Race in Professional Sports

As the runners take their places, each waving to the camera as her name is announced, two aspects of the professional athletes’ physical appearance become apparent: one, all the 400 meter runners are incredibly muscled and lithe, and two, there is one single runner with much lighter skin tone than the others. Why do the arenas of certain professional sports appear to be unbalanced? Are people with certain skin colors genetically predisposed to possess greater athletic prowess?

Women’s 400 meter final, London Olympic Games 2012

While some point to genetics, others highlight culture for explanation. In his book Taboo, journalist Jon Entine posits that genetic differences among groups of people, or “races,” predispose certain populations to be better athletes, with minimal cultural influence. However, as Ian Kerr of Western Michigan University rebuts, genetic differences among groups of people do not exclusively account for athleticism. In fact, “scientists cannot find any specific genetic markers that define the characteristics of athleticism (speed, height, strength) in one group or “race” more than any other.” Therefore, while some groups of people may seem to be better at certain sports, such as Kenyan athletes winning the majority of professional long distance running events in the past decade, their athleticism cannot be tied to their skin color. Such superficial classification cannot explain any biological differences that may be thought to account for increased athleticism, because there is no such scientific evidence.

Genomes such as the ones pictured do not reveal a predisposition for athleticism in any group or “race” more than another

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long proved that ancestry does not equate to inferiority or superiority of certain groups of people. According to archaeologist Charles Orser in his work Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation, “racialization is a process that seeks to define and compartmentalize the human community on the basis of outward characteristics,” and such a process inevitably leads to “the construction of social inequality.” Genetics do not and cannot validate notions of inferiority or superiority of groups of people. To do so, as civil rights lawyer Vinay Harpalani argues, one would have to prove that, in the case of skin tone in sports: “1) there is a systematic way to define Black and White populations; 2) consistent and plausible genetic differences between the populations can be demonstrated; 3) a link between those genetic differences and athletic performance can be clearly shown.” Harpalani’s three-step system is scientifically unprovable, thereby dismissing claims that certain populations are inherently superior to others.
Therefore, using principles of bioarchaeology, or the analysis of past human remains to understand their larger culture, the belief in the superiority or inferiority of certain populations is debunked. Differences among groups are due to environmental factors, or training, in the case of sports. While cultural pride at times seems to stem from physical differences, true cultural pride should rise from mostly social, cognitive, and traditional roots. Therefore, when next the runners take their marks, they should not focus on the color of their competitors’ skin, but instead on their skill.

Further Reading



Bioarchaeology Helps Shed New Light on Ancient Mysteries

Since Howard Carter unveiled the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, the world has been fascinated with the king. One major question surrounding Tut is the circumstance of his sudden death. Using bioarchaeology, archaeologists may have found a conclusive answer.

From examining Tut’s body along with written records, it’s evident that Tut died around 19 years old and his burial was rushed and unexpected. The tomb is small for a pharaoh, so Egyptologists speculate that it wasn’t originally intended for Tut, but they needed to bury him quickly (more on this that may lead to new discoveries in the link at the bottom). Bioarchaeology confirms Tut’s hurried burial. Mold-like spots appear on the tomb walls, and comparison of old and new photographs prove they haven’t changed since 1922, suggesting the spots are ancient. Recent microbial analysis confirms this by showing that the spots contain melanins, a sign of the metabolism of fungus, but no living microbes were found. The environment of the walls’ wet paint combined with foodstuffs buried with Tut would’ve created the perfect environment for microbial growth, resulting in the spots.

A photo of the southern wall of King Tut’s tomb with visible mold-like spots

What could be the reason for Tutankhamen’s early and unexpected demise? Many have speculated about murder, a chariot accident, and even an unfortunate hippopotamus encounter. However, the bioarchaeology tells a much less dramatic story. Previously, the chariot accident was the leading theory on Tut’s death, as some chariots were buried with him and according to his mummy’s early CT scans, he suffered a fatal blow to the head. Bioarchaeologists debunked this theory when they determined Tut’s head injury was post-mortem (after death), probably sustained either in the mummification process or the mishandling of the body by Carter’s team. Also, bioarchaeology reveals from new CT scans that king Tut couldn’t even stand on a chariot, let alone ride one, as he had a clubfoot. In his tomb, archaeologists found 130 used walking canes, supporting the analysis that Tut needed a cane to walk.

The reason for his deformities? King Tut was born out of incest. Genetic testing of Tut and other mummies confirms that his father and mother were full siblings (further details of this found in the link at the bottom). While incest to keep the royal bloodline pure was not uncommon, it could have disastrous effects for the offspring, like Tut.

A 3-D rendition of what Tut would’ve have looked like during his lifetime, based on updated and extensive CT scans of his mummy

A clubfoot and an incestuous birth wouldn’t have been enough to kill Tut, but it would’ve weakened his immune system. Bioarchaeology’s analysis of Tut’s body found signs that he contracted malaria, possibly many times during his life. Tut possibly had some immunity to malaria because of his geographical location, but with Tut’s weakened immune system combined with a leg fracture (with possible complications), it’s likely that the disease killed him.

Pop culture depicts King Tutankhamen as a mysterious king under a golden mask who tragically died young, but bioarchaeology shows the real picture: a deformed teenager, barely able to walk, suffering from malaria and the effects of incest.






Further details of genetic testing:   http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2010/09/tut-dna/hawass-text


Further Reading:

On the Life of Akhenaten (Tut’s likely father):   https://www.britannica.com/biography/Akhenaten

On the debate of hidden chambers in Tut’s tomb: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160509-king-tut-tomb-chambers-radar-archaeology/


Image Sources:

Tut’s tomb southern wall: http://www.livescience.com/images/i/000/017/169/original/king-tut-spots-2.jpg?interpolation=lanczos-none&downsize=*:1000

Tut body recreation: http://www.archeolog-home.com/medias/images/dnews-files-2014-10-king-tut-reconstruction-141020-jpg.jpg



Experimental Archaeology: The Cognitive Ability of Neanderthals

The homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthal, went extinct around 40,000 years ago. The Neanderthals were closely related to humans, sharing most of the same DNA, with their latest common ancestor being between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago. When most people think of Neanderthals, they see the blundering cave man with limited cognition, similar to a very early hominin species or chimpanzees, very different than that of a modern human. More recent discoveries by archaeologists in Gibraltar challenge those assumptions.

Openings to caves in Gibraltar

The human species is distinguished from other life forms by our ability to use symbols. These symbols can be anything from markings on cave walls or early monetary systems. Archaeologists also look at various artifacts and symbols to evaluate the cognitive ability of archaic humans. Modern societies and populations are taken into account in order to give context to the artifacts. Because there are no living societies of Neanderthals to compare to the findings of archaeologists, other methods are used to provide context, like experimental archaeology.

In 2012 archaeologists found an engraving in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, a British territory off the south coast of Spain. Gibraltar is known to be a long-term residence of Neanderthals and is home to a Neanderthal museum and many ongoing excavations. The engraving was of an incomplete cross-hatching of three and two lines. These lines are significantly different from the cracks and fissures of the exposed lime-dolostone of the cave.

Cross-hatching pattern made by Neanderthals

The archaeologists then attempted to recreate the markings in the cave on excavated portions of the same rock from the same cave to learn more about the nature of the tools used. First they tried using a stone with a tip similar in size to the engravings, held it in place and scratched it back and forth to create a marking of the same depth. This method gave way to a marking that was rough and uneven with fringe on either end, which was not present in the engraving. They also discovered that the lines would not have resulted in a misplaced swing of a tool used to cut pigskin. The marking matched up best with lines created with careful incisions going in one direction.

Graph of width vs. number of strokes of different tools used to recreate engraving

They also needed roughly 200-300 cuts to create a line with the same dimensions as the markings in Gorham’s cave. This leads to the need to protect one’s hand and extensive knowledge of tools. The archaeologists conclude that “this discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms.”

Maybe we don’t give Neanderthals the credit they deserve, and more research needs to go into challenging the idea that the cognitive ability of the predecessors of our species, and Neanderthals, are inherently lower than that of our own.

Further Reading:



Repatriation and NAGPRA

NAGPRA was a law enacted in 1990 that describes the rights that tribes have regarding human remains and cultural items “with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation” (National Park Services). NAGPRA is used in repatriating ancestors and their belongings back into the ground after being kept in museums and universities. The process of reclaiming one’s ancestors includes consultations between organizations and tribes, creating inventories of artifacts, proof of cultural affiliation, and eventually repatriation.

Kaats’ and Brown Bear Totem Pole that is on display at the Peabody Museum in the NAGPRA Gallery.

“‘Cultural affiliation’ means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically” (National Park Services). Many tribes have a hard time proving lineage. Since many tribes were put into reservations that weren’t their own, they can’t prove that an artifact or ancestor is their own. Present day tribes are different from tribes that these ancestors may have been from. In the 19th century during forced assimilation and removal policies, many tribes were combined or gotten rid of all together. This means that the ancestor’s tribe may no longer exist in its original form. When an ancestor can’t be places into a current tribe, the land where the person or cultural object is found is said to belong to whichever tribe owns that land.

Just because NAGPRA was created, doesn’t mean that all objects and human remains were given back easily. Many times petitions and claims to ancestors can be denied or postponed. Since the burden of proof to show cultural affiliation lies on tribes, the process to prove ancestry can take years and years. Although this law is the first step in helping return what was taken from Native Americans, it is only the first step. University and museum officials don’t always have accurate reports on their inventory and sometimes discredit tribes’ attempts to repatriate their ancestors. Due to the excessive red tape, some tribes won’t officially claim lineage because they want to get their ancestors back where they belong quicker.

I had never thought about the ethical or moral issues with keeping remains and artifacts for scientific study. It seemed to make sense from my point of view. When I look at repatriation through the lens of the people who are being scientifically studied, I immediately recognize ethical issues. This discussion reminds me of the keeping of Ota Benga, a Mbuti pygmy, in a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo as well as in an anthropological exhibit in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, MO. It was justified at the time, because it was seen as furthering knowledge on people from Africa. The issue with this is the idea that there is a distinction between people from Africa and people from European descent that needs to be studied. This is the same with universities and museums holding onto Native American cultural items and ancestors. It was justified because at the time they were seen as an “other” that needed to be studied. Today we can recognize that they are people and studying their remains is unnecessary. Repatriation and NAGPRA is currently not only helping return Native American remains and cultural objects back to the ground, but inherent racism that began when Europeans first arrived to the New World.

Walking repatriated cultural objects and ancestors to the burial ceremony.

Further Reading:




February 27, 2017 Lecture by Shannon Martin hosted by Vassar College



Phrenology and “Scientific Racism” in the 19th Century

The pseudoscience of phrenology, the study of skull shapes as an indicator of mental  abilities, was founded by German physiologist Franz Joseph Gall in the early 1800s.  Gall claimed that the brain has multiple “organs” that each correspond to different mental traits or abilities. Because the human skull is shaped as it is because of the brain, he claimed that the study of the shape, size and geography of the human skull could yield information about these “organs” and the consequent mental capacity of the person to whom it belonged.  This field of study was based on a faulty science in which evidence that helps prove a researcher’s hypothesis is taken into consideration.  When this pseudoscience spread to the U.S. around the 1830s, it was used to prove prevalent yet baseless hypotheses about the inferiority of non-white races.

1830s image showing sections of the skull corresponding to different mental traits.

The U.S. in the 1830s and 1840s, when phrenology became popular,  was struggling to justify the continuation of slavery in the face of a growing abolitionist movement and was dealing with interactions between white western settlers and existing Native American populations.  In the case of slavery, physicians such as Charles Caldwell used phrenology to attempt to prove that African people were in their rightful place as slaves.  Caldwell studied the skulls of many different peoples, including Africans, at the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris.  In 1837, he concluded that the skulls of African people (a flawed generalization of an entire continent of diverse peoples) indicated a  “tamableness” that made them suited to be slaves, and required them to “have a master”.  This view of people of African descent as inherently mentally inferior contributed to the continuation of slavery and the segregation and racism that still persists in the U.S..

In the case of Native Americans, the work of physiologists including Samuel Morton helped justify their removal  from their land in the 1830s and 40s.  Morton’s 1839 book “Crania Americana” detailed skull configurations and consequent mental capacities of the four “separate species” he defined, including whites and Native Americans.  He saw differences between races as natural and dictated by God, rejecting the view that physical differences were created by environments.  His study of skulls concluded that Native American minds were “different than that of the white man” and was cited in articles targeted at western settlers encountering Native Americans.  One article stated that Native Americans were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge”.  This view of Native Americans existence in society as not conducive to industrialization and “progress” helped justify Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies and allowed western settlers to continue taking the land of Native Americans.

Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.

The flawed use of “science” to support exploitation of groups of people helped perpetuate racial oppression and distorted future views of the biological basis of race.

Further Reading








Diet of Australopithecus Afarensis

 Australopithecus afarensis, more commonly known as “Lucy’s species” after Lucy, the famous fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, is an early human species that lived between 3.85 and 2.95 million years ago in Eastern Africa.

An artist’s rendition of Au. afraensis. Males had an average height of 4 ft 11 and an average weight of 92 lbs, while females had an average height of 3 ft 5 and an average weight of 64 lbs.

A crucial part of understanding Au. afarensis is understanding the specie’s diet and therefore environment, as the environment determines what food is available. To determine the eating habits of Au. afarensis, researchers turned to morphological features relating to diet, such as skull and mandible (jaw) structure and teeth. Based on their strong and robust skulls, large mandibles, and thick enamel, some concluded that Au. afarensis ate hard and brittle foods. However, later studies found that while Au. afarensis could eat these foods, their diet actually consisted of softer foods, mainly grass, leaves, and fruits.

Au. afarensis dentition

One group of researchers conducted a microwear texture analysis on the teeth of various Au. afarensis specimens. Different types of food interact differently with the teeth, leaving distinct textures and abrasions on the surface. Hard and abrasive foods like nuts and seeds create complex patterns, tough foods such as leaves leave long, narrow scratches, and fruits leave pits. From the patterns left on the teeth, researchers were able to determine what types of food the individuals ate. The results showed that Au. afarensis preferred softer foods such as leaves, grass, and fruit to that of hard and abrasive foods.

The molar microwear surface of Au. afarensis.

Another study came to similar conclusions using stable isotope analysis, a technique that involves analyzing the ratio of carbon in tooth enamel from two categories of plants: one of herbs, trees, and shrubs, and another of tropical grasses, sedges, and succulents. The results suggest that Au. afarensis ate more tropical grasses, sedges, and succulents, a consumption pattern that differs from that of earlier species who tended to avoid these foods.

Although researchers now have a fairly clear idea about the diet of Au. afarensis, the questions still remain as to why they ate softer foods when their morphology suggests that they were able to consume tough foods, and why they expanded their diets to include more grasses and sedges. One theory proposes that Au. afarensis used hard foods as a “fallback” in seasons when softer foods weren’t available. Others suggest that their expanding diets were a result of fluctuations in the environment, and that their ability to eat hard and soft foods allowed them to survive short and long-term climate fluctuations and corresponding changes in available resources. However, other researchers disagrees, claiming that the change in diet was instead due to the species exploiting a larger range of resources in a broader mosaic of habitats including grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands.

More studies are needed to determine which theory is most accurate. The case of Au. afarens’ diet is a prime example of how multiple methods of analysis are necessary to gain an understanding of the past. Additionally, it shows the changing nature of our historical understanding and how new methods and techniques can provide further insight and better knowledge than previously attainable.

Further Reading:



Using Microfauna Analysis to Reconstruct the Environmental History of the Ancient Helike

Despite the written records that give clues to the location of Helike, a principal city of ancient Greece in the Bronze Age, it was not until 2001 that scientists finally found traces of the lost city (the Classical site) under an inland lagoon after more than a century’s speculation about the actual site. Astonishingly, scientists of Helike Project also discovered a well-preserved Early Bronze Age (EBA) city nearby (in Saitis area) dating back to 2400 BC.

An excavation site at the ancient Greek city of Helike

Ancient written accounts attributed the destruction of Helike to Poseidon, the Greek God of the sea and earthquakes, who brought an earthquake followed by a large tsunami in 373 BC. Through the analysis of microfauna assemblages, archaeologists were able to confirm the incidents that obliterated the city and reconstructed the environmental history of the ancient sites.  The indicator species, whose presence or absence reflects specific environmental conditions, of Helike Delta are ostracods (Crustacea) and foraminifers (Protozoas). Their distribution is influenced by the salinity (freshwater, brackish or marine environments), temperature, oxygen levels or food availability. The microfossils are calcareous (resistant to decomposition) with low tolerance levels towards the environment (high sensitivity), thus accurately reflecting the microclimate with our assumption that their responsiveness to the environment is similar to that of the living species.

By gathering sediment samples and selecting paleoenvironmental indicators, researchers found that the sediment indicates a wide range of aquatic environments. Species with varied tolerance levels coexisting suggests transitional zones, maybe nearshore waters with seasonally different input of freshwater; terrestrial snail shells in aquatic microfauna assemblages indicate reworking of sediments from different environments (extreme case of damaged shells suggests tsunami transportation). Microfossil samples are also used to propose a stratigraphic correlation. Brackish water sediments (usually found below sea level) found above sea level show that the Helike Delta experienced tectonic shift (earthquake); majority of reworked shells from brackish water shows that the reworking was possibly due to wave action (tsunami) instead of run off from storms and floods.

Scanned micrographs of paleoenvrionmental microfauna indicators

Researchers thus carefully reconstructed the environmental conditions of Helike, concluding that submergence of EPA city, possibly a nearshore environment, was caused by earthquake, while sedimentation and tectonic activity caused its nearby area to reemerge as dry land and occupied by human populations in historical times. The Classical site was buried in a lagoon by the strong earthquake along with a powerful tsunami, and the sedimentation by the demolition continually uplifted the area, forming today’s Helike Delta.

Microfauna analysis showed its strength in use for deducing the past environment compared to the ambiguity of macrofauna which could be transported to the area. By conjecturing what the local environment of an archaeological site was like, researchers could not only reconstruct historical events of the rise and fall of ancient cities or geographical distribution of the land, but also further deduce how humans lived because environment, which determines food source, influences human lifestyle and activity (hunting, fishing…) to a great extent.



Alvarez-Zarikian, C. A., Soter, S., & Katsonopoulou, D. (2008). Recurrent Submergence and Uplift in the Area of Ancient Helike, Gulf of Corinth, Greece: Microfaunal and Archaeological Evidence. Journal of Coastal Research, 1, 110-125.






Alvarez-Zarikian, C. A., Soter, S., & Katsonopoulou, D. (2008). Recurrent Submergence and Uplift in the Area of Ancient Helike, Gulf of Corinth, Greece: Microfaunal and Archaeological Evidence. Journal of Coastal Research, 1, 110-125.



Further readings:

https://historyandsoon.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/uncovering-the-lost-city-of-helike/ (including videos analyzing microscopic life that shed light on the Helike mystery).


Understanding Early Human Adaptation to Climate Change

Humans living today can foresee the imminent rising sea level and changing weather patterns associated with climate change, but early humans living thousands of years ago had no such forecasts. Despite today’s more sophisticated prediction technologies, the majority of earth’s population lives in such a way that they are as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, to climate changes as early humans. We too live on coastlines threatened with rising sea levels; we too depend on stable and immobile food sources. However, contemporary humans are unwilling to adapt our ways to live with or slow down climactic changes. Prehistory contains the records of how hominids have adapted to past changes in climate without the technology and resources we have now. With knowledge of these adaptations, archaeologists and the wider scientific community can better understand how we as a species can respond to the impending climate changes.

Siberia’s Kamchatka peninsula is one current location of an archaeological effort to understand the human reaction to climate change 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. This study in Siberia is a part of a larger international research study aimed at collecting a vast array of archaeological and paleoenvironmental data– the Social Change and the Environment in Nordic Prehistory Project (SCENOP). Related studies are underway in the arctic regions of St. James Bay, Quebec, and northern Finland. In Kamchatka, the goal is to explain ancient regional chronologies and understand the ways in which prehistoric humans adapted to significant environmental changes, including global warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Archaeologists are using sixteen different pollen records to reconstruct vegetation dynamics and climate changes during the Holocene climactic optimum, a warm period that occurred during the Holocene era.

Satellite image of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia.

The Holocene climactic optimum was a much slower change than present anthropogenic global warming, occurring at about one-third of the rate we face today. The warming that has taken place on earth over the past 300 years since the Industrial Revolution took approximately one thousand years during the Holocene period. However, the novelty and vulnerability of humans in these changing climactic conditions is comparable, and analysis of data gathered on early human adaptation will enable more effective collaboration between present day social, natural, and medical sciences in order to devise responses to current global warming.

Graph of climactic fluctuations over the past 11,000 years depicting the two major Holocene Climate optimums.

Although the archaeological effort to understand the early human response to climate changes is still underway, scientists have identified correlations between environmental fluctuations and important shifts in human behavior. During the period of climatic fluctuations in the Holocene era, humans began to domesticate plants and animals and subsequently adopted agriculture. These adjustments later led to sedentary settlements and the expansion of urban-based societies. Archaeologists hypothesize that this correlation suggests that the beginning of agriculture is linked to Holocene-era climate amelioration. Further reading on these adaptations can be found below.





Class notes/handouts 





Further Reading:




The Buckhorn Wash Pictograph

Horseshoe Canyon in Utah is home to the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel.  The Buckhorn Wash Pictograph Panel is part of a hundred and thirty-foot collection of large anthropomorphic pictographs designs. These designs attributed to the Archaic Period are most likely to have been created by a hunter gather group referred to as the “Barrier Canyon people.” Although the Barrier Canyon people did not live there year round as they were nomadic, it is likely that they would pass through Horseshoe Canyon seasonally.

One of the panels of pictographs depicting all three categories of figures

This then likely explains the purpose behind the pictographs; the canyons have very difficult terrain even to this day (visitor sites detail the canyon as inaccessible for wheelchairs and challenging for inexperienced hikers) and hence the designs were likely used as some sort of religious ceremony for safe travel. This is further evidenced by the location of the pictographs. The pictographs are not located within caverns or places of likely temporary habitation, but rather they are in very visible locations. Most of the designs are near the entrances and exits of long canyons. This indicates that the pictographs were likely painted before entering a long stretch of canyon, in order to pray to some sort of religious figure for safety, and were painted after having exited a stretch of cavern as means of thanks for a safe journey. There also seems to be evidence of respect for these drawings as despite the fact that there is a copious number, very few have been painted over, which gives additional merit to the idea that these designs had religious implications.

An example of what has been categorized as a spirit figure

The religious implications of the designs are also evidenced by the classification that archeologists have done to the different pictographs to divide them into figures known as composite, citizen, and spirit. These then show that the Barrier Canyon people were trying to indicate or initiate contact between themselves and some sort of gods. The citizen figures are discernibly humanoid and shorter than the composite or the spirit figures and were typically using their arms in legs in some sort of activity such as running. In contrast, the composite figures did have some human-like body parts but also were made up of animals. The most common animals used were snakes, sheep, and birds, which gives some indication as to the majority of animals that lived in the canyons. Finally, the spirit figures are arguably the most interesting as they give further evidence for the notion that these drawings were religious in nature. They were anthropomorphic, however, they were also frequently missing limbs and had some other notable inhuman characteristic (large eyes, horns, or antennae). Notably, their torsos were often marked with symbols that represented the elements. This provides strong indication that these pictographs were used as a sort of religious ritual to both secure safe passage and show gratitude for it.


For further reading:



Mammoths and Archaeology

History of Mammoth Breeds

Throughout the course of time, there have been a few different types of mammoths. About 1.8 million years ago, a breed of mammoth known today as the southern mammoth crossed into North America via a temporary land bridge in the Bering Strait. The Columbian mammoth was also a prevalent breed in North America, with its range covering the present-day United States down to Nicaragua. The smallest of the mammoth species was the woolly mammoth. A little over 100,000 years ago was the first time they were able to get to North America, again via the Bering Strait land bridge. Archaeologists know the migration patterns based on the ages of skeletons and fossils that are found across the globe.

The migratory paths of the woolly and Columbian mammoths.

What We Know About the Mammoths

Much of what we know today about the woolly mammoth comes from their teeth. The aforementioned breeds of mammoths were only able to be differentiated because of variations in their teeth. For example, the woolly mammoth had the most enamel ridges in order to protect its teeth from the abrasive grasses it consumed. Scientists at the Natural History Museum in London used a micro-CT scan to map the changes in mammoth teeth throughout their lifetimes based on the microscopic features on worn down enamel.

Reasons for Extinction

There are three ways archaeologists believe that the woolly mammoth met its demise. The first is from human interference. For humans living during the Pleistocene era, woolly mammoths were a source of meat, thick hide, fur, and bone. It would have only made sense for humans to kill as many mammoths as possible. The second belief is that the woolly mammoth went extinct because a large meteorite or comet struck the Earth. This would have also caused a mass extinction of many other animals as well. The third belief is that climate change shrunk the woolly mammoth’s territory so quickly that the beasts could not adapt to the warmer climate quickly enough. The changing climate has been affecting populations of animals for millions of years, so this hypothesis is the most plausible.

Can We Bring Them Back?

Within the last few years, news headlines have been talking about the possibility of cloning a woolly mammoth. In 2013, archaeologists uncovered a well-preserved woolly mammoth from a peat bog in Siberia. The contents of its stomach contained grassland plants such as buttercups and dandelions, so the animal was nicknamed Buttercup. After just a few tests, archaeologists were able to find blood oozing from Buttercup near her elbow. The blood told a lot about Buttercup, but so far an undamaged strand of DNA cannot be found. Cloning is temporarily out of the picture. The best that science can hope for is to combine DNA from Buttercup with that of elephants, essentially creating a new breed of mammoth.

A University of Michigan student with Buttercup the mammoth.

For Further Reading