Book Review: Mammoths, Giants of the Ice Age, Rev. Ed.

Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn have come out with a revised edition of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age and I am happy to report that I have received and avidly read a review copy.

Mammoths.jpg Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age is a coffee table sized book written for a popular audience – but don’t let that mislead you – the book is jam packed with information about mammoths, their evolution, and their extinction. In addition, the book is lavishly illustrated and contains abundant photographs. The book is divided into five chapters.
Chapter One introduces the cast of characters – Mammuthus meridionalis, M. trogontherii (the steppe mammoth), M. primigenius (woolly mammoth), and M. columbi (imperial mammoth) – there are other species but these are the main species discussed in the book.. This is followed by an overview of proboscidean evolution, including their relationships to the Sirenia. A brief discussion of the evolution of mammoth skulls and teeth and mammoth migrations as well as mammoth DNA is also included in this chapter.
Chapter Two discusses the history of mammoth discoveries and some of the sites around the world where mammoths have been discovered.
Chapter Three concerns the life history, biology and behavior of mammoths. For me this was the most interesting chapter. In this chapter we learn about what mammoths ate, that they were herd animals like elephants, that male mammoths had a small opening for the temporal gland (which means that like male elephants they went into musth), male mammoths had a three foot long penis and that mammoths produced around 200-300 pounds of dung each day. Not surprisingly, mammoths faced some of the same health problems elephants did – tooth disease, injuries from fighting or falling. This is reflected in various pathologies ranging from tooth tumors and fused spinal vertebrae to broken scapulae, dislocated knee joints and abnormal growths on the tusks.
Chapter Four discusses the impact of mammoths on humans, via art, and the uses to which humans put mammoths: food, shelter, and possibly musical instruments. This chapter is lavishly illustrated with pictures from cave art and pictures of portable statuary. Sites where humans made use of mammoth bones to build huts, such as Molodova, Kostenki, and Mezhirich, among others, are discussed. One interesting point about these sites is that most of the bones used in building the huts came via scavenging rather than hunting. Humans also made use of mammoth parts in their burial practices and the book discusses a number of sites, such as Predmosti and Krems-Wachtberg and Sungir. This chapter finishes with an excellent discussion of the problem of ivory. Selling ivory from elephant tusks is illegal, selling ivory from mammoth tusks is not. This raises the question of how you tell the difference. It can be done through microscopic analysis and radiocarbon dating – but this is expensive and time consuming.
Chapter Five covers the extinction of the mammoths. Was it climate change? Overkill? I’ll not say!
The book doesn’t end there, however. Chapter Five is followed by an excellent glossary, a section on “Interpreting the evidence (which is worth the price of the book by itself)”, a number of maps pinpointing mammoth discovery sites by type (wooly, imperial, dwarf, etc.) and a guide to them, and an excellent bibliography.
Overall, the book will appeal to anyone interested in paleontology, anthropology, or mammoths. It is well written and thorough. I found it so fascinating that I read it at one sitting, couldn’t put it down!

3 Responses

  1. I have the 1994 edition, which is my fast reference when I need a mammoth fact. I’ll have to check this out and see how much has been changed or added. Maybe I can talk Clever Wife into getting me an early birthday present.

  2. I’m shocked, shocked I say, to discover the the all knowing guru of things mammoth hasn’t read it yet! Having said that, I haven’t read the 1994 edition so it would be interesting to hear what has been changed or added (the DNA stuff and some of the more recent mammoth discoveries come to mind). If Clever Wife is reading, John really, really needs a early birthday present – I know a really good book!

  3. Yay, mammoths! I always wished woolly mammoths were around, when I was a kid. And now I’m going to buy the book!
    Anne G

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