Former native range off the woolly mammoth (red), including the ice age land bridge Beringia (light red).
300,000 years of evolution
The mammoth lineage branched from the Asian elephant around 6 million years ago. The earliest fossils are from Mammuthus meridionalis (southern mammoth), which gave rise to Mammuthus trogontherii (steppe mammoth), the largest mammoth to ever live. Then, around 300,000 years ago in eastern Siberia evolved the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius. The woolly mammoth spread to Europe and North America over Beringia. Slightly smaller than living African elephants, it thrived through many ice ages foraging on steppe grasslands until 10,000 years ago when their numbers began to decline. The last woolly mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago.
30,000 years of symbolism
Fascination with mammoths is no new phenomenon. The mammoth is intimately tied to human history. Not only were mammoths hunted; they were also idolized. The oldest figurative art in Europe include mammoth carvings. Cave paintings of mammoths are among the oldest known art in the world (Chauvet Cave, south France, 32,000 years old). Over 100 mammoth paintings adorn the walls of Rouffignac cave (20,000 years old). Mammoth bones were used to make tools as well as art and were even used in burials. At a 15,000 year old village in the Ukraine, Mezhyrich, people constructed four huts out of mammoth bones.
Carved mammoth figurine from Swabian Jura plateau, Germany. 35,000 years old.
Chauvet Cave mammoth art, south France. 30,000 years old.
Rouffignac Cave mammoth painting, France. 20,000 years old.
300 years of paleontology
Mammoth bones were thought to be the remains of biblical giants, until the physician Hans Sloane identified them as the remains of elephants in 1728. French anatomist Georges Cuvier, in 1796, was the first to suggest that mammoth fossils were not from living elephants, but represented a different species now extinct. Extinction was only a theory at the time. In fact, President Thomas Jefferson was convinced that mammoths and mastodon would be discovered by the 1803 Lewis and Clark expedition in the unexplored west of the Louisiana Purchase. When the blank spaces on the map of the world were filled in and no living mammoths found, the idea of extinction elevated from hypothesis to fact. To date many mammoth skeletons have been unearthed, even wholly preserved mummified carcasses of mammoth calves.
DNA reveals that Columbian and woolly mammoths hybridized.
30 years of genetics
The first isolation of mammoth DNA was achieved in 1985. Since then, the mammoth has been the model species for advancing the field of paleogenomics. Small fragments of mitochondrial DNA were eventually sequenced, confirming the kinship of the Asian elephant and woolly mammoth. Mitochondrial genomes of mammoth specimens spanning over 50,000 years have shown that mammoths not only migrated from Asia to North America, but back again. DNA has also shown that woolly mammoths hybridized with their larger cousins, the North American Columbian mammoths. Mammoth DNA found in sediment layers has revealed that mammoths survived until 7,000 years ago in the interior of Alaska. Currently the nuclear genome of the mammoth, nearly 5 billion base pairs of DNA, is being assembled by an international team of scientists. This full genome assembly will guide continued de-extinction efforts.
Woolly mammoth migration into and out of North America occurred over thousands of years over the Beringian land bridge.
Sulerzhitsky, Leopold D., Stuarta, Anthony J., et. al. “The latest woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach) in Europe and Asia: a review of the current evidence” Quaternary Science Reviews, 21 1559–1569, (2002)