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Of myths and mammoths

There are some myths about mammoths that are going to get crushed today - crushed under a big, hairy foot.

The first myth is that the story of mammoths is all about the past; something that happened millions of years ago. It isn't. It's about the present; it's about now. The second myth is that researching mammoths is a nice, safe profession involving men in beards cleaning fossils with tiny brushes. It's not. Researching mammoths is dangerous.

Dr Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Scotland and an expert on mammoths, discovered the dangerous part for himself when he was in Kenya. He was there to find elephants and observe their behaviour. He says there's a lot to be learned about the behaviour of the mammoth from watching their elephant relatives: how the mammoth lived in matriarchal social groups, how they communicated using low-level rumbles and how they interacted with humans (to their cost).

The problem with this approach was the particular elephant Kitchener encountered in Kenya. "I was driving down a road and there was a male elephant up ahead," he says. "He was in must, the breeding condition, and they're usually a bit irritable at that time. He was looking for a mate and he saw me and thought 'I don't like you' and so he charged. I just put the Land Rover into reverse and moved back as fast as I could."

Fortunately, with the Land Rover doing a panicky reverse through a cloud of sand and dirt, the elephant gave up and Kitchener escaped. But what still interests him about that moment of danger is what it can reveal about the behaviour of the mammoth and the human. Like elephants, he says, mammoths were not naturally aggressive creatures but when elephant and man - and mammoth and man - started to live closely together, it caused problems.

It is this fact that brings up the second myth about mammoths: that they are a story of long ago - as far back as five million years - and have little relevance today. Not so, says Kitchener. The mammoth became extinct probably because of human behaviour and that's not a problem of the past, he says - it is a problem of now and one that's getting worse in many cases. "Humans potentially contributed to the extinction of the mammoth," says Kitchener, "but we're doing the same with the elephant."

Before we get into all of that, though, Kitchener wants to tell me more about what precisely a mammoth was and where, and how, they lived. For the past few weeks, he has been assembling an exhibition that tells the story of the mammoth through displays, reconstructions and objects including mammoth hair and tusks and a replica of Lyuba, the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found in Siberia in 2007.

And before I can ask the question, yes, says Kitchener, the exhibition will also look at mammoths in Scotland. Mammoths did exist here, he says, although the size of the population is hard to estimate.

"They were definitely around," he says. "There was a tusk discovered in 1820 at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh during the construction of the Union Canal, between Falkirk and Edinburgh. We had it carbon dated and it was about 30,000 years old, so relatively recent." The tusk will be on show in the exhibition.

The problem, says Kitchener, is that the tusk is one of the few pieces of evidence of mammoths discovered here. "Very little remains of mammoths in Scotland," he says, "and that's partly because Scotland was almost completely covered by ice during the last ice age. It would have been connected to the mainland so animals could move freely between Britain and most of Europe but the glaciers destroyed most of the remains."

This lack of evidence can make it hard to construct an idea of the life of the mammoth, although it is known that the woolly mammoth existed here until as recently as 14,000 years ago. More generally, Kitchener says we can put together a fairly strong idea of the life of the mammoth by observing elephants, which belong to the same group of animals that also includes the mastodon. It is safe to infer, for example, that mammoths lived much as elephants do in groups of females with their youngsters. The males would be solitary or would go round in small groups until the time came to mate with a female. They would then use their tusks to fight off other males and win the most propitious time for mating.

They coexisted with man for thousands of years - indeed, some societies were dependent on mammoths in the way North American Indians were dependent on the bison. In Eastern Europe and Russia, for example, humans built their houses out of mammoth bones. They probably hunted the mammoth as well.

The way in which they hunted developed over time and the exhibition features tools that were used including some that were found alongside mammoth bones in Wiltshire. Kitchener believes it is likely that as the technology developed and humans became more skilled at hunting, this contributed to the extinction of the mammoth, although there is debate on the subject.

"Some people say it was climate change," says Kitchener, "although the problem with that is mammoths survived lots of other ice ages so there must have been something special about the last one. There are others who say it was human hunters who wiped them out." Kitchener's view is that it is probably a combination of the two.

What concerns him is that humans have not learned the lessons of the extinction. "Hundreds of elephants are being killed every day," he says. "They are severely threatened by extinction and it's demand for their ivory tusks which is driving that. It gets me down a bit. It's depressing because if humans did contribute to the extinction of mammoths more than 10,000 years ago with primitive technology, now that we've got AK-47s it's going to be a much quicker process."

The solution, believes Kitchener, is a combination of investment in protection for elephants and cultural change - and on the latter he prefers a direct approach. The exhibition, for example, includes a large picture of an elephant that has been butchered for its ivory. "It's pretty gruesome," he says, "but that is going to be much more effective in putting the message out there than a sanitised picture saying: 'This is a lovely elephant, don't kill it.'"

He also points out that there is good work being done to protect elephants and other species that have survived from the time of the mammoth, such as the wolf, although he does draw a line at the idea of a Jurassic Park-style reintroduction of the mammoth.

"The idea is that if you could extract some DNA, you could fill in the gaps with bits from elephants and then you could put it into a egg and clone something like Dolly the sheep or produce a hybrid that is partly elephant and partly mammoth," he says.

"But how do you turn DNA into a living thing? It may be possible at some point, but I would be cautious about doing it. Extinction is a current human project that we are pursing relentlessly and it's better to spend the money looking after the big mammals we've got rather than trying to bring back the ones we've lost." n

Mammoths Of The Ice Age is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, from Friday until April 20. Adult £9; concession £7.50; child £6; under-fives free. Visit nms.ac.uk/mammoths. Simon Gwynn

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