For centuries, if not millennia, before 1600, carvable materials had been coming out of northern Eurasia along with descriptions of large buried monsters. Of the surviving written descriptions, it's clear that many of them refer to fossil mammoth ivory and frozen mammoth carcasses, but, with many of the descriptions, it's less clear what the writers referred to. For historians and biologists, one of the biggest problems in sorting these descriptions out is, that the ancient writers used a large number of different terms and, lacking a common terminology, it's almost impossible to determine what they were referring to. In the 1690s, the word "mammoth" came out of Siberia and was adopted by the intellectual community of Western Europe. While this improved matters considerably, it also created some ambiguities of its own.
Four separate accounts, published in the West in the 1690s, used some form of the word mammoth to describe ivory found in Siberia and also gave some kind of clue as to the sort of animal that the ivory came from. All four learned the word from the Russians. While it's clear the word was well established in the Russian language by the time these travelers visited, it's harder to determine exactly when the Russians adopted it. There are, however, clues.
There is absolutely no indication that the word was known to the Russians prior to Yermak's invasion of western Siberia. That establishes a baseline of 1584. The first clear description of a mammoth tusk comes twenty five years later from Josias Logan describing the purchase of a tusk at Pechora: "There use to come hither in the Winter about two thousand Samoieds with their Commodities, which may be such as we dreamed not on yet. For by chance one came to us with a piece of an Elephants Tooth, which he said he bought of a Samoied." Logan recognized the tusk as from an elephant, but doesn't mention what the native traders called it. Writing in 1880, Leopold von Schrenck, the director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg and a first rate a zoologist and ethnographer in his own right (he has two fish, a bird, a snake, and a butterfly named after him), wrote that the Samoyeds called the mammoth Iengora, the stallion or master of the Earth. This neither proves nor disproves whether Logan heard the word mammoth or any stories about it but, if he did, he missed a fabulous opportunity to make my life easier.
The first record of the word comes in 1620. Two years earlier, Richard James sailed to Russia as part of an embassy from King James I, first of the Stuart dynasty, to Tsar Mikhail, first of Romanov dynasty. Since the ambassador returned to England before they had even reached Moscow, the embassy was a complete failure. After loitering around Moscow for seven months the rest of the party packed up and headed home. Arriving in Archangel, they discovered that their ship had sailed without them. The leaders of the party set out overland to hire a ship in another port, leaving James and the lower ranking members to wait for the next English ship. That turned out to be almost a year later. Once again loitering around a Russian city with nothing to do, James wrote down some Russian songs, poetry and created a lexicon of some of the more curious Russian words that he learned. Among them is this: "Maimanto, as they say, a sea Elephant, which is never seene, but according to the Samites, he workes himself under grownde and so they find his teeth or homes or bones in Pechare and Nova Zemla, of which they make table men in Russia." The entry makes three important points: that the Russians, at least in the far North, were using a form of the word mammoth by 1620, that the Samites (probably the Samoyeds) believed the animal lived underground, and that the mammoth was the source of fossil ivory that they collected. James never published his notes and the manuscripts were eventually deposited in the Bodleian Library.
The four accounts published in the 1690s were Father Philippe Avril (Travels in various States of Europe and Asia, in French, 1691), Nicolaas Witsen (North and East Tartary, in Dutch, 1694), Heinrich Ludolf (Russian Grammar, in Latin, 1696), and Everard Ysbrand Ides (Three Years Travels from Moscow over-land to China, in German, 1698, and Dutch, 1704). It was from Ludolf that word made its way into English.
Note: My blogging betters tell me that its better to populate your blog with many short, quick reads that with long, in depth posts. I'm going to test that theory by covering the Western travelers in Russian and observers of mammothdom in ones and twos. This way I can put something up every day and build the suspense so that lots of people come, pumping up my stats and sending me lots of linky goodness. At least that's the theory.