Chapter 1: The Jarkov Mammoth

The Jarkov Mammoth on Taimyr Peninsula, in the northernmost part of North Siberia. Where have they found it? When has it lived? To what kind of a climate was it adapted? On what kind of a plant-cover has it grazed? And how has it perished? What have some of the world’s leading mammoth experts found out now about this?

The following article was presented at The World of Elephants 1st International Congress, Rome, October 16th-20th, 2001. And it was published in the book, The World of Elephants, Proceedings of the First International Congress, Rome 16-20 Oct. 2001 pages 305-309. Editors: G. Cavarretta, P. Gioia, M. Mussi, M. R. Palombo. – I shall briefly quote here from it:


The Jarkov Mammoth: 20,000-Year-Old Carcass of a Siberian Woolly Mammoth

Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)


D. Mol, CERPOLEX/Mammuthus, Gudumholm 41, NL-2133 HG Hoofddorp, The Netherlands,


Y. Coppens, Collège de France,  3, Rue d’Ulm, F-75005 Paris, France,


A. N. Tikhonov, Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, Laboratory of Mammals, Universitetskaya nab. 1, 199034 Saint Petersburg, Russia


L. D. Agenbroad, Northern Arizona University, Geology Department, NAU BOX 4099, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA,


R. D. E. MacPhee, Department of Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA,


C. Flemming, Department of Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA,


A. Greenwood, Department of Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA,


B. Buigues, CERPOLEX/Mammuthus, 2, Avenue de la Pelouse, F-94160 Saint Mandè, France,


C. de Marliave, CERPOLEX/Mammuthus, 2, Avenue de la Pelouse, F-94160 Saint Mandè, France,


B. van Geel, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, Faculty of Science, Universiteit van Amsterdam, P.O.BOX 94062, NL-1090 GB Amsterdam, The Netherlands,


G.B.A. van Reenen, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, Faculty of Science, Universiteit van Amsterdam, P.O.BOX 94062, NL-1090 GB Amsterdam, The Netherlands,


J. P. Pals, Amsterdam Archaeological Centre, University of Amsterdam, Nieuwe Prinsengracht 130, NL-1018 VZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands,


D.C. Fisher, Museum of Paleontology and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Michigan 48109-1079, USA,


D. Fox, Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA,


Natuurmuseum Rotterdam, The Netherlands, website:



Abstract: The Jarkov Mammoth was discovered in 1997 on the Taimyr Peninsula, Taimyr, Siberia. The remains of this 20,380-year-old woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) were extracted from the frozen tundra under winter conditions in September/October 1999. The carcass and the surrounding sediments were taken out of the tundra using heavy equipment. The block, in which the woolly mammoth remains are embedded, is stored for scientific purposes in an ice cave in Khatanga, Taimyr. To get a better understanding of the environment, in which the woolly mammoth was living around 20,000 years BP and about the life and death of this particular, woolly mammoth the remains and the organisms, collected from the sediment, have been studied. The results of this multi-disciplinary research on the Jarkov Mammoth is presented.



Range of mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) in the Pleistocene of Eurasia and North America. The remains of the Jarkov mammoth native Siberian reindeer herders have found on Taimyr Peninsula north of the town of Khatanga, central northern Siberia. On the map that is the northernmost part of central North Siberia. Map from V. V. Ukraintseva, Vegetation Cover and Environment of the „Mammoth Epoch“ in Siberia (1993:26) Fig. 6.




In the summer of 1997, a family of Dolgans (a nomadic people living on the Taimyr Peninsula, Siberia, Russia) named Jarkov, discovered a 30-cm piece of a mammoth tusk protruding from the tundra, ~ 12 km south of the river Bolshaya Balakhnya (73°32' N; 105°49' E). The Jarkovs excavated the tusk, and to their surprise, they discovered the second tusk, too. Both tusks were still in anatomical position, relative to the cranium. The excavation activities of the Jarkovs damaged the cranium, maxilla, and mandible, which were also in relative anatomical position to each other. Only the tusks were removed; all bones were left in the permafrost. This mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799) was named the Jarkov Mammoth.


A team from CERPOLEX/Mammuthus excavated the remains of the cranium in May 1998. Next to the cranium were (1) a small piece of meat, (2) skin, and (3) large portions of fur and under-fur -- all of which were saved. We employed a ground-penetrating radar system to see if more remains of the mammoth are present in the frozen ground. Immediately north of the cranium, anomalies in the permafrost were visible on the monitor attached to the radar. The anomalies were interpreted as potential remains of the Jarkov Mammoth carcass. We decided to extract the remains of this carcass in an unusual way: in Sept/Oct 1999, we excavated a huge block of frozen sediment that likely included the remains of the mammoth.


On October 17th, 1999, a 23-ton block of permafrost was successfully airlifted by an MI 26 helicopter from the frozen tundra of the Taimyr Peninsula. In this 13.5-m3 block of frozen sediment, remains of the Jarkov Mammoth are embedded.



Tusks and third Molars


The Jarkov Mammoth's tusks are beautifully preserved. They are spirally twisted and reach nearly 3 m in length, indicating that they belong to an adult, male woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799).


Measurements of the right tusk include:

Maximum length (outer curve), 294 cm

Diameter, 13.5-14.5 cm

Weight, 45 kg


Measurements of the left tusk include:

Maximum length (outer curve), 298 cm

Diameter, 13.5-14.6 cm

Weight, 47 kg


The third molars in both the maxillae (M3, left and right) and mandible (m3, left and right) are preserved. The anterior parts of both molars are worn to the base of the crown. The stage of wear of the M3 is equivalent to Laws’ Age Group XXV, which means that the Jarkov Mammoth had an age of approximately 47 ± 2 African Elephant Years (AEY) at the time of its death.



Radiometric Dates


Remains of the Jarkov Mammoth excavated by the first CERPOLEX/Mammuthus expedition (1998) have been radiometrically dated at the R. J. van de Graaff Laboratory, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, by means of the accelerator mass spectrometry method (AMS). Results of these AMS dates are as follows:


Laboratory number

(Utrecht University)

Radiocarbon age

(14C yr BP)


UtC 8137

19910 +/- 130


UtC 8138

20380 +/- 140


UtC 8139

20390 +/- 160





Expedition 1999


In September/October 1999 about 1 m2 of the top of the block was melted in the field, for which purpose ordinary hairdryers were used. A large portion of fur and underfur of the Jarkov Mammoth was exposed. We noted that the underfur was extremely long: up to 12 cm. We agreed that this might be the winter pelage of the mammoth.


The goal of the CERPOLEX/Mammuthus expedition in 1999 was to extract the block (with the known and potential mammoth remains and the surrounding sediment) and to transport it to an ice cave in the town of Khatanga, Taimyr, approximately 250 km south of the site of discovery. We decided to defrost the frozen block in the safety of the ice cave at a constant temperature of - 15°C, in order to collect the mammoth remains, as well as any micro- and macro-organisms trapped in the surrounding sediments.



Remains defrosted to date (January 2001)


In October 2000 we began defrosting operations within the Khatanga ice cave. We divided the very top of the block (the topography of which is somewhat uneven) into 20 sections, each 55 x 55 cm. The sections on the edges of the block are much smaller. … So far, defrosting by hairdryers has penetrated approximately 25 cm deep into sections 1 and 16. All sediment explored thus far has yielded fur and underfur of the mammoth, as well as plant macrofossils. Within section 1, part of one rib and, in section 16, four thoracic vertebrae of the mammoth have emerged. Three of these vertebrae were in anatomical position. None is associated with any soft tissues. It is now clear that the carcass is not intact. In the spring of 2001 the team shall return to Khatanga to continue the defrosting process.


Initial Sediment Analysis


Microfossils (pollen, fungal spores, algae) and macrofossils (fruits, seeds, remains of flowers, vegetative plant remains, bryophytes) were found in sediment samples from two loci studied thus far: embedded amongst the hairs of the Jarkov Mammoth, and within the lower part of the block of permafrost. Remains of beetles and Chironomids from the sediment will be studied in the near future.



The preservation of these fossils is excellent and a variety of taxa is present. The pollen spectra are dominated by Poaceae, Artemisia and Papaver. Also macrofossils of these taxa are present in our samples. The overall picture based on interpreting these fossils, is a landscape dominated by a steppe vegetation as a consequence of dry and cool climatic conditions. Moreover, pollen diagrams produced recently from lake deposits elsewhere in the Taimyr area demonstrated that vegetation during the Late Weichselian glacial maximum was typical for a steppe. This data strongly supports R. D. Guthrie's theoretical considerations in favor of the "Mammoth Steppe" and reject the idea that mammoths were living in tundra-like vegetation.


In addition, on a local scale, mosses such as Racomitrium lanuginosum, Pogonatum cf. P. urnigerum and a hair-cap moss resembling Polytrichum piliferum are indicative of a rather dry, sandy, or stony environment, with cryogenic phenomena as well as biodisturbance as a consequence of trampling or grazing. We consider the abundant presence of spores of the dung-inhabiting fungus Sporormiella as clear indication of the presence of herbivores.


Among the microfossils and macroremains there are also indicators for wet conditions (e.g., the alga Pediastrum; the mosses Drepanocladus aduncus, Calliergon giganteum, Rhizomnium pseudopunctatum). The mixture of plants from wet and dry sites may indicate that the Jarkov Mammoth was covered by sediment in a depression in the landscape, where local taxa were growing under wet conditions (open water and damp sites). Remains of plants from dry places may have been transported to the site by wind, but, considering their excellent preservation, transport of these plant remains by mud streams (solifluction) may have taken place. The Jarkov Mammoth may have been covered by mud after solifluction, so that the mammoth and the associated plant remains soon were under permafrost conditions.



Provisional progress report (dd. 24-7-2000) about the paleoecological analysis

of two samples from the Jarkov mammoth site


Bas van Geel, Jan Peter Pals and Guido van Reenen, Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands


One very small sample (JAR-1; ca 0.5 cc) comes from between the mammoth hair sample. This sample was taken, when the surface of the frozen block was partly melted. The other sample (JAR-2; ca 0.3 litre) was taken from the

tunnel under the frozen block.



Microfossils (pollen, spores, algae) and macrofossils (vegetative plant remains, seeds, mosses)


The pollen spectra of both samples are dominated by pollen of Grasses, Artemisia and Papaver (Poppy).

Also macrofossils of these plants were found.

The recorded plant remains point to a steppe vegetation ("Mammoth Steppe"; Guthrie, 1990). A tundra

vegetation would have shown up in a different way.

Dryness is a main feature of a steppe. So the amount of precipitation (snow in winter) will have been very low.

This fits well with the fact that a thick snow cover would make it impossible for mammoths to survive during winter



In both samples we find remains of the algae Pediastrum and Botryococcus. These algae indicate open water.

This means that the strictly local conditions

of the sample site were wet. This indicates that the site was a relatively low place (depression) in the landscape,

which was attractive as a drinking place for animals. Both samples are remarkably rich in the spores of the

fungus Sporormiella. This fungus is coprophilous, which means that it needs animal dung as a substrate.

The presence of dung is not a surprise, because the site apparently was visited by mammoths, and probably by

other animals as well.


The excellent preservation of micro and macrofossils (among them also insect remains) and the mixed nature of the samples (combination of plants from

dry and wet sites) may point to a fast deposition of the material after solifluction. The fact that unripe

flowers of Artemisia were found (pollen still inside the

flower!) may indicate that the material was embedded in sediment as a consequence of accelerated solifluction

during early summer.

When solifluction takes place, surface thawing results in a saturated surface layer overlying a still-frozen substrate.

Mass flow can occur, so that a superficial

mud stream moves downslope (over a frozen subsoil). When the mud flow reaches a depression in the landscape, the stream is slowing down and the mud

is deposited there. It may contain upland plant remains, but also local algae. The mud-covered Jarkov Mammoth

may have been a victim of such a

solifluction mudflow. Under influence of deep permafrost the lower part of the deposited mud soon will have

cooled down below freezing point, and

will have become part of the permafrost layer, so that decomposition of plants and animals could not take

place (excellent preservation).


Not on arctic Tundra

Dick Mol, a Dutch mammoth expert, has sent me on February 4, 2001 an English translation of an article about the Jarkov Mammoth. It was published at first in the Netherlands in the NRC Handelsblad. This mammoth was a healthy male, 47 years old, when it died. They named it after Mr. Jarkov, a native reindeer herder of the tribe of the Dolgans, who found it. They are living in the southern part of Taimyr Peninsula, in central Northern Siberia. They found the remains of this frozen male mammoth about 150 km northeast of Khatanga. Russia’s largest helicopter then flew it on 17 October 1999 to the town of Khatanga. There they then put it into an underground permafrost cave. Discovery Channel has shown the excavation and flight to millions of people in 146 countries in the spring of 2000. Other networks have also shown it later on in other countries, also in Germany.

What have scientists found out now about this Jarkov Mammoth? When has it lived up there? In what kind of a climate has it grazed in the northernmost parts of Central Siberia? On what kind of a plant-cover has it grazed on Taimyr Peninsula? Was this hairy elephant adapted to an arctic climate? Has it lived up there on arctic tundra or polar desert? Has it lived in ice and snow, just like the reindeer and the muskox of today? Would it have found up there enough to eat? What have scientists found out now about this? I am quoting now from the article, which the NRC Handelsblad has first published in The Netherlands, which Dick Mol sent me on the 4th of February 2001:

On the Mammoth Steppe

"Bas van Geel, working at the Institute of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamica of the University of Amsterdam, is quite content about the quality of the preserved mosses, seeds, flowers, pollen, fungus and the like that he collected out of a tuft of hair and from the ice block around the mammoth. He analyses the material together with his colleagues Jan Peter Pals and Guido van Reenen. ‘The results point unmistakably to a steppe and not a tundra, as one often thinks with regard to mammoths. The image of a mammoth, roaming in a snow covered landscape is very persistent.’ But this image is wrong, according to Van Geel, who confirms the presumptions of Dick Mol. ‘In a winter with a large blanket of snow, all food would be inaccessible to the mammoth and it would die of hunger. What we have found in dominant amounts are pollen and remains of grasses, among which the small flowers of the Artemisia. These are typically plants that grow on a steppe. Drought was a very important aspect. There was hardly any precipitation, not even in winter. The steppe could have been frozen, but food was still accessible.’

"The Jarkov-mammoth dates from 20,380 year ago. That means that it lived during the coldest period of the last Ice Age. In Northern Europe the ice cover reached the middle of Denmark, the northern part of Germany and Northwest Russia. The area east of this large ice blanket, was ... not covered with ice. This meant that there was no snow up to and including the most northern point of Siberia, where you also find the Taimyr peninsula.

"The concept of a ‘mammoth-steppe’ is not new to Dick Mol and Bas van Geel. Since many years, there is a discussion, whether during the last Ice Age Siberia and Alaska were covered by a tundra or steppe. Already in 1990, the American professor in zoology at the University of Alaska, R. Dale Guthrie, wrote a book entitled Frozen-Fauna-of-the-Mammoth-Steppe. The Story-of-Blue-Babe. In this book, he tells the story of the discovery and research on a 36,000-year-old bison mummy, Blue-Babe, called after the blue mineral crystals, with which it was coated. He also presents a range of convincing arguments, to show that a steppe landscape was necessary in order for mammoths and other Pleistocene mammals to survive.

"Van Geel mentions a few of these arguments: ‘Tundras are moist and many tundra plants grow at the top of their branches. When these are eaten by animals, it will take a long time, before the plant has recovered. Contrary to this, steppe landscapes are dry and dominated by grasses, which are very edible, which cannot be said of many tundra plants. In addition, grasses grow at their roots. After grazing, they can easily continue growing. What is more, their growth is stimulated by grazing. In a tundra, thick packages of snow will cause a problem for grazers. It will take weeks, before the snow has melted, as a result of which the plants will only start growing in late spring.’ These tundra plants also produce a large amount of humus, which as a result of the moist conditions, will take a long time to decay, according to Van Geel.

"This thick, isolating layer of humus will block the thawing of the permafrost by the sun. In a steppe, on the other hand, says Van Geel, the soil needs limited time, to warm and defrost, as a result of which more nutrients in the soil can be used by the plants. Mammoths and other large mammals will stimulate this process by producing manure, also containing many nutrients for the plants. ‘Actually it is hard to imagine a mammoth living in a tundra.’

"The botanical research clearly confirms that the biotope of the mammoth was a steppe. The find of remains of the algae Pediastrum and Botryoccus denote the presence of water. This means that the strictly local circumstances were moist. It must have been a depression in the landscape, where animals came to drink. The fact that many plant remains and pollen were so well preserved, means, according to Van Geel, that the depression must suddenly have been covered by mud (solifluction).

"‘This happens, when in spring the upper layer of the soil thaws, causing mud flushes in the direction of lower parts of the land. Possibly the Jarkov-mammoth was a victim of such a depression. The fact, however, that the mammoth was not entirely complete, will probably mean that, the moment it died, did not coincide with the moment, it was covered by mud. In any case, the mud, which enveloped the mammoth, must very quickly have been frozen under the influence of the underlying permafrost. This will be the reason for the excellent state of conservation of the plant remains. " - From: NRC Handelsblad, English translation, which Dick Mol sent me on the 4th of February 2001.


80°N Climate at 70°N


According to the C14-dates, the Jarkov Mammoth has lived on southeastern Taimyr Peninsula near 73°N, about 20 380 years ago. That is, during the peak of the Last Ice Age, at its coldest part. How cold would it have been then up there in central northern Siberia?


The American glaciologists G.H. Denton and T.J. Hughes (1981:443) conclude from their research: The Last Ice Age was only able to begin in the northern hemisphere, when it became just as cold at 70°N, as it is now at 80°N. The mean annual surface temperature of the sea ice at 80°N was supposed to have been widespread further south at 70°N. In this severe arctic climate, the ice sheets and ice domes of North America and northern Eurasia are supposed to have arisen. If so: why, then, are these ice sheets and ice domes not growing now in the Arctic Ocean at 80°N?


During the peak of the Last Glaciation, the saiga antelope is supposed to have lived in northeastern Siberia, northern Alaska, and northwestern Canada, at the present Arctic Coast, and still further north, on the (now submerged) continental shelf. In what kind of a climate would the mammoth and the saiga antelope have had to live then at the present arctic coast (near 71-73°N), if it had been then up there just as cold, as it is now at 80°N?


The present climate at or near 80°N on dry land, the average from 6 stations, is 3.88°C mean July air temperature. 103.5 mm annual precipitation. 1.5 kcal.m²l mean net radiation at earth’s surface per year. 25.4 mm potential evapotranspiration. 0 meter height of climatic snowline (at sea level). –17°C mean annual air temperature (just like annual air temperature of sea ice). Thick permafrost and growing ice wedges.


The following two climatic tables will show us, how warm it would have been then at the beginning of the Last Ice Age near 70°North. At the peak of the Last Ice Age it would have been then still colder.



Climatic Table for Mys Chelyuskin.

Latitude 77°43´N, longitude 104°17E, elevation 6 m.



Mean July temperature (°C)

Mean precipitation (mm)

Mean wind speed (m/sec)

Number of days with wind speed >15 m/s



































































Frost-free period 0 days per year. Actual evaporation >200 mm per year. Mys (Cape) Chelyuskin is the northernmost part of the Taimyr Peninsula, central northern Siberia. It lies about 620 km north of Khatanga. The temperature sum with days above 0°C Cape Chelyuskin is only 43.4°C per summer, in July and August.



Climatic Table for Eureka, Latitude 80°00´N,

longitude 85°56´W, elevation 2.4 m.



Mean temperature (°C)

Mean precipitation (mm)

Mean wind speed (m/sec)






















































Data based on records for the period 1951-1960. Eureka lies on the northern part of Ellesmere Island, west of the northernmost part of Greenland. The total sum of days above 0°C is up there 375.5°C. It is warmer there, than at Cape Chelyuskin, because it is more continental. After: S. Orvig (1970) p. 242, Table LVI.