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Creation 43(3):28–33, July 2021

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The Woolly Mammoth

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woolly-mammoth

The creature most often associated with the Ice Age is the extinct woolly mammoth. This ‘hairy elephant’ had inward-spiralling curved tusks, small ears and tail, a hump on its head, large shoulder hump with sloping back, unique teeth, and a small trunk with two finger-like projections at the tip.

Mammoths of the far north

Woolly mammoth fossils are widespread across the mid and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (see ‘Mammoth fast facts’, below). The most perplexing observations for uniformitarian scientists are those found in the permanently frozen soil of Siberia, Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon Territory (figure 2) Mysteriously for secularists, these areas were unglaciated during the Ice Age (see ‘A very different, mild climate’ box below).1

Public Domainfig-1-new-siberian-islands-and-mainland-north-central-siberia
Figure 1. The New Siberian Islands and mainland north-central Siberia

From reports by researchers and ivory hunters, millions of mammoth remains are buried in this permafrost, especially on the New Siberian Islands and the mainland area to the south (figure 1). This sometimes involves partial and even whole carcasses of mammoths and other animals. They are not found in glacier ice, as many have believed, but in permafrost that has many ice lenses and ice wedges (figure 3).

Mysteries fire imagination

The food from the stomach is often only partly decayed, and some of the plants are from types that now grow farther south. Such strange discoveries have sparked the imagination of laymen and scientists alike. They have spawned wild conjecture, quasi-scientific hypotheses and even movies attempting to explain these findings and the mammoth’s extinction.

Furthermore, many mammoth carcasses and skeletons were found in a standing pose. The earliest scientists wondered if the mammoths had been trapped in a bog and died standing.2

The Beresovka mammoth carcass (figure 4) was discovered in 1901 in northeast Siberia in a sitting position. It was hauled out in pieces by sled in a heroic 6,000 km (3,700 mile) journey.3

Mammoth Fast Facts

 fig-2-mammoth-distribution-in-ice-age
Figure 2. General distribution of the woolly mammoths in the Ice Age
  • Woolly mammoths were around 3 m (10 ft) tall and weighed about 5.5 tonnes.
  • Their tusks were some 3 m (10 ft) long; the largest tusk found was 4 m (13.5 ft) and likely weighed 100 kg (225 lb).1
  • Three layers of hair (inner layers short, fine and woolly, others coarser and up to 1 m (3.3 ft) long) plus skin oil glands2 helped them cope well in colder climates.
  • Their fossils are found right across the high northern parts of the globe (figure 2), though generally not where the ice sheets existed. The much lower sea levels late in the Ice Age explain why they are also dredged up from the continental shelf off several continents, and occur on islands off Alasks and north-east Siberia, up to hundreds of km offshore.
  1. Agenbroad, L.D. and Nelson, L., Mammoths: Ice Age Giants, Lerner Pub. Co., Minneapolis, MN, 2002.
  2. Oard, M. J., Woolly mammoths were cold adapted J. Creation 28(3):15–17, 2014.

But how could the flesh of woolly mammoths and other mammals become interred in permanently frozen ground? Over a century ago, Henry Howorth colourfully (and somewhat sarcastically) highlighted the apparent dilemma:

We cannot push an elephant’s body into a mass of solid ice or hard frozen gravel and clay without entirely destroying the fine articulations and pounding the whole mass into a jelly … .4

To solve this, many creative proposals surfaced over the years. Some suggested the Beresovka mammoth was peacefully eating grass and buttercups (found in its mouth) then fell into a crevasse in the permafrost, was quickly covered up and suffocated.5

CC BY SA 4.0 ‘Drpermafrost’via Wikipediafig-3-ice-wedge
Figure 3. Ice wedge exposed by erosion on Canadian Arctic coast. Ground shrinkage in winter opens a crack, which fills with meltwater in the spring, then freezes again, enlarging the crack each year.

A common suggestion, from the early 1800s already, was that woolly mammoth extinction was from a quick, catastrophic freeze. This seemed to explain why their stomach contents were often still partly intact. Surely that organ would have digested its contents completely unless the freezing penetrated to reach it in time? The Birds Eye frozen food company calculated that this would take a flash freeze down to -100°C (-150°F).6

Not a ‘snap freeze’ wipeout

Even some creationists latched onto this a few decades ago. But though the carcasses obviously needed to be frozen reasonably soon after death, there is evidence against the idea that mammoths were wiped out in a widespread catastrophic ‘snap freeze’ event.

Importantly, the vegetation from the stomachs of frozen carcasses shows they died in different seasons, not in one as the theory would require. But if freezing was not super-fast, why is that vegetation still partly intact? Uniquely, elephant stomachs function as a storage organ rather than for digestion, which takes place further along. Thus, the remains of a mastodon (another extinct elephant type) with partly intact stomach contents have been found in unfrozen soil.

Also, mammoth remains in frozen soil are mostly bones and tusks. (So far, the number of carcasses, defined as any scrap of flesh, are only around a hundred.) This means the vast majority underwent natural decay before the soil froze. This takes some time.

Further, even in the frozen carcasses, there is evidence that enough time went by before they froze for flies to lay their eggs in the decaying carcasses. There are also signs of decomposition in the hair and skin.7

Finally, study of the carcasses shows that at least some woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses died of suffocation, not from the freezing itself.8

Explaining the mammoth mysteries

Why broken bones in some frozen mammoth carcasses?

 fig-4-beresovka-mammoth
Figure 4. The Beresovka mammoth from the Museum of Zoology, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Beresovka mammoth, for example (figure 4), had fractures in the right foreleg, pelvis, and ribs. It takes a lot of force to break the bones of a woolly mammoth. Some illumination was gained when 100 mammoths buried in loess were found in a filled-in sink hole in South Dakota. Some of the limb bones were broken, seemingly from trying to extricate themselves from mud.1 In the far north, mammoth limb bones could similarly have been broken from trying to extricate themselves from tightly packed silt. Some of the larger fractured bones, like the pelvis of the Beresovka mammoth, would remain a mystery—except we now know that permafrost faults, breaks, and shifts.2 This is capable of breaking frozen bones, even well after death.

  1. Agenbroad, L.D. and Laury, R.L., Geology, paleontology, paleohydrology, and sedimentology of a Quaternary mammoth site, Hot Springs, South Dakota: 1974–1979 excavations, National Geographic Society Reports 16:1–32, 1975.
  2. Vereshchagin, N.K. and Tomirdiaro, S.V., Taphonic research in permafrost regions: a survey of past and present studies in the former Soviet Union; in: Haynes, G., Klimowicz, J., and Reumer, J.W.F., Mammoths and the Mammoth Fauna: Studies of an Extinct Ecosystem, Proceedings of the First International Mammoth conference, Rotterdam, Netherlands, pp. 187–198, 1999.

A major clue lies in the type of sediment surrounding the animals. Most of the Ice Age animals—bones, tusks, and carcasses—are in hillocks of permafrost, separated by hollows that sometimes contain lakes due to local melting. The now-frozen sediment surrounding them is actually loess, windblown dust. There are extensive loess deposits south of the ice sheets in North America and Eurasia as well.

The Ice Age—a very different, mild climate

Many other types of mostly grazing mammals also lived alongside the woolly mammoth. Ice Age deposits commonly have a mix of temperate-climate and cold-adapted mammals.1 Some have described the area as similar to Africa’s Serengeti.

But even the woolly mammoth with its cold adaptations could not have survived today’s bitterly cold, dark winters in that area. And in summer, the permafrost melts about ½ m. This makes it a bog land unsuitable for grazers, with poor soil, and vegetation mostly toxic to them.

Observations by the University of Alaska’s Dr Dale Guthrie confirm that the unglaciated areas were a huge fertile grassland he calls the mammoth steppe. A steppe climate with no fierce winters allows nearly year-round grazing. At that time, early-to mid-Ice Age, there would have been very few bogs and very little permafrost.

The biblical model explains this

The volcanism during the Flood would have meant much warmer oceans immediately afterwards. This fuelled the extra precipitation needed for ice buildup, at first forming only over the mountains as ice caps. The volcanic aerosols reflected much sunlight, so ensured summers cool enough to avoid annual ice meltback. (Their later dissipation helped the melting of the ice sheets.) Onshore airflow from the warm Arctic and North Pacific oceans explains the large unglaciated areas close to the ocean, and kept the climate mild there until later in the Ice Age.

  1. Oard, M.J., A strange mix of plants and animals during the Ice Age, Creation 42(4):39–41, 2020.

Rapid climate change post-Flood

Like the other grazers, the woolly mammoth, though more cold-adapted than most, was actually conditioned to a mild climate (see ‘A very different, mild climate’ at right). This was due to the warmer oceans immediately after the Flood that triggered the Ice Age. But centuries later, as the ocean temperatures cooled, and the ice sheets developed, the climate would become drier, with the winters colder in the far north, especially as sea ice formed. This would have increased the temperature difference between high and low latitudes, generating strong winds—especially while the ice sheets were still in existence. The combination of colder winters, drought, and fierce winds (which also meant intermittent massive dust storms), would have greatly stressed the animal populations. Around that time, 65% of all mammals over 44 kg (100 lbs) went extinct worldwide.9

This included the woolly mammoth. Its better cold adaptation meant that it was able to remain in Siberia even after most of the other animals had migrated away as the winters became cooler. Most of the mammals buried in the permafrost are thus woolly mammoths, found especially near the Arctic Ocean. This was the warmest area as the ice sheet was melting, before sea ice covered this ocean (see ‘The Ice Age: a very different, mild climate’, at right).

As conditions worsened further, however, their escape became no longer possible. The increase of drought, winds, and cold, with the inevitable decline of their once-grassy habitat, was against them. The loess (which in places in Siberia is over 30 m (100 ft) deep is evidence of the intermittent, gigantic dust storms of the era. Also, research findings indicate that many mammoths died from inhaling dust, e.g. the carcasses of two baby mammoths found in Siberia.10

The vast majority of mammoths that died in these conditions decayed naturally, mostly all the way to bones and tusks, before being covered by intermittent dust storm activity.

Frozen in Time p. 170fig-5-dust-storm-mammoth
Figure 5. Drawing of how some mammoths were suffocated in the massive storms of blowing dust which covered them while still standing.
Frozen in Time p. 166fig-6-dust-drift-us-midwest
Figure 6. Large dust drift against a house during the Dust Bowl era in the US Midwest

Some, caught in severe dust storms, would have breathed in dust and suffocated in a general standing position, their body acting like a ‘snow fence’ (or ‘sand fence’) to cause the dust to pack up against them (figure 5). Storms in the US in the 1930s dustbowl drought era covered fences and machinery, with dust piled up around houses in drifts 3 m (10 ft) high (figure 6). Throughout all this, the permafrost would have been relentlessly forming, progressively rising from the ground. This, along with the cold air, would freeze the carcasses of any dust-overwhelmed mammoths soon enough to preserve some.

All this readily explains the large numbers of bones and tusks in the permafrozen silt, as well as the preserved mammoth carcasses and their posture. It also explains their location and the now-frozen loess which surrounds them.

Loess—why don’t they see the significance?

Secular scientists who work in the far north know about the deep wind-blown silt, but do not think it is significant because they stretch the deposition of loess out to tens of thousands of years. This would mean at most a few millimetres of silt deposition per year, which is insignificant. They realize: “These [large bones] could not be preserved by a few millimeters of annual eolian [wind-blown] loess-fall; their preservation requires large quantities of reworked silt.”11 But extensive reworking is not an option given the carcasses’ state of preservation. So for them, the mysteries remain.

However, when we telescope the period of wind-blown silt deposition to a few hundred years or less, it requires dust storms powerful enough to clear up the mammoth mysteries. The short timescale of Scripture, combined with a post-Flood Ice Age, is the key to unlocking the puzzle.

Mammoths and the elephant kind

CC BY-SA 3.0 ‘Dantheman9758’via Wikipediacomparison-woolly-mammoth-with-american-mastodon
Comparison of the woolly mammoth (left) with the American mastodon

Most creationists hold that elephants, mammoths, and mastodons, which have many similarities but are unique from other types of creatures, are one Genesis kind that genetically diverged after the Flood.1,2 Various types of mastodons and other types of elephants lived concurrently during the Ice Age. Modern elephant reproduction statistics suggest that it would only take between 10 and 25 years to double the population. Even at the conservative end, a single pair of mammoths (already diversified from the ancestral Ark population) could lead to many millions of mammoths alive towards the close of the Ice Age.3

Present-day elephants, though classified into different genera, can interbreed successfully, so should actually be classified as the same biological species.4 It’s likely that mammoths, too, were varieties within the same species,5 as some secular paleontologists are coming to realize.6 The Columbian mammoth was about a metre taller than the woolly mammoth and lived farther south in North America, though with broad range overlap. Its distinctive feature was that it mostly lacked the woolly mammoth’s long hair. Though classified as a separate species, there is evidence the two could interbreed,7 and co-existed with intermediate varieties. Mammoth expert Ross MacPhee said: “Woolly and Columbian mammoths may be so close that they should really be regarded as the same thing. One extraordinarily variable species.”8 The evidence from Europe and Asia suggests this likely applies to mammoths worldwide.9

  1. Oard, M.J., Frozen in Time: Woolly Mammoths, the Ice Age, and the Biblical Key to Their Secrets, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, pp. 175–179, 187–188, 2004.
  2. Sarfati, J., Mammoth—riddle of the Ice Age, Creation 22(2):10–15, 2000.
  3. See How did millions of mammoth fossils form?.
  4. Lowenstein, J.M. and Shoshani, J., Proboscidian relationships based on immunological data; in: (Shoshani, J. and Tassy, P. (Eds.), The Proboscidia—Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and their Relatives, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pp. 49–54, 1996.
  5. Oard, M.J., Woolly and Columbian mammoths likely the same species, J. Creation 26(2):12–13, 2012.
  6. Milius, S., DNA: mammoths may have mixed—supposedly separate types may really have been one, Science News 180(12):13, 2011.
  7. Haynes, G., Mammoths, Mastodonts, and Elephants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., p. 6, 1991.
  8. Milius, S., ref. 6.
  9. Oard, M.J., Mammoth taxonomy problems, J. Creation 31(2):12–13, 2017.
Posted on homepage: 4 July 2022

References and notes

  1. Oard, M.J., Secular scientific problems with the Ice Age, Creation 42(1):48–51, 2020. Return to text.
  2. For example, Johann Friedrich von Brandt (1802-1879), according to Russian explorer Innokenty Tolmachoff (1872-1950). Tolmachoff, I.P, The carcasses of the mammoth and rhinoceros found in the frozen ground of Siberia, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 23:56, 1929. Return to text.
  3. Pfizenmayer, E.W., Siberian Man and Mammoth, Blackie & Sons, London, England, 1939. Return to text.
  4. Howorth, H.H., The Mammoth and the Flood–An Attempt to Confront the Theory of Uniformity with the Facts of Recent Geology, reproduced by The Sourcebook Project, Glen Arm, MD, p. 95, 1887. Return to text.
  5. Pfizenmayer, ref. 3, p. 90. Return to text.
  6. Documented in Dillow, J.C., The Waters Above: Earth’s Pre-Flood Vapor Canopy, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1981. Return to text.
  7. Oard, M., Woolly mammoths were cold adapted, J. Creation 28(3):15–17, 2014. Return to text.
  8. Farrand, W.R., Frozen mammoths and modern geology, Science 133:729–735, 1961. Return to text.
  9. Oard, M.J., Over-kill, over-chill, or over-ill? Why a mass extinction at the end of the Ice Age? Creation 43(1):40–43, 2021. It also included many bird types, especially scavengers dependent on the large mammals. Return to text.
  10. Oard, M.J., Evidence some woolly mammoths asphyxiated from dust, J. Creation 29(3):12–14, 2015. Return to text.
  11. Guthrie, R.D., Frozen fauna of the Mammoth Steppe—The Story of Blue Babe, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, p. 78, 1990. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Mammoth: Riddle of the Ice Age
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $0.60
Soft Cover
Life in the Great Ice Age
by Michael J Oard, Beverly Oard
US $16.00
Hard Cover