Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mammoth Yarns

My recent blog talked about the impact of climate change on heritage sites in Greenland, but of course permafrost melting is not limited to this country alone. In Siberia the problem in many ways is even bigger as the land mass is so huge, and it is leading to some interesting threats to historic objects. I wrote a while ago about the trade in rhino horn. The trade in mammoth tusks seems to be much bigger. It is not a new one, as although mammoths died out 10,000 years ago there are instances of mammoth ivory being traded from as early as 1611, and it ended up in the nineteenth century being so commonly found that it was used for piano keys. Estimates put the number of mammoths found over the last 250 years at almost 500,000.

Now however, with the trade in  ivory so tightly controlled under the CITES convention, the search for and trade in mammoth tusks are very much back on the agenda, as they are not subject to CITES.

That in itself is not such a problem, but as one of our papers at the recent International Polar Heritage Committee's conference showed, the searchers tend to look for concentrations of mammoth ivory. With almost 100% probability, any concentration typically means it is an archaeological site, as human activity has led to  a mass accumulation of bones.

And the searchers are not remotely interested in what the sites can tell us. The Siberian Berelekh 'mammoth graveyard' does not exist anymore after the bone bearing deposits were washed out by mammoth ivory hunters, and the Yana site which contains the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Arctic dating to 25,500 - 26,000 BC  has already been seriously damaged by the mammoth hunters. The process followed uses high pressure water pumps to wash out the frozen river bank, including tunnelling into the bank and causing mass collapse, erosion and loss of critical parts of the site. Take a look at these photos of the process in operation - not exactly best archaeological practice!

Mammoth Tusk Hunter, Siberia
(Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva, National Geographic)
 
"Local people make damage to the Yana site by mining for mammoth ivory at the Yana mass accumulation of mammoth which constitutes a part of the archaeological site."
(Photography by Vladimir Pitulko, IPHC Conference 2014)
 

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