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The chronicles of Novosibirsk

Mammoth, Siberia: the village built on the bones of extinct beasts

By Vera Salnitskaya
21 September 2015

Thousands of years ago woolly mammoths came here to die: but why?  The macabre ancient remains haunt local residents to this day.

Dig your potato plot here, and you find mammoth bones. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

Baker Galina Chuyko, 48, recounts a story that is all too familiar to residents of this village in Novosibirsk region. 

'In July, we needed to put in some new water pipes,' she said. 'The workmen began to dig, scooped up the soil, and there they were. Bones. 

'Out came teeth, a jaw, and tusks. There was one very good tooth. Naturally, it was all taken away by the workers who were here digging. There was such a big bone but it immediately disappeared in their car. I managed to save some others and gave  them to the school.'

With disbelief that there could be any other reason for outsiders to come to her village, than hunting the locality's souvenirs, she asked:  'Are you here to collect bones?'

Dig your potato plot here, and you find mammoth bones. Plough the fields, the same. Excavate for a new basement - and there are more relics of these magnificent extinct creatures which perished thousands of years ago.

Mamontovoye - or Mammoth - village, population 318, is comprises two streets and three lanes. It lies some 250 kilometres west of the regional capital Novosibirsk. Not many villages around here have their own coat of arms, but this one does. It features a mammoth.

In many ways, this is a typical Siberian rural scene. Geese patrol the street, and a friendly goat is busy munching grass. It pauses to kiss our photographer. Most of the houses are neat and well-kept, although some lie abandoned on the edge of the village.

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mamontovoye - or Mammoth - village, population 318, is comprises two streets and three lanes. It lies some 250 kilometres west of the regional capital Novosibirsk. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

In one room of the village school is the local history museum which is dedicated to... the woolly mammoths on which it is built.  Vladimir Turkin, 53, a history teacher, remembers interest in the bones and tusks from academicians in distant Soviet times. 

'They dug the soil for the remains,' he said, referring to a research expedition in 1968. 'They stored the bones in a warehouse which became abandoned over time, and all the bags with the bones were stolen,' he noted, dejectedly. 'Some of the bones were in the school, then got lost somewhere.

'It's the case that mammoth bones are not perceived as having a great value here. There are so many of them. We have running water in almost in every house, so when they put in the water pipes, they dug up a lot of bones. We wanted to open our own proper museum, and to attract tourists.'

There are other communities called Mammoth, notably in the US, yet this Siberian village has devotees from around the globe. 

'People call us from all over the world,' he explained. 'Roughly speaking, if you dig a hole to build  a new toilet to a depth of half a metre, a layer of bones appears.' This seam is two metres deep. 'We have some abandoned houses with lots of mammoth bones underneath them. There were even some tusks stuck through the walls of the cellars.'

An untold quantity of tusks have been stolen over the years from this village, yet - unlike mammoth remains in some other regions - the remains in this ancient necropolis are not ideal for use in the ivory industry. The tusks are too young, says Mr Turkin, a fact which may give a clue about what happened here thousands of years ago. 'Mind you, the  mammoths that are buried deeper in the ground, they were bigger. Later they became smaller, I do not know why...'

Galina Chuyko

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Baker Galina Chuyko, 48: 'The workmen began to dig, scooped up the soil, and there they were. Bones.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, Galina Chuyko

We found a scientist working close to the village, painstakingly examining the bones of these ancient beasts, and he thinks he knows the answer to the mystery of Mamontovoye. But, first, hear the descriptions of other local residents which testify to how commonplace mammoth remains are in this corner of Siberia . 

Everyone has a story on this. Svetlana Weber, 44, a mathematics teacher in the village school said: 'We were digging out the basement. I can't recall exactly when, but around 1998. There were so many bones and we were throwing them away together with the soil. We didn't see any value in them.

'As we were making the walls of our basement we left the bones, sticking out. They were like a decor embedded in the walls. And when we got the opportunity to make the brick cellar we hid the bones behind the brick walls. It was five years ago.'

Many of the adults in the village seem to be teachers. Others work in agriculture. 

Tatiana Neborak, 42, a geography teacher, had a similar experience. 'When we dug our basement we found a lot of bones,' she said. 'Joints, fragments of ribs, and shoulder blades. Then the Japanese came and began to pick out the bones from the walls.' This caused problems. 'Our basement fell down - it was ten years ago,' she said.

Despite the pilfering of bones, there are rules against it, and new finds should be examined by scientists as soon as they are made.

Vladimir Turkin

Svetlana Weber

Tatyana Neborak

Mammoth bones

Mammoth bones

Mammoth village

Vladimir Turkin, 53, a history teacher; Svetlana Weber, 44, a mathematics teacher; Tatiana Neborak, 42 and the school collection of mammoth bones. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

Pensioner Alexandra Lashova, 76, recalled that the village was founded in 1953, the year that Stalin died. A collective farm in nearby Alabuga needed to expand, and this area was chosen as its new territory. 

'They built the village from scratch,' she said. 'The builders were local. Heavy machinery was brought in, and worked started, and at the same time people built their own houses. We began to construct the main administrative building, and started making a hole in the ground for the toilet. And then we found a huge bone. 

'No-one could understand what creature it belonged to. We turned to the vet, Alexander Semyonov. He did not know. He had never seen such bones before. At the time, no-one knew that these were woolly mammoths.'

Puzzled locals went to the Communist Party, the font of all wisdom at the time, for an explanation. 

'The district committee contacted the Institute of Archaeology, and the first expedition arrived,' she remembered. They began to dig and found a lot of bones. I lived in a neighbouring village, so we came here regularly to watch... it turned out that this was a very important scientific find.'

Mammoth bones

Mammoth bones

Mammoth bones

Mammoth bones

Despite the pilfering of bones, there are rules against it, and new finds should be examined by scientists as soon as they are made. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

The turmoil of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the financial crises in the years that followed, meant that other matters were more important than investigating the mammoth bones. But now leading Siberian paleontologist Sergey Leshchinsky, head of the Laboratory of Continental Ecosystems of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic periods, at Tomsk State University, is back in the village, sensing that the remains here hold the key to the great mystery of why the woolly mammoths became extinct. 

'We should have been digging here long before, of course,' the associate professor readily admits. 'But, imagine, in 1991, when people already knew that it was a unique place, there was no money to fund research. Furthermore, the village at the time was very populated, many people lived  here, and it was impossible to dig.'

He pointed at the now-abandoned homes, a sign of the population migration to the cities since the fall of Soviet times. 'All of these had people living here in the past' - which would have made excavations more difficult.  

So why are these bones here? He has an intriguing theory,  but first he questions previous accounts about the strange phenomenon of this woolly mammoth burial ground which, he estimates, is at least 10,000 years old. 

Alexandra Lashova

Mammoth village

Alexandra Lashova

Pensioner Alexandra Lashova, 76: 'I lived in a neighbouring village, so we came here regularly to watch... it turned out that this was a very important scientific find.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

'A few decades ago there were a couple of major theories as to why so many bones were found here,' he said. 'There was a time when the hunting theory prevailed. This stated that ancient people were such good hunters and they could destroy so many mammoths. The main advantage of this version was that it was difficult to find other explanations.

'The idea was that the mammoths were dying of hunger. At the time, there may have been an island. The mammoths came here by accident - and couldn't escape.' Could they be picked off by ancient man?

But this doesn't sound solid enough, because certainly mammoths - like elephants - could swim very well. 

'Then we also found several weapons,' he said. 'They are very rare, but still they are present here, and this is important. For a brief period the version of human extermination of the animals returned. However, he now thinks there is another explanation for the prehistoric woolly mammoth burial ground at Mamontovoye, and at other sites in Siberia. 'The theory on which we are working now is that the mammoth died of mineral starvation,' he explained. 

The beasts were short of vital calcium and other minerals due perhaps to dramatic climate change which had altered the balance of the eco-system in which they lived. He believes this site was a 'salt lick', like another he is also investigating at Dubrovsky, around 100 kilometres away.

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Mammoth village

Dr Sergey Leshchinsky: 'After the new discoveries I think 'there will be no doubt that this is a 'salt lick'.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

Generations of mammoths flocked here seeking to correct a dietary imbalance that was - literally - weakening the species. They may have wallowed  in mud baths, for part of this site was a shallow lake 10,000 year ago. In doing so, they may have made themselves sitting targets for ancient human warriors. But separately the scientist has established the existence of widespread osteoporosis in many Siberian mammoths, suggesting that they were chronically weakened by bone disease.

Salt is required for the development and maintenance of bones, muscles, circulatory systems and the nervous systems. It comprises sodium and chloride but carries trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium. Recent finds at Mamontovoye suggest the hulking creatures literally crushed the bones of their forbears as they sought the sustenance.

'After the new discoveries I think 'there will be no doubt that this is a 'salt lick'', said Dr Leshchinski. 'We would like to either deny, or confirm the theory of mineral starvation.' He hopes the results of two summer digs at Mamontovoye will assist him in this. 

Comments (4)

It is highly unlikely that the mammoths were trampling each other. From the conditions of the bones, they
were sick. Normally at salt licks animals come and go; they do not die there. It will be found that it was not a deadly bacteria or virus that killed them.
Joanne Ballard, Knoxville Tennessee USA
28/10/2015 05:35
@Madaza - here is the example of natural modern salt lick in Siberia
and here is the example with modern elephantsкопия2.jpg
Ksusha, Omsk
23/10/2015 13:44
If you read the story through, there are other areas of high bone numbers. What if they are the left-overs after construction of a 'Mammoth House' or two?
Davi, UK
03/10/2015 01:23
I find it hard to believe that mammoths would trample each other over a salt lick. Osteoporosis develops over years and years. I think everyone would be able to get a chance over that period of time to get their fair share! Certainly that behaviour doesn't happen in modern large (or small) herbivores. If indeed, the mammoths were afflicted by weakened bones that subsequently lead to their dying en masse, then maybe it is not osteoporosis but some type of bone degeneration lesions caused by some as yet unknown deadly bacteria.
Madaza, Trinidad
01/10/2015 21:35

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