Saturday, August 01, 2009

Mammoth on ice

This is too fun not to share. While looking for some pictures to use in another post, I came across this.

Yvette Gayrard-Valy and Herbert Thomas, Les fossiles, empreinte des mondes disparus (Fossils, imprint of vanished worlds) 1987

According to the back cover (and Google Translate), it's a short history of paleontology. The current edition (2000) has a non-frivolous photo of an Ammonite on the cover. This is, apparently, what the publisher's art director thought was an appropriate representation of the science of paleontology in 1987. He was probably recycling the artwork from an out-of-print adolescent adventure story.* Gayrard-Valy and Thomas must have been thrilled by the choice.

This got me thinking about the old mammoth in an ice cube motif.** It's an old staple of boy's adventure stories. Usually, the mammoth is seen deep in an surprisingly transparent glacier--real glaciers are not at all clear--standing upright while looking both life-like and sinister.

Samuel Scoville's "The Boy Scouts of the North; or, The Blue Pearl," was serialized in issues of St. Nicholas Magazine, in 1919-20. In the story, three plucky scouts and a token grown-up/side-kick head into the Arctic looking for the legendary blue pearl. Along the way they are tested by sporting and hunting competitions, are adopted by blond Eskimos, and fend off attacks by bears, walruses, killer otters, cougars (the feline variety not the feminine one), and a giant squid. Chapter 10 (August 1920) brings them face to face Mahmut, the monster.
As the boy looked up at the wall of transparent ice which towered above them a strangled cry of alarm broke from his parted lips. There, frozen in a solid block of clear ice, towered a monster such as had not walked this earth for ten times ten thousand years. Unburied from the grave where it had rested, untouched by time, and intact as when some unknown fate had overtaken it when the last Ice Age overwhelmed the earth, the monstrous creature, standing erect, seemed ready to step forth out of an age-long sleep. ... There was something sinister and menacing in the great beast's appearance. The wicked little pig eyes were set much farther back than those of an elephant; and they were wide open, seeming to threaten the boy as he looked at them. Almost he expected to see the huge trunk upraise and to face the terrible charge of those curved tusks, as when the mammoth fought the hairy rhinoceros on those northern plains...

Mahmut, the monster. "The Boy Scouts of the North; or, The Blue Pearl," was serialized in issues of St. Nicholas Magazine, August 1920, p. 897.

H. Rider Haggard, in one of the last of his Allan Quatermain stories gave us his frozen mammoth in Allan and the Ice Gods, published posthumously in 1927.
Deep in the face of the ice, the length of three paces away, only to be seen in certain lights, was one of the gods who for generations had been known to the tribe as the Sleeper because he never moved. Wi could not make out much about him, save that he seemed to have a long nose as thick as a tree at its root and growing smaller toward the end. On each side of this nose projected a huge curling tusk that came out of a vast head, black in colour and covered with red hair, behind which swelled an enormous body...

The SciFi channel gave us one of the most memorable contributions to the genre in the movie Mammoth. In which a zombie mammoth escapes from crystal-clear block of ice to prowl the Louisiana bayous is search of blood. How that block of ice came to be Louisiana is never explained, but fortunately, Summer Glau and Tom Skerit are there to re-freeze the zombie mammoth.

Dr. Frank Abernathy (Vincent Ventresca) checks out the zombie mammoth

Those stories and a hundred others like them are fiction. None of you will be surprised to hear the mammoth in an ice cube motif is common in pseudoscience and forbidden history circles--the next best thing to fiction. In an essay on crypotozoology, J. Rainsnow chose to remain neutral on whether or not their were still mammoths in the world--real ones, not zombies like in the movie--by saying:
Regardless of whether or not living mammoths still roam the earth, Siberia has produced numerous examples of frozen mammoth carcasses, which are periodically yielded by the ice of melting glaciers, disinterred by the sun and returned to the world of the present.

In the internet age, the glacial mammoth has made its way into various chat rooms and fora. In its most recent incarnations the motif is used a a straw man argument about the dumb things orthodox scientists, or "scientists," believe. This one comes from a 2004 thread about the Beresovka Mammoth on the conspiracy and UFO site Above Top Secret. In the first post, BlackJackal writes:
Here is how scientists have attempted to explain the amazing freezing mammoth.

Theory # 1

Huge herds of mammoths used t [sic] roam the tundra feeding off the grasses, reeds, and other plants that still cover the land in summer. Every now and then one of them would get trapped in ice or would fall to its death down a crevasse in a glacier, there the carcass would freeze and be preserved almost unchanged forever.

BlackJackal wastes no time in demolishing that straw man. His victory was so impressive that SpicyGirl decided to repeat it at Political Debates and Polls in a 2008 thread on "Fluid Mechanics, The Fossil Record and the Flood" (you knew creationists were going to get into this, didn't you?):
Now lets get into some of the quoted claims that others have made.

1. We have the claim that huge herds of mammoths would roam in the tundra feeding off of the grass, reeds and other plants that cover the land in the summer. And every now and then one of them would fall to its death down a crevasse in a glacier, there the carcases would freeze and be preserved.

SpicyGirl takes more time than BlackJackal to kill the straw man, but her victory is just as complete. Unfortunately, this particular straw man is like the villain of a slasher movie; just when you think he's finally, really dead, he gets up one more time. Project Avalon Forum, a site dedicated to defending against Illuminati type conspiracies, including the plot by environmentalists to covertly kill off most of the human race. On a climate change denial thread, this was posted by Jack:
Theory # 1

Huge herds of mammoths used t [sic, again] roam the tundra feeding off the grasses, reeds, and other plants that still cover the land in summer. Every now and then one of them would get trapped in ice or would fall to its death down a crevasse in a glacier, there the carcass would freeze and be preserved almost unchanged forever.

I'm going to assume that Jack is the same person as BlackJackal and not a plagiarist like SpicyGirl. Apparently, he wasn't satisfied by the response he got at Above Top Secret and decided to try it again. The Project Avalon crowd didn't have any more to say about than the Above Top Secret crowd, so we will probably see this assault on Mr. Strawman show up again.

SpicyGirl wasn't the first creationist or flood geologist to call the frozen mammoths to her aid. She probably won't be the last. Dr. Walt Brown, the founder and director of the Center for Scientific Creation in Phoenix, is an old school Young Earth creationist. He's fond of issuing debate challenges accompanied by elaborate lists of conditions. He explains his version of flood geology in his online book, In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood (you can order a nice hardbound copy of the book from his ministry). Naturally, frozen mammoths are evidence for his theory. The mammoth in the glacier, however, shows up in the straw man role to show what silly scientists believe. He believes the mammoths were killed and frozen by a forty day and forty night hailstorm. He lists nine theories which include Hapgood's pole shift theory and the flood geology idea preferred by Kan Ham's group, Answers in Genesis.
Lake Drowning Theory. No catastrophe occurred. The well-preserved mammoths, with food in their stomachs and between their teeth, died suddenly, probably from asphyxiation resulting from drowning in a partially frozen lake, river, or bog. Such burials can preserve animal—and even human—tissue for thousands of years.

Crevasse Theory. Some mammoths fell into ice crevasses or deep snowdrifts. This protected them from predators, while ice preserved them for thousands of years.

The list of competing theories is followed by a table showing how real science--meaning his science--proves each theory wrong.

My personal favorite pseudoscience/forbidden history idea has always been the hollow earth. For those not familiar with the idea, the hollow-earthers believed that the Earth and other planets are hollow balls with giant openings at the poles lit by their own tiny suns in the center. The inner surface has gravity similar to the outer surface and is inhabited. A pedigree for the idea can be constructed that goes back to the underworld found in most mythologies. The direct lineage of the idea as a supposedly scientific concept springs from an attempt by Edmund Halley to explain variations in the Earth's magnetic field by visualizing the interior of the Earth as a series of onion-like, rigid concentric shells that each rotates at a slightly different speed.

Marshall Gardner's 1913 self-published hollow earth book Journey to the Earth's Interior, or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered? placed the mammoths in drifting icebergs, which were, of course, proof positive for Gardner's theories.
We further claim that the fresh remains of their bodies which have been found in Siberia are those of mammoths which in their wanderings came a little further south than usual-for the climate around the polar openings would be quite warm enough for them, and that these animals fell in to ice crevasses in places from which they were carried to the present situations by the movements of the ice-by those great glaciers which have from time to time been referred to in accounts of Greenland.

Gardner's idea about the mammoths was that, first of all, they were tropical animals just like elephants. They came to Siberia by wandering too close to the North Polar hole, where they were flash frozen into ice bergs and drifted out to the Siberian coast. Gardner's idea was adopted by most later hollow-earthers.

Gardner's Hollow Earth. Mammoths in icebergs drift out through the North Polar opening. From Gardner's Journey to the Earth's Interior, or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered?, p. 324.

The best selling hollow earth book is Dr. Raymond Bernard's (real name Walter Siegmeister) The Hollow Earth which came out in 1964 and has been reprinted by a half-dozen different publishers since. Bernard's consists largely of enormous block quotes from Gardner, William Reed (Phantom of the Poles, 1906), and Ray Palmer's various UFO magazines. Bernard makes explicit the iceberg theory and uses a straw man version of what orthodox scientists believe:
Inside the icebergs, the mammoth and other huge tropical animals, believed to be of prehistoric origin because never seen on the Earth's surface, have been found in a perfect state of preservation. ... The usual explanation is that these are prehistoric animals which lived in the Arctic region at the time when it had a tropical climate, and that the coming of the Ice Age, suddenly converted the Arctic from a tropical to a frigid zone and froze them before they had time to flee southward.

An Arctic explorer is amazed to discover a mammoth in an iceberg. From Gardner's Journey to the Earth's Interior, or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered?, p. 222.

As an actual case study of a mammoth in an iceberg, Gardner cites the Adams Mammoth, the first complete mammoth carcass recovered and one of the most famous mammoths of all time. For most of the story, Gardner uses a block quote from an 1884 book The World's Wonders As Seen by the Great Tropical and Polar Explorers... by James William Buel***. Here's what Buel had to say:
In 1799 a fisherman of Tongoose, named Schumachoff, discovered a tremendous elephant—perfect as when, a thousand years before,death had arrested its breath—encased in a huge block of ice, clear as crystal. This man, like his neighbors, was accustomed, at the end of the fishing season, to employ his time in hunting for elephant tusks along the banks of the Lena River, for the sake of the bounty offered by the government... [S]uddenly there appeared before his wondering eyes the miraculous sight above alluded to. But this man was ignorant and superstitious, and instead of hastening to announce his wonderful discovery for the benefit of science, he stupidly gazed upon it in wonder and awe, not daring to approach it. ... At last he found the imprisoned carcass stranded on a convenient sand-bank, and boldly attacked it, broke the glittering casing, and roughly despoiling the great beast of its splendid tusks, hurried home and sold them for fifty roubles.

Buel never uses the word "iceberg," but his description of a "huge block of ice" that becomes "stranded on a convenient sand-bank" can't be mistaken for anything else.

The imperial nineteenth century didn't treat the memory of Ossip Schumachoff very well. Besides the gratuitous insults heaped on him by Buel, he was almost completely deprived of credit for his discovery. History and paleontology know the mammoth as the Adams Mammoth, after the man who bought the mammoth remains from Schumachoff and took them to St. Petersburg. We only know Schumachoff's name because Adams was gracious enough to give his full name and quote Schumachoff's version of the story of the discovery in his (Adams') report on recovering the remains. An English language version of his report was published in The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal in 1807 soon after he filed the French original with the St. Petersburg Academy. In reading Adams' report, we can see that Buel's purple prose introduced some incorrect details into the story including the iceberg image. Adams makes clear that the block of ice that encased the mammoth had broken off from a ridge at the center of an isthmus several versts (kilometers) wide. Adams also mentions seeing other mammoth bones "frozen between fissures of the rocks." While Adams' terminology isn't always clear, what is clear is that he was not describing a drifting iceberg.

None of the hundred or so frozen mammoths discovered in the last three centuries was found in a glacier or iceberg. They were found in frozen soil, indicating that they were covered with mud soon after death. If no mammoth was found in that condition, what is the source of, what can only be called, the urban legend of the mammoth in an ice cube. I can identify a couple of possible suspects.

Adams' report might share a large part of the blame for the myth. As I said, his language isn't always completely clear. Adams describes the block in which the mammoth was found and the ridge from which the block fell as "rock ice." Later in the century, after the concept of ice ages caught on, "rock ice" (or stone ice or dead ice) was the term used to describe stagnant parts of glaciers that had become buried by wind-blown soil. The insulating qualities of the soil preserve the ice for centuries, even millenia, after the rest of the glacier has melted away. Explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Baron Toll, as well as textbook authors like Sir Archibald Geikie, all described that specific section of the Siberian coast as being underlain by rock ice and specifically mention that rock ice as containing mammoth remains. The problem is, that part of Siberia wasn't glaciated during the ice ages. The wind that carried the moisture to form the ice sheets was completely snowed out by the time it reached that part of Siberia and the Siberian mammoth steppe was actually drier than at present. What Adams may have been trying to describe was a large ice lens. An ice lens is an layer of solid ice that forms on the border between true permafrost and the surface soil that seasonally thaws. An ice lens, while still cloudy, is much clearer than the surrounding frozen soil. Whatever it was that he was trying to describe, the Schumachoff/Adams Mammoth was the best known mammoth for the entire nineteenth century and impressions gleaned from his report decisively influenced the formation of popular images of frozen mammoths.

Another, and probably quite important influence on the persistence of the legend, is public's general unfamiliarity with the Arctic. While most people do know what permafrost is--frozen earth--they're missing an understanding of what permafrost does to the surface of the far north. If the ground is frozen a few feet beneath the surface is means the water from melting snow can't soak in. It stays on the surface. All lowlands are muddy bogs and in the Springtime the rivers flow all over the place, carving new channels and burying things in mud which freezes and gets added to the permafrost. Cartoon stereotypes of a land of snow and ice don't involve any soil at all. For most people, the first image that comes to mind when they hear the word "frozen" is ice. Therefore, "frozen mammoth" means "mammoth in ice." In the nineteenth century, explorers and scientists were just beginning to understand the nature of the Arctic and the processes that had created it. Even they would have occasionally made that association.

A third suspect, is the Benkendorf Mammoth. Gardner and Brown both call on this infamous mammoth to support their theories. The story of the Benkendorf Mammoth is that it was discovered standing upright and bobbing up and down in a river by an engineering survey team. Although the mammoth wasn't described as being in block of clear ice, the image of a life-like frozen mammoth, standing upright, and bobbing up and down in the water, just like a block of ice would, fits very nicely into the mammoth in an ice cube myth. The punchline to the Benkendorf Mammoth is, that although it has been cited by various writers both fringe and reputable (Donald Prothero for one), it never existed. The engineer Benkendorf and his mammoth came out of a German children's book.

Walt Brown, while demolishing the Creavasse Theory straw man, placed blame for the idea on Charles Lyell, one of the most important geologists of the nineteenth century. This attribution serves a double purpose for Brown, he makes his straw man more credible by attaching a specific name to it and he discredits orthodox geology by going after one of its founders. Brown accuses Lyell in two places.
Charles Lyell, the most influential founder of modern geology, advocated this theory to explain some frozen mammoths.


Mammoths are encased in ice. Their preservation is complete. Charles Lyell popularized this myth by writing that mammoth remains are found in icebergs and frozen gravel.

I'd like to say Brown is making this up, but he isn't. His reference is to the first edition (1830) of Lyell's Principles of Geology:
That the mammoth, however, continued for a long time to exist in Siberia after the winters had become extremely cold, is demonstrable, since their bones are found in icebergs, and in the frozen gravel, in such abundance as could only have been supplied by many successive generations.


When valleys have become filled with ice, as those of Spitzbergen, the contraction of the mass causes innumerable deep rents, such as are seen in the mer de glace on Mont Blanc. These deep crevices usually become filled with loose snow, but sometimes a thin covering is drifted across the mouth of the chasm, capable of sustaining a certain weight. Such treacherous bridges are liable to give way when heavy animals are crossing, which are then precipitated at once into the body of a glacier, which slowly descends to the sea, and becomes a floating iceberg. As bears, foxes, and deer now abound in Spitzbergen, we may confidently assume that the imbedding of animal remains in the glaciers of that island must be an event of almost annual occurrence.

If Lyell really did mention mammoths falling glacial crevasses, is it fair to call Brown's dismissal of the theory a straw man? I'm going to say it is fair. Brown is making an effort make his flood geology the last man standing, by eliminating all of its competitors. For Crevasse Theory to be a competitor, he would need to give some evidence that someone still believes it. Lyell only offered the theory as a possibility; he doesn't push the idea beyond this suggestion. By the third edition of Principles (1834), both mentions of icebergs had been dropped. In the fourth edition (1835), the crevasses of Spitzbergen were dropped. In most of the later editions, Lyell put forth a scenario in which mammoths lived in a warmer climate further south and that their bodies were washed to the Arctic coast by flooding rivers. He went on to say that the coast itself was further south in those days and that the general climate was warmer. It was the change in the coastline that made Siberia as cold as it is today. He added that if it was true that some mammoths were found in solid ice they could have gotten in that condition by getting frozen trapped in while crossing in the fall, or by becoming buried in snow, as in an avalanche, which later hardened into ice. These possibilities were extraordinary circumstances and not the source of most of the frozen mammoths.

What a real frozen mammoth looks like. The Berezovka Mammoth during recovery, 1901.

In the end, the mammoth in an ice cube motif probably doesn't spring from any one source. It was brewed from a combination of nineteenth century elements. Scientists in new fields struggled to assemble a basic framework within which they could even begin to define the problems they would tackle. The word "geology," as the name for various earth sciences was first used in 1778. Paleontology, as a science separate from geology, didn't have a name until 1834. Many basic concepts of the fields, deep time, organic origin of fossils, evolution, extinction, slow geologic change, ice ages, came into existence during a century or so ending in the 1840s. Adams, Lyell and their contemporaries were inventing a language for their fields. Naturally, there were communication problems. Even today, people who have never been to the Arctic have a hard time grasping the nature of the seasons, soil, climate, and sheer scale of it. In the nineteenth century, vast swaths of the north were unexplored and even the experts were still figuring the place out.

Like most bad ideas and urban legends, mammoth in an ice cube motif is impossible to stamp out. Even the people who most should know better, science journalists and educators, still fall back on it as a shorthand more complex ideas.

This is from a USA Today story that was run last year:
Anthropologist David Overstreet helped excavate the fossils from cornfields in southeastern Wisconsin. He discounts the idea that the mammoth may have become frozen in a glacier and had its meat scraped off after it thawed 1,000 years later.

This is from the class notes a 100 level Geology class taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater last semester.
Review questions for April
6. Which one of the following is NOT a fossil?
a. an insect trapped in amber 20 million years ago
b. a frozen mammoth preserved in a glacier in Siberia that died in the last ice age 1 million years ago
c. dinosaur footprints in a sandstone layer
d. an Egyptian death mask dating back to 4000 years
e. all of the above are fossils by definition

I'm sure there's a bus load of object lessons for the science communication crowd, but I'm not going to join that particular holy war. I'm an intellectual history guy. The mammoth in an ice cube motif is only a tiny part of how frozen mammoths have been used by catastrophists, creationists, and popular culture. I have lots more to say about this topic.

* It's not an uncommon practice. I remember working in a bookstore in the mid-eighties and being puzzled by a new edition of Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich that used the cover art from a mid-seventies edition of Frank Herbert's Dune.

** Remember "motif"? That's what we old people said before "meme". Does anyone except English and Art History majors still say "motif"?

*** Bernard blockquotes Gardner blockquoting Buel. These guys were natural-born bloggers.

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