W oolly mammoths have long captivated the human imagination. During the last ice age, known as the Pleistocene epoch, the animals’ habitat stretched across North America and Eurasia, as far south as Spain. Still-extant ivory carvings and cave paintings attest to their place in human lore. Some evidence suggests that in addition to eating the huge beasts, modern humans and our Neanderthal cousins may have used their bones and tusks as building materials. Indeed, a freshly-killed woolly mammoth must have represented enormous riches to prehistoric people: adults stood up to 3.7 metres tall and weighed as much as eight tons. Their curved tusks typically grew to several metres long.
But as the climate warmed, the habitat where woolly mammoths thrived became scarce. Human hunting likely also played a part in their downfall. By the time the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene epoch, around 10,000 years ago, the species was nearly extinct. Eventually only a handful persisted, on islands off of present-day Russia and Alaska, and after hundreds of thousands of years on Earth, the species’ run finally ended around 4,000 years ago.
Today, what remains of woolly mammoths continues to enthrall us. Mammoths frozen in the Siberian permafrost – some so well-preserved that they still sport flesh and fur – now sometimes yield DNA that can be used to reconstruct the sequence of the species’ genome. Armed with this genetic information, some scientists are even pushing to resurrect woolly mammoths, Jurassic Park–style, together with their ecosystem.
While it’s unclear whether we’ll one day be able to include live mammoths on a sightseeing itinerary, Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s upcoming auction Prehistoric Earth offers a different way of communing with the species: a fossilised skull, complete with nearly three-metre-long tusks. The skull, unearthed in Siberia, dates from the Middle Pleistocene – Late Holocene (2.6 million – 10,000 years ago), and its tusks are swirled with blue and blue-green. The colour comes thanks to a mineral called Vivianite, which can form in animal remains when they decompose under certain conditions. Named after mineralogist John Henry Vivian who discovered Vivianite in 1817 in England, the rare phosphate mineral forms only when three elements are abundantly present; iron-rich soil, water and phosphate. During the fossilisation process, as the tusks of Woolly Mammoths – which are abundant in phosphate – come into contact with iron and water, Vivianite is formed, gradually replacing the original tusk material.
Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s Global Head of Science & Popular Culture, notes that the blue and blue-green colours clearly differentiate the fossilised tusks from modern elephant ivory as this colouration can only occur following a fossilization process which takes thousands of years to occur.
“I think what's pretty exciting about woolly mammoths is that they are a creature that is fully extinct, but so close to us, so close to human existence – it's really something that we can have a closer connection to” than creatures from the more distant past such as dinosaurs, says Hatton. “Woolly Mammoths really spark human imagination, as they are much less abstract to us than dinosaurs. While they are now completely extinct, we can still feel a connection to them as they roamed the Earth with our human ancestors, unlike the dinosaurs which did not ever co-exist with humans. They are an important reminder that even a powerful and imposing animal such as the Mammoth can go extinct due to climate change and hunting by humans."