was found buried beneath the snow?
What if it was found by a ragged band of hunters
and amongst them was a young man who spoke a single word
that rolled like a stone from the back of his throat onto the tip of his tongue
recalling the unblocking of a passageway to an ancient cave
where an unknown creature was painted in red ochre with long tusks?
What if, when he spoke its name, those old bones
and the ragged chunks of skin and dirty frozen clumps of fur
began to shudder and something massive began to raise itself from the ice?
What if, when it shook itself off, the boy climbed onto its back like a monkey?
Would you stare with eyes wide as frozen lakes or would you run
or would you take his hand, climb onto mammoth-back,
put your arms around his chest and ride away?
I wrote this poem based on a journey I undertook to find out more about my haunting by visions of mammoth graveyards. I have recently found out such places exist, for example at Yana-Indighirka and Volchya Griva in Siberia and that, more disturbingly, as the ice melts due to climate change, more mammoth remains are being exposed. This has sparked a ‘Siberian mammoth tusk gold rush’ and, in Yukatia, guided tours to mammoth graveyards are being offered along with the opportunity to join hunts.
I also discovered that people in Dolní Věstonice, in the Czech Republic, and in Mezherich, in Russia, built houses out of elaborately arranged mammoth bones and that, at Kostenski, a 40 foot circular building created from the bones of 60 mammoths was unearthed – possibly a temple? These buildings are some of our oldest examples of human architecture and are suggestive of a spiritual relationship with the massive creatures with whom they shared their tundral landscape. Such care and shared communal use contrasts with the individualistic money-grabbing in our time.
The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) roamed not only Siberia but Europe during the Ice Age. Its remains have been found in Scotland but are most concentrated in southern England, where the glaciers did not reach for so long, particularly on the Thames.
Remains of the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), the woolly mammoth’s older larger predecessor, dating back 600,000 years, have been found on West Runton Beach in Norfolk.
It seems likely the mammoth played a central part in the religion and culture of Paleolithic people in Europe too. The Red Lady of Paviland (who was really a male hunter) was buried with mammoth ivory in Paviland Cave, on the Gower Peninsula, 33,000 years ago and is our earliest ritual burial. In the Franco-Cantabrian caves are numerous paintings of mammoths including the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths in Rouffignac.
There is a mammoth-shaped hole in our psyches which cannot be filled in an interglacial. Yet the memories of mammoths continue to speak to us in visions, in dreams, and, more hauntingly, in physical reality as their remains are removed from the ice.