Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Boltunov's drawing

In the winter of 1803-4, Roman Boltunov, a merchant from Yakutsk, worked his way down the Lena River selling and trading his goods. At that time of year, the main currency of the native Sakha and Evenki* would have been freshly trapped furs. In March, Boltunov reached Kumak Surka, the last village before the Lena Delta. There, the local headman, Ossip Shumachov, showed him two very nice mammoth tusks, which Boltunov promptly bought for fifty rubles in goods. Mammoth tusks weren't exactly rare on the coast east of the delta, and he was always happy to buy them if they were in good condition. What was special about this pair was where Shumachov said he found them: They had still been attached to a mammoth.

Anyone who spent any amount of time in Siberia knew about mammoths. Their horns or teeth or whatever they were sometimes found in the northern part of the country, usually in the coast or on the banks of rivers and they were valuable. Over the last forty or fifty years a whole profession of ivory hunting had grown up around them. The mammoth animal itself was a mystery. No one had ever seen a live one. On very rare occasions, dead ones were found on river banks, their flesh still bloody, as if they had died only days before. The Siberians, Russian and native, had many legends about them. One of the most common was that seeing a mammoth corpse was bad luck and that they should be avoided. On the other hand, educated Russians from the West and other Europeans were quite interested in mammoths and would even pay for information about them.

Since Shumachov didn't seem particularly afraid of the mammoth, Boltunov was able to convince him to take him to place where the rest of the carcass was. This involved more than a day trip. The mammoth remains were on the far side of the Bykovsky Peninsula facing the Arctic Ocean. The route led across the Lena and over a high range of hills, two days each direction. But Shumachov was proud of his find and maybe a few more goods were exchanged to encourage him.

It was snowing heavily when they got there. Scavengers had already gotten to this large block of free meat and eaten parts of it. Much of the face had been torn away. Still, the majority of it was still there and in one piece. Boltunov cleared away enough snow to get a good look at it and examined the head. What he saw was bigger than any animal he had ever seen or heard of. It was covered with long rust-colored hair. It had a fat body and thick legs. He made some measurements on the spot. Later on, he wrote down some of the details and, on the opposite side of the same sheet, made a drawing from memory. He was correct that the trip would be worthwhile; when he returned to Yakutsk the head of the merchant’s guild bough his notes and drawing. This is the first reconstruction that we have of a mammoth that is based on more than just bones.

Two years later, the drawing came to the attention of an Adjunct member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Adams, a botanist who passed through Yakutsk on his way to collect specimens on the lower Lena. Though he was not impressed with the drawing—he described it as "very incorrect"—Adams dutifully forwarded it to the Academy with the notice that he was going directly to Kumak Surka to see if anything of the mammoth could be saved. The Academy was extremely excited by the discovery and published Boltunov's notes as a letter in their popular Russian language newspaper, Technological Journal.** Adams continued the coast and was able to recover most of the bones, three quarters of the skin, and a large sack of hair.

Sixty years later, Karl von Baer went looking for Boltunov's drawing. Baer is usually remembered as the father of embryology, but he also did geological research in the Russian Arctic and was interested in mammoths. Baer could not find the original in the Academy archives but he knew copies of it had been sent abroad. Wilhelm Keferstein at Göttingen University was able to find one among the papers of Johann Blumenbach. Baer suspected that it might even have been the original. It’s probably a copy. Wilhelm Tilesius, writing around 1810, said the original was still in the Academy archives. Keferstein sent Baer a sketch based on Blumenbach’s document and a transcription of the notes on the document. Baer was nice enough to write it up and publish it where I could find it. Copies of Keferstein's sketch were published in several journals at the time. The drawing along with the hair and skin samples are preserved in the Göttingen museum.

Roman Boltunov’s reconstruction of the dead mammoth on Bykovsky Peninsula, 1804. This is the first reconstruction of a mammoth based on more than bones. Source.

Adams wrote that the drawing was "very incorrect…something between a pig and an elephant." Tilesius called it "a poor drawing of a monstrous figure…a most inexperienced and unskilled work." At first glance it's hard to disagree with them. But, considering the information he had to work with, it’s not a bad reconstruction. It demonstrates an intelligent mind and an active curiosity attempting to extract the most information possible from a small amount of information. It is very possible, even likely, that Boltunov had never seen a picture of an elephant and had no reference point for elephantness. He would, however, have seen a boar. Most large mammals he would have been familiar with—dogs, cattle, horses, reindeer—had long relatively thin legs and heads that rose up from the body. Only bears and pigs had thick bodies, heavier legs, and heads that protruded forward from the body. Whether consciously or subconsciously, he used a boar as a model to fill the gaps in his knowledge.

The trunk was gone when he saw the carcass; the base of the trunk could very well have resembled a pig's snout. The tusks in his drawing look bizarre; one seems to be pointing up while the other points down. Baer believed that Boltunov was inexpertly trying to indicate that he believed the tusks should have pointed outward. Even in Baer's time, most scientists believed they pointed outward. The tusks are correctly placed in the upper jaw, not in the lower as they would have been in a boar. The way the tusks are pushed together in the snout is also correct. Mammoth’s tusks start much closer together than those of living elephants. At the top of the drawing is a separate drawing a mammoth’s tooth, which would have been very different from any mammal he was familiar with.

The drawing shows tiny ears on top of the mammoth’s head, which do not match Boltunov's written description. In the latter, he says the ears were six arshins (about eleven inches) long and on the “outside” of the head. I suspect this contradiction means he wrote his notes and made his drawing at two different times. The eyes are far too high on the head. This I think is a result of faulty memory. The skin around the eyes and top of the head was still there when Adams arrives two years later. The body is more elephant-like than boar-like, boxy with pillar legs and a short tail. The only boar-like details on the body are what appear to be fetlocks and thin hooves. Finally, Boltunov drew little lines around the mammoth that show the hair running the full length of its body.

Adams would have done well not to have dismissed Boltunov so quickly. Boltunov saw the mammoth a full two years before Adams when the carcass was in much better condition. By comparing Boltunov's observations with his own, Adams would have avoided some of the mistakes that he made. The mammoth still had its tail when Boltunov saw it. He not only drew the tail, he measured and took note of its length. The tail was gone when Adams arrived and he concluded that the mammoth never had had one. Most of the hair was still on the mammoth when Boltunov saw it and his drawing shows hair the same length over most of the body. Most of the hair had fallen off by the time Adams arrived and, based on where he found hair on the ground, he concluded that the mammoth had a great mane.

Adams was remarkably incurious about the mammoth. His memoir of the trip to recover it is more of a travelogue than a scientific paper. Other scientists complained about his lack of relevant details, but it never occurred to any of them to contact Boltunov (or Shumachov, for that matter) to collect information from a witness who was very curious. Except for Baer’s 1866 paper, I can find no reference to Boltunov that treats his drawing as anything other than an example of how wrong ignorant Siberians could be. Of course, cultural arrogance is hardly unique to that century. The scientists of the time could have gained useful information by mining Boltunov's notes and drawing for data. They could have gained much more if they had written to the governor and had someone interview him. Even though Boltunov has little to tell us today about mammoths, he has plenty to tell us about Boltunov and how people of his time, location, and class viewed their world. Maybe it’s time to take Boltunov's drawing a little more seriously.

* Sakha is the preferred name by those people who, until recently, were called Yakuts by outsiders. The Evenki are the largest of several peoples who are usually lumped together as Tungus.

** This is not the same as the official journal of the Academy, Mémoires de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de St. Pétersbourg, which was in Latin. Later, they would make the very sensible decision to keep the French title and publish the articles in German.

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