Bringing The Mammoth
Back To Life
It is not hard to hack away at a wall of ice and snow at 40 degrees below zero. It's impossible. The ice has the texture of concrete. Tools shatter on impact and any human flesh that touches bare metal burns as if stuck in a toaster. To make the point, Bernard Buigues, a Frenchman who has fallen in love with the Siberian far north, shows off a set of fresh red welts on his hands. "I was an idiot," he says. "I took off my gloves for a second."
Last week Buigues tried in vain to widen the door of an ice cave in the remote and numbingly cold town of Khatanga, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and the same distance from the nearest road. It is here that later this month he hopes to install and begin thawing out a 23-tonne block of frozen mud thought to contain the carcass of an adult woolly mammoth, entrails and all. He will return to try again in a week or so. In the meantime his cherished hunk of permafrost remains where it has been all winter - under a tarpaulin next to the runway at Khatanga's airport, to which it was flown under a giant helicopter last October in one of the most perfect photo opportunities in the history of paleontology.
Buigues is not a scientist. He is a polar explorer, a mammoth evangelist and, some say, a showman. For instance, the tremendous curling tusks protruding from that helicopter's cargo were pulled off the carcass two years ago and stuck back on for the flight. But the picture made headlines around the world and experts admit that Buigues has already achieved what they have not in more than a century of study, delivering what appears to be a still-frozen mammoth to a place where it can be defrosted, one hair at a time, in almost laboratory conditions.
The prospect has set the world of mammothology abuzz. Twenty-five scientists have signed up to take part in the thawing process, which will involve at least a year's worth of freezing stints with hair dryers in the ice cave. A dozen formal research proposals have been submitted with requests for tissue samples. And amid much eye-rolling from traditionalists, Buigues and others have been raising hopes of the ultimate marriage of technology and mise en scène. Through cloning or artificial insemination or both, using DNA that has been dead since the birth of homo sapiens, they want to bring the mammoth back to life.
This much is known about the Jarkov mammoth, named after the family of reindeer herders who found it: it died a little over 20,000 years ago, aged 47. It was huge, probably male and heavy enough to have sunk into the soggy aquatic grass in which it has been frozen since at least the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 BC.
Beyond that the contents of Buigues' mud remain a mystery. True, the tusks must once have been attached to a skeleton. A lower jawbone and a doormat-sized piece of fur have also already been recovered. Ground-penetrating radar taken to the mammoth's icy tomb last spring strengthened the hunch that the rest of it must be in there somewhere, but no one knows for sure. The uncertainty has prompted amused scepticism up on the 72nd Parallel, four timezones away from Moscow, where Russians and Dolgan natives alike have lived with mammoth bones for eons.
Khatanga sits near the mouth of its own river, which for nine months a year merges with the surrounding snowbound waste, covered by up to ten feet of ice. It is the administrative center of the Taymyr Peninsula, a region larger than France that juts north into the Arctic Ocean and was home to hundreds if not thousands of mammoths when they suddenly and bafflingly died out around 8,000 BC.
The Dolgans are descended from ethnic cousins of the Inuits who believed mammoth bones belonged to subterranean monsters that rise to the surface of the earth when dead. Now they use the ancient ivory for belt buckles and souvenirs. Khatanga's Russians, even those who run Taymyr's vast nature reserve, are if anything more blasé. "I've found so many bones and teeth myself that the Jarkov find was nothing incredible," says Natasha Maliguina, who lives year-round in Khatanga and has worked extensively on the Jarkov mammoth with Buigues even though she is a world-renowned reindeer expert. "The study of mammoths is not fantastical or otherworldly here because the bones are all around us. In fact until now, mammoth ivory in Taymyr has been used more for commerce than science."
Like many Khatangans, Maliguina is happy to indulge foreigners' interest in mammoths even if she is bemused by it. Internationally, though, a growing public has been following the Jarkov story, whose fascination owes something to Jurassic Park but more to Dolly, the cloned sheep; like that story, this one is true.
It began in 1997, the year after Dolly's birth. Simion Jarkov, a young Dolgan living in Khatanga, was on a visit to his family in the village of Novorybnoye, 150 miles to the north. On a hunting trip across the tundra, far from the village's summer tents of reindeer skin, he came face to face with the arching 6ft tips of the tusks that have since made his family famous. His brother, Gennadi, reported the find to the headquarters of the Taymyr nature reserve whose director, Yuri Karbuinov, said last week: "At first they tried to move the tusks, but I advised them to secure the site because it seemed to be a unique find."
Even so, the nature reserve did nothing about it, so the Jarkovs went to Buigues, already the best-known foreigner in Khatanga. "My business is organizing Arctic expeditions," he says. "I thought everything was known about mammoths." He went to see the tusks all the same, and was intoxicated at first sight. "I've been talking about mammoths ever since, with the Dolgans, with scientists, and there is so much still to learn." In the meantime, not one for false modesty, he calls himself "Mr. Mammoth".
Buigues guards his frozen specimen jealously, financing its study by selling photo rights around the world. But he seems to be a genuine enthusiast, routinely braving conditions that confine even Dolgan herdsmen to the warmth of their winter "balloks" (huts on runners, pulled by reindeer) in his quest to resurrect the mammoth or at least establish what killed if off.
In June 1998 he mounted the first fully fledged research trip to the site of the Jarkov find, 250 miles northwest of Khatanga near the banks of the Balakhnya River. Beneath a few spongy inches of grass and moss, the permafrost was so hard that it took a week to extract the uppermost part of the mammoth " its head.
The brain had long-since rotted, but along with the lower jaw, Buigues found the tiny red petals of a 20,000-year-old flower and his first strands of 3ft, pungent-smelling mammoth hair. He dried them out with a hair dryer and found them to be "thick and strong, stronger than human". Then the expedition ran out of food and he returned to France.
Three months later Buigues and a Swedish geophysicist returned with the ground penetrating radar. Last September he was back with a ten-strong team, compressors, pneumatic drills, a portable sauna and a heavylift helicopter on standby. After a five-week race against the shortening days, the Jarkov mammoth "flew" to Khatanga.
The ice cave, dug into a cliff near the local river port during the Stalin era, was not ready for its new resident. But the "chain of cold", as Buigues calls it " the unbroken deep-freeze conditions necessary to preserve ancient animal tissue " was not in jeopardy. Khatanga's polar night, when the sun goes down for two solid months and temperatures can reach -65C excluding windchill, was about to begin. There is a poignancy in the adoption of the Jarkov mammoth by outsiders. To the wider world it has been a story of cub scoutish adventure and wacky science, made possible by funds that Russia simply does not have. Meanwhile Russia's own experts have been forced to admit that their greatest mammoth finds have all been lost to modern science because of flawed excavation and preservation methods. To rub salt in their wounds, even zoologists who have devoted their careers to Taymyr's nature reserves can no longer visit them except by tagging along on foreign-financed trips. "They say it's because of Chechnya," said one scientist. "All other government aviation is grounded."
Despite a brisk " and legal " trade in mammoth ivory, arctic Russia is still littered with tusks and bones. As many as ten million carcasses may be interred within the permafrost, and the tiny fraction recovered so far for study, roughly 100 in all, include by far the world's most famous museum mammoths. Among them are the Adams mammoth, unearthed in Yakuty in 1806 and still the largest ever displayed; the Berezovka mammoth, found in northeastern Siberia in 1901 with an erect penis (possibly because it died of asphyxiation) and 33 pounds of food in its stomach; and "Dima", a baby male, sickly but virtually intact, spotted in a gold mine on the Kolyma River in 1977.
There were also important finds on the Taymyr Peninsula in 1986 and 1991, but like Dima and the others they are considered useless for modern cellular analysis, let alone for cloning experiments. The Berezovka mammoth was cut into 26 pieces to be shipped to St Petersburg. Dima was unearthed using water pumps that thawed and soaked his tissue beyond recognition. Water pumps were also used on the later finds, and nature did not help; they were in river banks washed by snowmelt that each year broke the all-important "chain of cold".
It is no surprise that most Russian specialists pour scorn on the idea of cloning. At a press conference last year at which Buigues introduced the Jarkov mammoth to the world, his 92-year-old guest of honor, Professor Nikolai Verashchagin, the author of more than 100 (mostly prewar) books on mammoths, announced that it was impossible. Others argue that even if it were, it would produce only a freak of science destined for a sad, short life in a zoo.
Many in the West agree, and most scientific discussion of the Jarkov mammoth has focused on its diet, its parasites and the manner of its death. There is also interest in the pollen in its fur " this could reveal how far the mammoth roamed.
Hanging from the cave's roof will be perhaps a dozen hair dryers, chosen to thaw hair and tissue in tiny increments without letting it get soggy. It will then swiftly re-freeze " the temperature in the cave is a steady -10C even in summer. "The most important thing is to preserve the beast, not let it melt and keep all the scientific information it contains," says Buigues earnestly. "Then we can try to find out why these things disappeared 10,000 years ago. That's the true mystery."
But ask him about cloning and his eyes light up. "Does it excite me? Sure. Most of the paleontologists don't believe it's possible, but science is moving very fast." Tissue samples with the best chance of containing intact DNA are being sent to laboratories in Hawaii and Lyon but also Indianapolis, where last year the first successful artificial insemination of a female elephant took place, overcoming the challenge of having to implant a fertilized egg at the back of a uterus three feet deep.
There will be other challenges as well. Geneticists insist that intact mammoth DNA " necessary for the "nuclear transfer" cloning method used for Dolly " could have survived only if kept in perfect condition at below -30C since death. The alternative is almost as farfetched; to find the more robust but incomplete DNA that may lurk in the Jarkov mammoth's testes, use it to fertilize a female Asian elephant's egg, and repeat the process on the hybrid for three generations. It would take 50 years, but the result would be 88 percent mammoth.
Cloning pioneers, including Dolly's creator, Dr. Ian Wilmut, have said such a feat is possible. The serious work begins next month, when Buigues hopes a complete mammoth will start emerging. If it doesn't, he has already located two more sites in the Khatanga region where carcasses await the warm breath of 21st-century science. And if he is reduced to building inanimate mammoths from their skin and bones, as the local mayor put it: "We have plenty of spare parts.


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