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10 Times Mammoth Tusks Told Fascinating Tales

by Jana Louise Smit
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Mammoths are elephants that went extinct thousands of years ago. To lift the veil of time and discover more about these magnificent mammals, researchers cracked open a few tusks. Mammoth ivory has rings and chemicals that read like a biography, detailing an animal’s life from birth to death.

Tusks also hold unexpected surprises. From a mysterious skull nobody can explain to a threat that made mammoths wean faster, here are 10 revealing insights into these iconic Ice Age beasts.

Related: Top 10 Amazing Prehistoric Creatures With Unexpected Adaptations

10 A Well-Traveled Lady

An Ancient Woolly Mammoth Left a Diary in Her Tusk

Woolly mammoths vanished between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. With the behemoths now gone, researchers don’t know much about their behavior. But in 2024, they released a case study of one mammoth that filled in some of the gaps.

Her name was Elma. The mammoth’s fossil was discovered in 2009 at Swan Point, an archaeological site in east-central Alaska. To piece together her history, scientists sliced her tusk lengthwise and studied the growth rings and chemicals present in the ivory.

The tusk revealed that Elma was born over 14,000 years ago in the Yukon in present-day northwest Canada. Here, she dwelled for ten years. Then, for some reason, the travel bug bit Elma. She migrated to what would later become Alaska. She clocked a magnificent 620 miles (997 km) in just three years—a lot of movement for a woolly mammoth.

She died young, aged 20. Since she was well-nourished and healthy at the time, and the animal perished near seasonal hunting camps, there’s a good chance that Elma fell prey to human hunters. It remains unclear why this female traveled so far, but a plausible explanation is that the Yukon suffered a shortage of food or water, and she sought sustenance elsewhere. Or maybe she just liked to walk.[1]

9 Woolly Mammoth Males Experienced Musth

What is Musth in Elephants?

In modern elephants, males experience musth. This condition, which happens every year and lasts for months, boosts testosterone to crazy levels. During this time, bull elephants have only two things on their minds—fight other males and woo the females. For a long time, scientists wondered if woolly mammoths also underwent musth.

In 2023, the first physical proof of mammoth musth was discovered. This gem came to light when a study compared the tusks of a modern adult male African elephant and a bull mammoth that lived around 37,000 years ago.

Researchers measured the testosterone levels in the tusks’ growth rings. They found that during musth, the modern elephant experienced huge hormone surges. The mammoth tusk had the same massive seasonal spike, providing clear proof that mammoths also experienced musth and all the behavioral traits that go with it.[2]

8 Oldest Jewelry in Eurasia

Why is IVORY so Precious ?

In 2010, a controversial object emerged from Stajnia Cave in Poland. The mammoth ivory artifact measured about 1.8 inches (4.5 cm) long and had two holes that suggested the item was a pendant for a necklace. However, it was broken, which likely caused the owner to discard it roughly 41,500 years ago in the cave.

A 2021 study dated the ivory using radiocarbon dating and 3-D models that allowed the researchers to examine the material’s finer details. Here’s where the controversy comes in. Not everyone in the scientific world accepts the idea that the pendant is 41,500 years old.

However, the researchers involved in the 2021 project are confident that peer review could confirm their conclusions one day. If so, it will be a big deal. This piece of mammoth tusk might represent the oldest ornate jewelry produced by Homo sapiens in Eurasia.[3]

7 The Story of Kik

Miles and Miles of Mammoth Migration

Knowing the full birth-to-death stories of specific Ice Age animals is very rare. Elma gave a decent “biography,” but another mammoth left behind a more detailed account of his life. Meet Kik, a male Arctic woolly mammoth.

Born 17,100 years ago in interior Alaska, the calf and his herd roamed the lower Yukon River basin for two years. The next 14 years saw Kik’s range grow as he took long journeys between the Brooks Range, the Alaska Range, and the Seward Peninsula. After age 16, Kik’s range widened once again as he likely left his herd to wander alone or with a group of other males. The mammoth journeyed between the North Slope of the Brooks Range and interior Alaska for years, probably following changes in seasonal grazing lands.

Incredibly, Kik walked enough miles in his lifetime to circle Earth twice. But during his last 18 months, the animal kept to the North Slope and no longer traveled great distances. Kik’s ivory revealed that he was starving during his final summer. It’s unknown whether the mammoth was sick or injured, but when he was 28 (a young age for his species), Kik collapsed and died in the Kikiakrorak River Valley.[4]

6 Mammoth Ivory Is Smuggled Too

Inside Russia’s Woolly Mammoth Tusk Trade

Everyone knows the sad story of the illegal ivory trade. Elephant populations are being decimated by poachers purely to harvest their tusks. There are many ways to combat this problem. One way is to map the path from poacher to buyer. In 2019, a group of researchers specifically focused on the illicit smuggling of ivory in Cambodia.

With Cambodia as the “buyer,” the researchers analyzed tusks and ivory carvings found in the country to track their origins. Predictably, a lot of it came from Africa. Then came a big surprise. Some of the ivory belonged to the Ice Age. As it turns out, a lot of woolly mammoth ivory is in circulation in Cambodia. This suggests that the trade in mammoth tusks is broader and more rampant than previously believed.

Some argue that mammoth tusks are more ethical (the animals are long dead, after all). Still, there’s no quick way to distinguish between elephant and mammoth ivory, making it easy for smugglers to kill elephants and pretend that they are selling legal 10,000-year-old fossils.[5]

5 Pygmy Mammoths Survived Climate Change

The Island of Shrinking Mammoths

Southern California’s Channel Islands were home to a unique mammoth species—the pygmy mammoth. These pony-sized animals vanished from the islands roughly 12,000 years ago. Many scientists blamed their extinction on climate change and the mammoth’s inability to adapt to a hotter environment.

The discovery of a tusk on Santa Rosa island quickly changed that narrative. It belonged to a pygmy that lived 80,000 years ago. To understand how this vindicated climate change as a mammoth killer, one needs to look at the timeline of when mammoths came to the islands.

Researchers now believe that the first mammoths swam from the mainland to the islands when the water was low, and the right time for this was 150,000 years ago. Millennia passed, and roughly 125,000 years ago, the region saw a severe climate change event that was even warmer than today. Since pint-sized woollies still roamed the islands 80,000 years ago, they clearly adapted to their new hot environment and lived happily for thousands of years more.[6]

4 The Oldest Ivory Workshop

The Woolly Mammoth: A Legend of the Cenozoic Era | Pre-Historic Animals Documentary

Mammoth ivory, not elephant tusk, was used in the world’s first ivory workshop. The latter was discovered in 2012 when archaeologists excavated a well-known mammoth hunting site called Breitenbach in Saxony-Anhalt. This enormous settlement once covered at least 64,583 square feet (6,000 sq m) and revealed a plethora of ancient finds, including the 35,000-year-old workshop.

The shop had two distinct working areas. One zone was apparently dedicated to splitting ivory into lamella, or thin layers. The other area served as a carving room that also contained the waste from working the ivory. This “trash” included beads, a decorated rod, unfinished products, and broken art pieces.

The workshop and the massive settlement almost certainly belonged to early modern humans. Nobody can say for sure where they got the ivory from, but they probably sourced it from animals that had died naturally or were killed by hunters.[7]

3 Hunting Made Mammoths Wean Faster

The last of the mammoths | Natural History Museum

Regarding mammoths, the cause of their extinction remains a hotly debated topic. The two main suspects are climate change and human hunting, or possibly a combination of both. According to a 2015 study, however, the needle of blame strongly points to people.

Scientists know that when modern elephants experience climate-related nutritional stress, mothers allow their young to suckle for longer. When herds are subjected to prolonged hunting, the calves tend to mature and wean faster. This delayed or accelerated development leaves recognizable chemical signatures in the animals’ tusks. The 2015 project looked for these signatures in Ice Age ivory to see if nature or humans put the most stress on mammoth populations.

Researchers analyzed 15 tusks from juvenile Siberian woolly mammoths. These animals perished between the ages of 3 and 12, and tellingly, they were maturing faster than normal. Their weaning age dropped from 8 to 5 years in the period leading up to their extinction. This suggested that mammoths experienced a lot of hunting for at least 30,000 years (the calves in the study lived between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago).[8]

2 Paleolithic Magic Debunked

Palaeolithic Rope-making Experiment

In 2015, a mammoth ivory artifact was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany. It measured about 8 inches (20.4 cm) long and had a row of four pencil-sized holes. There was no clear purpose to the stick. As archaeologists tend to do when faced with enigmatic objects, they labeled it as a ritual item, most likely a “magic wand” used for occult purposes.

A team of scientists from Germany and Belgium suspected the baton had a more practical explanation. In other words, they believed it was used to weave rope, not spells. Rope in the Paleolithic was an exceptionally valuable commodity, so it’s plausible to think that people would have invented rope-making tools.

To test their suspicions, the team created a replica of the artifact. The latter couldn’t be used since it had shattered into 13 pieces sometime in history. The size of the holes suggested that the device produced thick cords consisting of two to four strands. Trying several materials, individual strands were fed through the holes and woven. The best material turned out to be cattail, and within 10 minutes, the researchers created 16 feet (5 m) of quality rope.[9]

1 The Mysterious California Park Skull

How this remote national park made a mammoth discovery

In 2016, a skull was unearthed in a California park on Santa Rosa Island, where two species of mammoths once roamed—the enormous Columbian mammoth and the tiny pygmy mammoth.

The 13,000-year-old fossil was in superb condition. Even so, it caused more questions than answers. While it was clearly the head of a mammoth, it was too small to be a Columbian mammoth and too big to be a pygmy mammoth.

The skull was also not a juvenile Columbian because the tusks were a strange mix of adult and sub-adult. Bizarrely, the animal’s right tusk showed the trademark coil seen in adult mammoths, but the left tusk was short and sloped, like a juvenile’s.

This could even be a new species. After the Columbian mammoth swam over to the island, the animals experienced rapid dwarfism to adapt to the limited space, and the result was the pygmy mammoth. The skull could belong to a transitional species representing the halfway mark as the Columbian mammoth shrunk from 13.7 feet (4.2 m) to its 5.9 feet (1.8 m) pygmy form.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Jana Louise Smit

Jana earns her beans as a freelance writer and author. She wrote one book on a dare and hundreds of articles. Jana loves hunting down bizarre facts of science, nature and the human mind.

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