Woolly Mammoths Have Lived in the Armenian Highlands

Woolly MammothsAn interview with Yevgeny Mashchenko, Senior Researcher at the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Yevgeny Nikolayevich, what is the reason for the interest of paleontologists in Armenia and our entire region?

“Armenia is a part of the Asia Minor region and therefore is of particular importance in the study of zoogeography and many processes occurring since the ancient times. Most of these processes are associated with changes in the environment and vegetation.

Now, another factor has emerged, which is human activity. In the past 50 years, this region has been studied relatively little, although it is of particular interest to researchers. And therefore, any scientific information coming from Armenia is of fundamental importance for scientists.

Now, let’s talk specifically about the purpose of my scientific visit to your country. The initiative in organizing the trip belonged to my colleague, researcher at the Institute of Geological Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia Hayk Melik-Adamyan, as well as the head of the mammal department of the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Biology, Professor Alexander Aghajanyan.

  1. Melik-Adamyan has collected a lot of data on several aspects of paleontological research. For example, it was believed that some species of animals that lived in the ice age (the Pleistocene period) were spread only in northern Eurasia. Melik-Adamyan had a suggestion that some species living in the north of Eurasia also lived in Armenia.

This hypothesis is 90% confirmed. In particular, it turned out that one of the main species of the mammoth fauna, the woolly mammoth, was distributed south of the North Caucasus, in the territory of Armenia. This is evidenced by a copy of a woolly mammoth tooth from the Paleolithic cave Yerevan-1, which is stored at the Museum of the History of Yerevan.

It now remains to conduct another small study – a comparison of morphometric data, and then, it will be possible to publish this new data. In addition, it was important to describe the paleontological specimens stored in the Gyumri Local Lore Museum since the last examination of paleontological specimens from Northern Armenia was carried out more than 50 years ago by well-known Armenian paleontologist Avakian.”

If this hypothesis is confirmed, can it be argued that woolly mammoths lived in the Armenian Highlands?

“I guess, yes. Even one paleontological find of this species of animals can testify to this.

I’ll tell you a little about mammoths. The mammoth is a mammal that is in the same family with both present-day and extinct elephants.

If we consider the chronological sequence of the species that belong to the very genus of mammoths, then there were two lines of mammoths that lived in Eurasia. The first species is the steppe mammoth that appeared about 700 thousand years ago. The other species – woolly mammoths – appeared later. Their age does not exceed 170-180 thousand years.

The woolly mammoth descended from the steppe mammoth, and they perhaps existed simultaneously for a while. In fact, woolly mammoths were the last elephants who lived in the north of Eurasia. No other Proboscidea could reach the north of Eurasia. In general, paleontologists know over 50 species of elephants belonging to the elephant family itself, but only the mammoth family was able to adapt to life in harsh conditions.

The woolly mammoth had a very expansive habitat from Spain to North America. This is probably the largest habitat of mammals for the entire existence of the mammal class. Unfortunately, even modern technologies do not yet allow us to fully appreciate the differences in the DNA of mammoths and elephants, which is very important for science.

Mammoths have been explored for about 200 years. This is probably the most well-studied animal species (after modern humans), but still, there are a lot of questions, including those related to the morphology and history of this species.”

And what caused the disappearance of woolly mammoths?

“As I have already said, the woolly mammoth appeared about 170 thousand years ago as a species. It also was the time when the modern kind of humans began to form. It is important that at a certain stage of human existence, especially in the European part of Eurasia, the human population was quite large.

Together with numerous finds of mammoth bones at the sites of the people of this era (about 30-16 thousand years ago), this served as the basis for the hypothesis that the ancient human is to blame for the extinction of mammoths. One reason for this hypothesis is that bones of more than 100 mammoths were discovered at one of their settlement grounds.

The second hypothesis of the disappearance of mammoths was associated with climatic conditions.

I am a supporter of the second hypothesis. Living conditions change, and habitats shrink. Small mammals tolerate this relatively less painfully than large mammals which need more space to live.

The process of extinction of the mammoths was not rapid. It took place over several thousand years, and their habitat gradually moved to northeast Asia, to the Arctic. There were almost no people here, and it is significant that on the Arctic island of Wrangel, the most recent mammoths died out before a man’s foot stepped there.”

On the New Siberian Islands and in some other places in Yakutia, large “cemeteries” of mammoths were discovered. What is the reason for the formation of such large concentrations of the remains of these ancient animals in one place?

“Now, in the media, there are many reports of finds in the north of Yakutia. Some of these messages are devoted specifically to the Novosibirsk Islands, in particular, to a find on one of the islands of this archipelago – a fragment of a mammoth’s corpse on Bolshoy Lyhovsky Island. This discovery was also covered at the 6th International Congress of Mammoth Studies in Greece in May 2014.

As for the large accumulation of mammoth remains in this region, in general, this is due to the unique paleoclimatic conditions of this region. One of the conditions for such a state of preservation which is not found anywhere else in the world is the formation of frozen structures that allowed not only bones but also soft tissues of animals living there to survive for many millennia.

This region stretches from the Yana River to the Indigirka River from west to east and to the New Siberian Islands in the north. Even in Alaska with its permafrost, there are no such powerful ice covers. In Yakutia, the frozen structures are hundreds of meters thick, and in Alaska, they do not exceed 1-1.5 meters.

All these findings of frozen remains of ancient animals of the Pleistocene period provide a lot of information about their physiology and morphology. It is possible to examine not only their bones but also soft tissues and sometimes even to see how their internal organs were arranged.”

And what exactly did you investigate in Gyumri?

“Gyumri has a wonderful collection of paleontological specimens. It includes the bones and teeth of the ancestors of the woolly mammoth, the trogontherium elephants that are also called steppe mammoths. This collection had been gathered for a long time as a result of field work carried out by the Gyumri Museum of Local Lore. But so far, it has not been sufficiently studied.

The entire Shirak region has great potential for new research and discovery. About 80% of all the exhibits I saw in the museum had been found on the territory of Gyumri itself. Taking this opportunity, I would like to express deep gratitude to Gayane Ghazaryan, Director of the State Museum of Nature, Armine Sargsyan, Director of the Museum of History of Yerevan, and to director of the Gyumri Museum of Local Lore, well-known archaeologist Hamazasp Khachatryan for the warm welcome and fruitful cooperation.

Tigran Mirzoyan

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