Literary Hub

In Search of the Great Wooly Mammoth


I sat with a friend on a dune crest, nothing else alive nearby but the sharp flares of a yucca sticking through sand. In an early December chill, we dug our bare feet into bone–white dunes. This desert forms a great blankness across southern New Mexico, visible from space. A lake used to be here, 2,000 square miles of crystalline surface against a shoreline of wooded mountains on one side and pure white gypsum beaches and grass on the other. Driven by heavy rainfall and meltwater catastrophes out of the Rocky Mountains, glaciers collapsing at a pace not seen for more than 10,000 years, the Rio Grande regularly jumped its banks and spilled through intermountain basins, filling this lake. People left artifacts around its shores, not many, but enough to tell of the presence of fluted weaponry. Stemmed points are plentiful along intermountain lakes hundreds of miles north of here, but this looks more like Clovis territory, an Ice Age outpost. Dunes once rolled into blue water, like the sand dune lagoons on the north coast of Brazil. The place is now pocked and sun-baked. Mountains on the other side of the basin roll onto their sides like capsized battleships, the forests that once grew there gone. A missile range lay between here and there. Several miles to the south, a black plume of smoke rose as if from a naval battle in a dry, alabaster sea. A bomb had detonated and something had caught fire, a dark fist of smoke thrust into the calm blue sky.

Clovis people were used to environmental catastrophes, but this—the land turned alien and struck by human-made bombs—was not something they would have easily grasped. The end of any ice age is violent and unstable, giant floods, epic catastrophes. But how do you explain a country laid bare? The same shapes of mountains were here, the same contours of shorelines, but everything else had changed, down to airplanes blinking through stars and the nearby town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, lighting a corner of the sky at night like hellfire.

Nick sat beside me watching the smoke plume rise a couple hundred feet. He’d been a bomb tech in the war, Iraqi deployment, and worked at the White House for a 30-day stint, alone in a park wearing the “Hurt Locker” suit as he inched around an abandoned briefcase while a news helicopter circled overhead. He told me it was one of the more riveting moments of his life, just him, a potential bomb, and all the world watching. We became friends when I taught at the University of Alaska, where he was a writing student. He came down to New Mexico to join me on a desert mission. I was looking for mammoths. He focused a pair of small field glasses on the explosion, its source hidden behind sand dunes. We’d been hearing atmospheric concussions all day, faraway explosions, surface–to-surface missiles launched from one end of the range to the other. He said the smoke could be anything, a personnel carrier, a tank, the shell of a helicopter suspended aboveground on a cable as a target. He described to me a super-dense warhead made of depleted uranium, not an explosive but a simple spearpoint for ripping through an armored tank, going in one side and out the other in a split second. “It pierces a tank and leaves a hole the size of a baseball,” he said. With his hands he showed me how big the hole was. Anything not solid, like soldiers, would be instantly fired out of the tank through this aperture. He’d seen it done with a sheep. The animal was liquefied, and sprayed across the ground.

“Then you can get in and drive away, no damage to the tank,” he said.

When we toured a military museum at one of the White Sands bases, wandering through a sculpture gallery of retired weaponry— missile launchers, rockets, and the white, bolted orbs of early atomic bomb casings—he started to laugh, saying, “This is what we do better than anything.”

“Killing?” I asked.

“Killing,” he said. “Hell, yeah.”

He was thinking M16 rifles and hair-trigger bombs made to look like children’s toys. I was thinking Clovis. Different parts of the same story. Thin, strong projectiles made of stone thrown silently through the air increase the sphere of the hunter. Small and scrawny as we are as a species, we have the influence of giants.

“The end of any ice age is violent and unstable, giant floods, epic catastrophes. But how do you explain a country laid bare?”

Nick and I were accompanied by an itinerant mountaineering guide named Charlotte, and my buddy Jordan, a tall, lanky photographer from my Colorado hometown. Our sphere of influence felt like only our footprints, which blew away quickly in the wind. I wasn’t the trip leader. I explained this up front: This was an exploratory mission, an arcane form of nomadism, no hierarchy, just pick up and go. We would move by consensus along the axis and edges of dunes, tents dropped between gentle swales and crests. I told them that if we ran into a fence with a sign reading “US Government Property No Trespassing,” which would mean the edge of the missile range, I would not go over it. They could do whatever they wanted.

Nick handed the binoculars to me, and I returned to scanning the blasted landscape beyond the dunes, the blistered lakebed up against the mountains. Mammoth tracks had been discovered out there, off-limits. I’d tried for two years to get permission, but the chain of military command denied the permit somewhere higher up. Instead, I walked the edges of the range, finding old bullets shot from airplanes, ground sprayed with old practice fire, sheer chance that tracks would ever survive out there.

The tracks were made by Columbian mammoths walking along wet, shallow shorelines, according to the paleontologists who worked on the missile range. In photographs, they look like circular ripples on still water, dabs of memory placed left, right, left as the mammoths ambulated. The prints are not stone. They are made of soft sediments, slightly more resistant than the surrounding plain, the last part to erode. In a sense, they are still fresh, filled in and buried, but still soft. Once exposed, they don’t last long, sometimes years, sometimes months. One researcher returned to record a trackway he’d spotted a year earlier, and it had worn back into the gentle pan of the missile range, barely visible. After waiting tens of thousands of years, they come to the surface and are gone as swift as a spark.

Some of the tracks that have been found are from isolated individuals, and some are moving together as families, or perhaps the mammoths followed the same route at different times, much as African elephants do today with their long, deeply trodden trails to water. Some tracks are subtle, the shapes of big pancakes domed slightly from the ground. Others rise proudly, sprouting like mushrooms from the crater-riddled playa. Impressions of toppled trees have also been found, pushed over and denuded with branches broken off, like those left behind by modern African elephants, only these animals were a few tons heavier, pushing over larger trees to feed on the upper branches, peeling off large sections of bark in the lean seasons.

The hind paw print of a short-faced bear was documented here, toes and claws pushed off as it moved over plaster-like mud. Across what looks like an unending wasteland are hundreds off smaller, criss-crossing stabs, marks of animals that weighed less than a ton: dire wolf, horse, panther.

When I looked beyond the dunes into beige oblivion I pictured these animals moving along the shore, grazing and hunting around what were once grassy beach dunes. Their winter chill would have been sharper, but not unbearable, like the windy rawness of New York in winter. We’d gone barefoot in the morning, temperatures just under freezing, to let our soft arches and the nibs of our toes acclimate. Paleolithic people’s feet would have been hardier. Even if they wore sandals and leggings—perishable items that have not survived—they would have been in constant and direct contact with their world. No doors to close behind them. Every night was stars.

Sliding my feet under the sun-warmed upper inch of sand, I put the Ice Agee back in place, seeing its hulking animal shapes in the distance. I thought of Nick and I as two hunters pausing atop a white beach dune. The mammoths were a few miles away, their humped shoulders and heads moving along the lake, tusks rocking back and forth to the rhythm of their stride.


Fourteen mammoth and mastodon kill sites have been documented in North America, most of them associated with Clovis toolkits and projectiles. The number may seem low, but it represents only those where human agency is irrefutable—not just scavenged but attacked with weapons. Countless more must remain undocumented. Europe, with 700,000 years of closely studied early human and hominid habitation, has turned up 21 proboscidean kill sites, and Africa, with more than a million years of big game hunting, has only eight prehistoric elephant kills. The 14 found in North America stand out as a high number for a much shorter occupation. In their 2008 article, “How Many Elephant Kills Are 14?,” archaeologists Nicole Waguespack and Todd Surovell called this “the highest frequency of subsistence exploitation of Proboscidea anywhere in the prehistoric world.”

Waguespack and Surovell sampled faunal remains from 33 Clovis sites across the country to see what they might have been hunting and butchering, and discovered that on average the largest species were found more often, e.g., more mammoths than hares. Rather than exploiting all the prey they came upon, these Clovis hunters were going for the largest animals. The 33 sample sites are almost exclusively top–heavy, mostly megafauna with little else. The two archaeologists have been accused of cherry–picking their sites, but the abundance of large bones still stands out. Perhaps not everyone was hunting and eating proboscideans, but in some places or at some times, that is exactly what they were doing. Smaller bones of snakes or deer would not have lasted so long, skewing the results, but these accumulations of hunted and butchered megafauna bones represent unique events. The two researchers conclude that people at these sites were engaged in “the extensive and selective use of large-bodied prey.”

“This does not mean that Clovis existed by mammoth alone,” they wrote, careful not to stir the hornets’ nest where some say Clovis were dedicated mammoth hunters and some say they certainly were not. But with their data, they had to conclude, “based on estimated encounter rates, Clovis hunter-gatherers often ignored opportunities to harvest smaller game species, likely in favor of obtaining a higher-ranked resource.”

“Across what looks like an unending wasteland are hundreds off smaller, criss-crossing stabs, marks of animals that weighed less than a ton: dire wolf, horse, panther.”

Bruce Bradley, from the University of Exeter, considers Clovis and its penchant for hunting the largest animals a kind of “cult.” He points out that fluted technology spread from coast to coast within 200 years. “That’s too fast,” he told me. In the Paleolithic, at a time when tools could remain unchanged for tens of thousands of years, this would have been breakneck speed. Compared to historic models for birth rates and migrations among hunter-gatherers, the Clovis age looks like an explosion. Similarly fluted points made it as far as the bottom of South America and to the edge of the Bering land bridge in Alaska, with one possible specimen found in Siberia, making the land bridge a two-way street. Something more than hunting efficiency carried these fluted points to the ends of the New World.

“How do you become a man if you can’t find the mammoth?” Bradley said. “I think the whole Clovis thing out in the Far West was entirely going after mammoths, looking to get that status. We don’t find that many Clovis settlements in the West. They were coming out here looking for that last population of mammoths so they could fulfill their religious duty. That’s where they’re encountering the local people and passing on their technology.”

Bradley, who has made a career out of the spread off lithic traditions, especially the unprecedented rise of Clovis, believes this new big-game projectile is a sign of a much larger ideology that took hold faster than technology should have spread, thus his word “cult.” The first wave of human arrival—barring Steve Holen’s evidence of early bone smashers and Dennis Stanford’s Solutrean incursion—is by West Coast around 16,000 years ago. The second was a later influx around Clovis time when an ice–free corridor linked the Far North to the rest of the New World. Growing in population, people mixed, connecting with each other, reaching a continental zenith at a pivotal moment inn climatic history.

While 16,000 to 14,000 years ago had been ideal for human arrival—plenty of water, the cold slipping away, permafrost leaving the ground, grasslands rich in megafauna—Clovis arose when the good became too much. Ice dams were bursting, shorelines disappearing. Thirteen thousand years ago, a glacier dam broke in Montana and took out half of Washington State and some of Oregon and Idaho. Ebullient masses of mud and glacial silt carried off bloated mammoth carcasses and archipelagos of drowned horses, everything inundated but the highest buttes and mountains. One waterfall was three and a half miles wide, water plunging 400 feet into a cavity carved suddenly from the earth. Large portions of landscape were erased, giant gravel bars laid across the Pacific Northwest, sculpted into ripples 20 feet tall. Both Clovis and stemmed artifacts have been found in the area, meaning that this flood would have been witnessed by human beings. If anyone survived it, they must have sought shelter, perhaps atop a basalt-capped butte in the middle of the flood, the rock shuddering underfoot as everything turned into crashing debris as far as the eye could see.

It wasn’t just floods. In Central Mexico, volcanoes were erupting, encasing mammoths and human artifacts in superheated igneous ash flows, giant corpses cooked and tumbled all over each other. A controversial comet impact may be in the mix, too, with glass spherules sprayed around the Northern Hemisphere, molten silica found spattered against plant and animal remains. One hypothesis is that this atmospheric impact, which struck over North America but spread worldwide, changed the planet’s climate for the next thousand years. Images in a carved stone pillar at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey show a catastrophic and long-remembered event, a swarm of fragments falling from the sky, possibly changing the planet’s rotational axis. Star patterns recorded at the site pinpoint the event to around 13,000 years ago.

As if Earth weren’t taking enough of a cosmic smack, some stellar event left a blast of high–energy photons and possibly lethal UV radiation in marine cores and tree rings about 12,830 years ago—either a core-collapse supernova nearby in the galaxy, an immense solar flare from our own sun, or remnants of a bolide impact to the atmosphere. These events, together with thousands of years of epic flooding, dramatic sea-level rise, and the swift decline of charismatic megafauna, would have caught people’s attention.

Bradley believes that the appeal of Clovis was largely in reaction to all of this. People may have created what he calls an “apocalypse culture,” a way of standing tall in the face of enormous changes. He and his colleague Michael Collins, who heads research at the Gault site in Texas, wrote, “When the societal stress became too much and there was cultural distortion, either a new system would be needed or the society would fail and disperse or become extinct.” Clovis was the new system. Bradley and Collins see a new American order in flaked stone technology, perhaps the shadow of a larger set of invisible behaviors and symbols, a codified system they describe as being “‘designed’ to bring order, purpose, and meaning to life in the new environment.”

Bradley jokingly called this “Mammoth-Feast Destiny.” Not entirely a joke, he used the term to describe a cultural transformation, a mode of proliferation—as if people were taking down megafauna as a way of making themselves feel larger, better able to face these huge, chaotic events around them. Some scientists take his hypothesis seriously when considering the impact of environment on a culture, while others say it’s “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and that Clovis was just another technological complex. But it wasn’t. This was something new and grandstanding, and it spread swiftly from sea to shining sea.


Atlas of a Lost World Craig Childs

From Atlas of a Lost World. Used with permission of Pantheon. Copyright © 2018 by Craig Childs.

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