Woolly Mammoths Were Still Around When Egyptians Built the Pyramids

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Believe it or not, there were still Woolly Mammoths alive and walking the earth when the Egyptians built the pyramids. We don’t mean one of those “the pyramids are way older than you think” things either. A small colony of mammoths survived on Wrangle Island, a small island way up in the arctic. There were as many as 1,000 mammoths living on the island up until around 1650 BC. This is nearly 1,000 years after the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Wrangel Island lies between Siberia and Alaska and is part of Russia

What Are Woolly Mammoths?

Woolly Mammoths are actually related to Asian elephants and may be the ancestors of modern Asian elephants. They were about the same size as modern day African elephants weighing about 6 metric tons. What we call woolly mammoths today is actually the last of the mammoth species alive, one of only two species that survived into human cultural memory. Earlier species of mammoths were even larger. A graphic below illustrates the size difference:

The woolly mammoth is the one in red. The others are other species of mammoths that lived before.

Woolly mammoths had very large tusks, more pronounced than modern elephants. There tusks were up to 14 ft long and are still a valuable source of ivory. In fact, every year, more and more mammoth bodies are emerging from the melting permafrost of the arctic regions. Because of their massive size, humans used nearly every part of the mammoth for everything from weapons to homes. Below is a reconstruction of a home built out of a mammoth skeleton and hide:

Mammoth dwelling made from skeleton and hide – By Nandaro – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

What Happened to Woolly Mammoths?

Woolly mammoths were heavily hunted at the end of the last ice age. In fact, they are the third most depicted animal in cave art after horses and bison. As their territory shrank and they were more and more confined, their available food resources dwindled and there was less genetic diversity for reproducing. It is suspected that heavy hunting by humans combined with a changing climate caused them to go extinct after the last ice age.

Artwork depicting hunters running from a woolly mammoth.

The last mammoths survived on St. Paul Island and Wrangel Island. They died off on St. Paul Island around 5,600 years ago and from Wrangel Island about 4,000 years ago. It is thought that the surviving population on Wrangel Island dwindled until the population did not have enough genetic diversity to survive.

Can We Bring Woolly Mammoths Back?

It seems that we can, in fact, bring them back in a variety of different ways. Japanese scientists have long tried to find ways of doing just that. Because mammoths are frozen in the tundra, their DNA is in tact. Unlike dinosaurs, we are not dealing with fossils but with frozen meat. The entire genome of the woolly mammoth was sequenced by Swedish scientists in 2015. Nearly all of the current attempts at resurrecting the woolly mammoth rely on editing the DNA of modern elephants or trying to create an elephant/mammoth hybrid which would have traits of both species. This has already been done at a cellular level but has not been done to the extent that we have created a new organism.

Until we bring them back, we only have our cultural memory and archaeological record to go by.

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