{Scotland} Mammoths of the Ice Age

March 28, 2014


If you do a search for ‘Ice Age’ online, the top result is for a certain series of computer-animated movies starring a sabertooth tiger, a sloth and a giant wooly mammoth. But did you know that not all mammoths lived in snowy climates? And not all of them were mammoth sized either! A fantastic special exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh takes you on a journey to discover more about the origin and evolution of the mammoths of the Ice Age (including the mind blowing fact that mammoths were around when the Pyramids of Giza were being built!)

mammoth replica model

The exhibition begins with an introduction to the Proboscidean family tree. Probo who? Proboscis is a Latin term used to describe an elongated nose or snout in vertebrates, and the family tree includes mammoths, mastodons and elephants. A time-lapse shows an urban scene revert to a mammoth habitat of 20,000 years ago.

proboscidean family tree

With that background knowledge in mind, you are then introduced to the ins and outs of trunks and tusks. Jaw fossils, skulls and tusks give visitors that sense of awe provoked by seeing something from so long before our time we can barely get our minds round it, while reconstructed models of early Proboscideans offer the chance to get a bit more ‘up close and personal’, in something reminiscent of a prehistoric petting zoo. You’ll also learn some interesting facts, such as the ligaments at the neck which kept the skull level, shifted upwards as the size of tusks increased. If you think the over 2 metre long tusks on display look enormous, just think about having to hold up the 4.2 metre long tusks that hold the world record!

prehistoric petting zoo

mammoth jaw

The exhibition continues with a look at growing up in the herd. The focal point here is baby Lyuba, the most complete and best preserved mammoth ever found, discovered in the permafrost of Siberia. The mummified mammoth is actually a replica, but that makes her no less impressive or less interesting. Her hair fell out, but the rest of her was fully preserved including her internal organs, so that scientist could even tell what she ate and drank. Visitors also learn about how teeth and bones tell the story of evolution and age. Further skin and hair samples, jaws and molars – some casts and replicas, some originals – from other mammoths complete the story (side note: I’d actually come across Lyuba before, at an exhibition on mammoths at the Neanderthal Museum).

mammoth molars

While the focus of the exhibition is mammoths, it also takes a look at their other contemporaries. While a large Columbian Mammoth model takes centre stage here, skulls, skull casts and full scale models  also introduce us to the American sabre tooth cat, short-faced bear, cottontail rabbit, giant ground sloth, pronghorn antelope and others. Mammoth stomping grounds ranged across Europe, Asia and the Americas, and scientists use plant pollen and animal dung to recreate their habitats, so we now know that their diet was rich in grasses, sedges and other plants.

prehistoric mammal skulls

sabre tooth cat

The last sections of the exhibition focus on the prehistoric drama that ensued when mammoths had to share the stage with humans, and how they were subsequently pushed to their limits – though the exact cause of their extinction is unknown. Bones found alongside early hunting tools such as stone blades, spear points and scrapers, give evidence that mammoths and mastodons were hunted by humans. Other extinction theories include disease, climate change and meteorite impact. Regardless of whether humans were responsible or not, engravings and sculptures both of mammoths and made out of mammoth ivory show how these ancient mammals influenced early humans. They even used mammoth bones to build houses!

mastodon skeleton

mammoth bone house

The last of the mammoths were found until 4,000 and 6,500 years ago respectively, on islands in Siberia and Alaska where they swam or were trapped by rising sea levels. They adapted to island life by becoming smaller in size, giving rise to the so called Pygmy Mammoths, which are smaller than an African elephant. Not so mammoth at all! And in case you’re wondering how we know they weren’t just juvenile mammoths, the adult sized teeth in the small jaws give the game away! The exhibition concludes with a nod to the mammoths’ surviving cousins, the declining elephant populations in Africa and Asia.

pygmy mammoth size comparison

You may think why bother going to see this exhibition, now that I’ve told you about it in great details, but words can’t convey the excitement of seeing these amazing exhibits for yourselves. And the hands-on activities that run throughout the exhibition make it all the more engaging, and not only for kids! Try to pick up your dinner with a trunk, wrestle your mammoth opponent, identify the animal poo, help the mastodon grow its tusks and more. There are casts, replicas and musk ox fur – the closest to that of a mammoth – to touch, and half a dozen or so short films which let you delve further in to the topic. I usually have a very short attention span, but I watched all of them in full.

pick up your dinner

can you lift a hay bale

Mammoths of the Ice Age is showing at the National Museum of Scotland until 20 April. If you find yourself in Edinburgh before then, don’t miss it!


Photographs taken by Jenni Fuchs, with kind permission from the National Museum of Scotland. Disclosure: I was given a free ticket to visit this exhibition, but all views expressed here are my own.

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