Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Do you mammoth?

"Now entire villages are surviving on the trade in mammoth bones. And a new verb has entered the vernacular: mamontit, or "to mammoth" -- meaning, to go out in search of bones."

The LA Times has an article about one of the side-effects of the ongoing 'shrinkage' of permafrost in Russia (likely due to global warming): more mammoth carcasses are turning up. So much so, in fact, that it's engendered a whole industry based on the recovery and exportation of mammoth ivory. While the scale of this 'industry' is increasingly staggering, as the article notes, it's not exactly a novel phenomenon, although the intensity at which it's now unfolding certainly is

In truth, this trade is not entirely novel. Man has been hunting mammoths in Russia's icy north as far as memory reaches. The permafrost holds bones that bear workmanship from the Stone Age -- which scientists in Siberia sometimes call the "bone age" in homage to the many weapons and tools hacked from mammoth bones.

What is most troubling about this is the fact that frozen mammoths are a non-renewable resource (that just sounds odd to write!). Really, just like archaeological sites, every mammoth carcass potentially offers a wealth of evidence about the biology and behavior of these extinct animals, most of which will be lost unless it is properly recovered at the find spot. Not paying sufficient attention to context results in that much less information we can get on those shaggy beasts. I'm fully sympathetic to the 'people are doing this so they can eat' argument; that said, most of the people interviewed on the record in the article don't exactly seem to be part of the huddled masses this new form of 'mammoth hunting' purports to save from a life of misery. In fairness, one of the bone hunters does mention they're getting 'carbon' dates from the remains, but how good is the association, and what happens if the date is useless due to contamination or whatnot? And shouldn't they also be collecting DNA samples and contextual paleoenvironmental data? I don't know... the whole piece strikes me as describing more the culture modern 'mammoth cowboys' (and it's not flattering) than any kind of legitimate, justified and ultimately scientifically useful practices.


Sol said...

Do we really need carbon dates for mammoths? Aren't we on pretty solid footing when it comes to their timeline? I could see dates being useful if we're also looking at bone chemistry and stuff like that, but just by itself?

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Sol -
I agree with you that 'floating' radiocarbon dates are pretty useless. Ideally, you want to be able to contextualize them with other information. As for the dating of mammoths, we have a decent idea of the timeline of their disappearance in that area, but they could be useful for a number of other things, for instance, tracking how long permafrost has been in place in certain regions and whether or not the current pattern of thawing follows any prior historical pattern. I don't know... the way it's casually tossed off in conversation in the article kinda makes it sounds likes it's some manner of making the collection of these remains look more controlled than it actually is.

Maju said...

I watched a documentary on this, ehm, "industry" some time ago and got the impression that the ivory hunters do collaborate actively with archaeologists, univeristies and museums, among other reasons because they also sell some of the best individuals to them. All they want is the tusks, not the skeletons... unless they can make a deal with some museum about that.

On one hand it's a "environmentally friendly" source of ivory and of work in an impoverished area, on the other hand it does seem to help archaeologists, biologists, universities and museums. However there's indeed something disturbing about all it.

But, in a capitalist, profit-driven, context, I guess it could be worst.

In any case, it seems to me that it's global warming more than the ivory industry what is actually threatening the deposits. Meanwhile the activity of the ivory prospectors may help unravel some archaeological and/or paleo-biological data too.

Eadwacer said...

I am not sure what viable alternatives are available.
1. Permafrost melts.
2. Mammoth is exposed. then
3.A. Mammoth hunters collect and report and some data becomes available, or
3.B. No one hunts mammoth any more. Carcass thaws, and is eaten by wolverines. Wolverine biologists become extremely confused.
Is there a third option?

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju, Eadwacer -
thanks for the comments. I guess I'm just more pessimistic about how much effective oversight there can really be on this practice. On the one hand, sure, it's better to collect the mammoth remains rather than letting them be destroyed, even if we don't get much in the way of additional information. On the other hand, my gut-level impression is that the fact that this practice is tolerated - if not all out condoned - by the authorities probably has as an unintended side effect to make people seek out remains and carcasses and yank them out of the ground, where they could have probably survived a while longer if there wasn't such an interest in ivory. Plus, on the basis of the quotes in the article, there definitely seems to be a certain degree of condescension from the 'experts' involved in the trade and many of the folks going out and finding the bones and tusks, with an emphasis on the fact that these remains are potential commodities as opposed to explaining how they could have even greater scientific value if recovered properly and in their entirety.


Anne Gilbert said...

I've heard similar comments about some human origins sites. Of course, nobody's looking for "salable" material in such sites, though some "fossil hunters" did just that early in the 20th century, which makes some of these sites hard to date today.
Anne G