number of ice-age sites in Eastern europe which contain stacks of mammoth bones, very likely representing the results of human predation. Many other species of mega-fauna disappeared at the same time as the mammoths. Whether or not humans were largely responsible for these extinctions remains a disputed question.

Home Page | Browse | Search | Feedback | Links
The FAQ | Must-Read Files | Index | Creationism | Evolution | Age of the Earth | Flood Geology | Catastrophism | Debates