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Thinking in mammoth time

I told a group of students a while ago that we had red pandas in North America until “relatively recently.” Big mistake.

“Wait,” one stopped me. “What do you mean by ‘relatively recently?'”

Oh, you know. 4.5 million years.

I don’t know if paleo cultivates the temporal mind, or if the temporal mind is drawn to paleo. But I do know that thinking across long timescales is not intuitive for most people. I’ve had over a decade to get used to it, and now it’s second nature. But I frequently come across folks who struggle with deep time, and not just lay people — most ecologists don’t have an earth science background, and this can come up in talks, proposal reviews, and in the classroom, too.

You know those tubes of colorful plastic dinosaurs? They often include anachronisms like saber-toothed cats and cave people. That’s how compressed the past is in public perception — if it’s before, say, ancient Egypt, it’s all volcanoes and tree ferns and pterodactyls. But this temporal fuzziness masks a lot of really interesting change, like the fact that there was more time between stegosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex than between t-rex and today. Getting a grip on geologic time is relevant to understanding the present.

Consider the woolly mammoth, that icon of the ice age that’s also often lumped in with dinosaurs in popular perception and plastic tubes. Most people don’t realize that in dwarf form, mammoths survived on a Arctic islands until at least 3650 years ago, or roughly 1700 BCE.

That puts woolly mammoths within the historic period, if “historic” is defined as the time since we’ve had written records. It would have been possible for humans to have written about mammoths while they were still alive.


To our knowledge, the only contemporary depictions of mammoths were prehistoric cave drawings., like the Rouffignac mammoth from France (Wikimedia Commons).

If the Earth were converted to a game of Civilization, and you created a checklist of all the technology that was unlocked before the last mammoths died out, it would include dozens of modern achievements: copper, bronze, and tin metalwork. Many cultures were farming, and had domesticated plants (including wheat, rice, beans, and corn, in different parts of the world) and animals (including hogs, dogs, cows, sheep, and goats). We were making masks, mosaics, and painted frescos; different cultures had invented the flute, lyre, clarinet, and harp, and had started knitting and weaving, making silk and linen. We had made beer, wine, and cheese for a few thousand years already, and cultures were mastering celestial navigation and sailing. There were cities with more than fifteen thousand inhabitants, complete with engineered roads, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, indoor plumbing, canals sewage, and dams. The Great Pyramid at Giza had already been around for a thousand years.

We even had domestic horses and the wheel, which means we could conceivably have had chariots drawn by dwarf mammoths.


The Great Pyramid at Giza: Built when mammoths were alive, but not with their assistance (despite 10,000 B.C.). 

So, who cares (aside from the fact that it’s fun to know more about the past, and you can dazzle your friends at your next party)? As a paleoecologist, I think it’s important to understand just how recently the earth has changed, and in a big way. We tend not to think of mammoths as part of a modern ecology. Genetically modern horses were still in North America until about 6000 years ago,* but are classified as non-native by the Bureau of Land Management. Should wild horses in the American West be considered native to the Americas? What’s a good conservation targets? How long (and how much) have humans have influenced the planet? Is there a particular diet that humans are best adapted to? What is the natural variability of populations through time? What is natural, exactly? Why are there so many species in some places but not others? What are the ecological legacies of ice age climate change and extinction? When did the Anthropocene start? How much have we changed the climate system? Should we de-extinct passenger pigeons or woolly mammoths? Many of us, ecologists or not, wrestle with these questions, and answering them requires a basic understanding of time. Not even very deep time. Certainly not even grappling with the majority of Earth history (to the tune of four billion years) that life was unicellular.
Mammoth time is human time. Hitch your cloned dwarf mammoth to your chariot and go check it out.

Some books to get started:

After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Deglaciated North America, E.C. Pielou
Life on a Young Planet, Andy Knoll (Okay, this one is very deep time.)
The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact, Colin Tudge
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America & Its Peoples, Tim Flannery
The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History, David Beerling
Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, Brian Switek

*When humans were capable of agriculture, domestication (cows and sheep), rudimentary pottery and clay brick-making. In fact, we still had full-sized woolly mammoths until that time, living on St. Paul Island in the Arctic.


Categories: Commentary Ideas

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Jacquelyn Gill

6 replies

  1. This is such a wonderful post. Entertaining and intelligent. I’ve had friends and clients argue there was no way puny man could possibly affect colossal earth. Posts like this are a guide to arguing the counter point in an intelligent manner. Thank you.


  2. Why so complicated: plants are existing much longer than human beings and mammoths and are still growing everywhere on this planet! Now I wonder how a plant would comment all this, another form of trans-ecological approach.


      1. Oh, that sounds good, there is one quite actual nice book on this topic which I can recommend “Brilliant Green, by Stefano Mancuso – Alessandro Viola” beside other much older research on plants.


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