1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mammoth

MAMMOTH (O. Russ. mammot, mod. mamant; the Tatar word mama, earth, from which it is supposed to be derived, is not known to exist), a name given to an extinct elephant, Elephas primigenius of Blumenbach. Probably no extinct animal has left such abundant evidence of its former existence; immense numbers of bones, teeth, and more or less entire carcases, or “mummies,” as they may be called, having been discovered, with the flesh, skin and hair in situ, in the frozen soil of the tundra of northern Siberia.

The general characteristics of the order Proboscidea, to which the mammoth belongs, are given under that heading. The mammoth pertains to the most highly specialized section of the group of elephants, which also contains the modern Asiatic species. Of the whole group it is in many respects, as in the size and form of the tusks and the characters of the molar teeth, the farthest removed from the mastodon type, while its nearest surviving relative, the Asiatic elephant (E. maximus), has retained the slightly more generalized characters of the mammoth’s contemporaries of more southern climes, E. columbi of America and E. armeniacus of the Old World. The tusks, or upper incisor teeth, which were probably smaller in the female, in the adult males attained the length of from 9 to 10 ft. measured along the outer curve. Upon leaving the head they were directed at first downwards, and outwards, then upwards and finally inwards at the tips, and generally with a tendency to a spiral form not seen in other elephants.

It is chiefly by the characters of the molar teeth that the various extinct modifications of the elephant type are distinguished. Those of the mammoth (fig. 2) differ from the corresponding organs of allied species in great breadth of the crown as compared with the length, the narrowness and crowding or close approximation of the ridges, the thinness of the enamel, and its straightness, parallelism and absence of “crimping,” as seen on the worn surface or in a horizontal section of the tooth. The molars, as in other elephants, are six in number on each side above and below, succeeding each other from before backwards. Of these Dr Falconer gave the prevailing “ridge-formula” (or number of complete ridges in each tooth) as 4, 8, 12, 12, 16, 24, as in E. maximus. Dr Leith-Adams, working from more abundant materials, has shown that the number of ridges of each tooth, especially those at the posterior end of the series, is subject to individual variation, ranging in each tooth of the series within the following limits: 3 to 4, 6 to 9, 9 to 12, 9 to 15, 14 to 16, 18 to 27—excluding the small plates, called “talons,” at each end. Besides these variations in the number of ridges or plates of which each tooth is composed, the thickness of the enamel varies so much as to have given rise to a distinction between a “thick-plated” and a “thin-plated” variety—the latter being most prevalent among specimens from the Arctic regions. From the specimens with thick enamel plates the transition to the other species mentioned above, including E. maximus, is almost imperceptible.

The bones of the skeleton generally more resemble those of the Indian elephant than of any other species, but the skull differs in the narrower summit, narrower temporal fossae, and more prolonged incisive sheaths, supporting the roots of the enormous tusks. Among the external characters by which the mammoth was distinguished from either of the existing species of elephant was the dense clothing, not only of long, coarse outer hair, but also of close under woolly hair of a reddish-brown colour, evidently in adaptation to the cold climate it inhabited. This character is represented in rude but graphic drawings of prehistoric age found in caverns in the south of France. It should be added that young Asiatic elephants often show considerable traces of the woolly coat of the mammoth. The average height does not appear to have exceeded that of either of the existing species of elephant.

The geographical range of the mammoth was very extensive. There is scarcely a county in England in which its remains have not been found in alluvial gravel or in caverns, and numbers of its teeth are dredged in the North Sea. In Scotland and Ireland its remains are less abundant, and in Scandinavia and Finland they appear to be unknown; but they have been found in vast numbers at various localities throughout the greater part of central Europe (as far south as Santander and Rome), northern Asia, and the northern part of the American continent.

EB1911 Mammoth - Skeleton with portions of the skin.jpg
(From Tilesius.)
Fig. 1.—Skeleton of Mammoth (Elephas primigenius), with portions of the skin.

The mammoth belongs to the post-Tertiary or Pleistocene epoch and was contemporaneous with man. There is evidence to show that it existed in Britain before, during and after the glacial period. It is in northern Siberia that its remains have been found in the greatest abundance and in exceptional preservation. For a long period there has been from that region an export of mammoth-ivory, fit for commercial purposes, to China and to Europe. In the middle of the 10th century trade was carried on at Khiva in fossil ivory. Middendorff estimated the number of tusks which have yearly come into the market during the last two centuries at at least a hundred pairs, but Nordenskiöld considers this estimate too low. Tusks are found along the whole shore-line between the mouth of the Obi and Bering Strait, and the farther north the more numerous they become, the islands of New Siberia being one of the favourite collecting localities. The remains are found not only round the mouths of the great rivers, but embedded in the frozen soil in such circumstances as to indicate that the animals lived not far from the localities in which they are found; and they are exposed either by the melting of the ice in warm summers or the washing away of the sea-cliffs or river-banks. In this way the bodies of more or less nearly perfect animals, often standing in the erect position, with the soft parts and hairy covering entire, have been brought to light.

EB1911 Mammoth - Tooth.jpg
(From Owen.)

Fig. 2.—Grinding surface of Upper Molar Tooth of the Mammoth (Elephas primigenius). c, cement; d, dentine; e, enamel.

For geographical distribution and anatomical characters see Falconer's Palaeontological Memoirs, vol. ii. (1868); B. Dawkins, “Elephas Primigenius, its Range in Space and Time,” Quart. Journ. Geol. Soc., xxxv. 138 (1879); and A. Leith Adams, “Monograph of British Fossil Elephants,” part ii., Palaeantographical Society (1879).  (W. H. F.; R. L.*)