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Book Review September 19, 2002
 
Thaw Me a Mammoth
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
MAMMOTH: the Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant

"MAMMOTH: the Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant"
By Richard Stone, Fourth Estate: London 2002

Solzhenitsyn devotes the first paragraph of Gulag Archipelago, v. 1, to an old newspaper story about workers uncovering a mammoth carcass and proceeding to devour the meat "with relish." What, he asks, would have driven these workers to sample ten-thousand-year-old meat, let alone devour it "with relish"? The answer, of course, is that these workers are slaves of the GULAG, and they devour the ancient meat because they are being systematically worked and starved to death. Oddly, Richard Stone fails to mention Solzhenitsyn's mammoth story in Mammoth. But he includes enough other tales of mammoth remains found, lost, wasted, plundered, sold and otherwise mishandled to give one the sense that the mammoth is a magical, grotesque, enduring presence in Russian soil.

Mammoth carcasses have been popping up in Siberia for centuries, and have been used by the scientific community almost as crudely as was the carcass devoured by hungry political prisoners. Mammoth remains have been used as evidence for and against the Deluge. Mammoths have been counted among the lucky brought by Noah onto the Ark, and just as decisively excluded from the passenger list. Their extinction has been explained in every imaginable way. In fact, theories about the mammoth's extinction provide powerful, and rather depressing, evidence of the way in which the ruling ideas of Pleistocene paleontology seem to fall under the power of a succession of pop anthropological cliches.

Thus, in the Sixties -- the last happy hunting ground of wild'n'crazy white males -- the hottest theory was overhunting: the Clovis hunters, with their cool long hair and beards and headbands and spearpoints -- rather like a Flintstones version of the Manson Family -- simply went crazy with bloodlust, killing the last of the mammoths.

This male-centered, violent theory is now, of course, supplanted by what might be called the Home Improvement theory: "The whole notion of big-game hunters madly dashing around the landscape, killing everything in sight, is completely inconsistent with the anthropological picture...The ascendant view in North American archeology is that it was female gatherers who kept their clans well fed." The cool anti-macho anthropologist goes on to say, "To mete out as much punishment on mammoth herds as...overkill adherents suggest, 'the hunters must have been total Rambos.' And that....is highly unlikely."

So it goes, from cliche to cliche -- from Manson Family to Home Improvement, with sensible stone-age soccer moms calling the shots while the boys waste their time dragracing and chasing mammoths.

It's contemptible, really, to see generations of well-paid paleontologists veering to and fro at the orders of the received ideas of each decade, imagining the mammoths as victims of sixties rockstar killers, then changing their minds to suit the new Home Improvement ideology -- with the women in charge, keeping it all going with their steady digging sticks. I can almost hear the cute banter that must have enlivened these Cro-Magnon sticoms:

Wife: Did you kill any big, bad mammoths today, boys?

[laugh track]

Husband (played by Tim Allen): Well...we woulda, but the Chevy bent a rod on the way...

[laugh track]

Wife (smiling indulgently): Well, you just wash right up and have some Pleistocene tubers. They're better for you anyway!

I can see the Next Big Thing in mammoth hypotheses all too clearly: Queer Theory. It's inevitable. All you cool grad students get your paper proposals in now, before you get scooped. Here's the basic outline: the mammoths chose to stop reproducing ("died out" would be judgmental) because they overthrew the heterosexual paradigm, theorized their gender relations, and developed same-sex relationships with the same rights and privileges as so-called "straight" mammoth unions. "Keep your tusks out of my mating grounds!" was the rallying crying of cutting-edge mammoths circa 7,000 bc.


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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