The Ghost Lands

{ } Text and Pho­tos Jean-françois Lagrot The Lyakhovsky Is­lands are home to a high con­cen­tra­tion of mam­moth re­mains, draw­ing tusk hun­ters and palaeon­tol­o­gists to their icy, bar­ren shores


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a bed of thick, pitch-black sea­weed, Pavel Nikol­skiy, a palaeon­tol­o­gist and se­nior re­searcher at the Moscow Ge­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, is crouched down, search­ing for arte­facts from the Pleis­tocene pe­riod. Above him, a grey, icy cliff is splin­ter­ing and fall­ing apart, cas­cad­ing down in small pieces, and fall­ing into the Laptev Sea.

Sud­denly, Pavel jumps up abruptly, like a tightly wound spring that has been re­leased. He proudly ex­hibits a cave lion’s mo­lar – a re­main from the Pleis­tocene pe­riod – in very good con­di­tion. The team is thrilled with the dis­cov­ery.

Pavel is a mem­ber of a crew of 14 sci­en­tists on an ex­pe­di­tion spon­sored by the Rus­sian Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety, or­gan­ised by the Mam­moth Mu­seum in Yakutsk. The team aims to find ev­i­dence of the pres­ence of Palae­olithic hun­ters on this lost piece of land amongst the re­mote Lyakhovsky Is­lands, some 70 kilo­me­tres off the Siberian coast.

Their mis­sion is guided by a set of ques­tions: Why – and how – did the mam­moth dis­ap­pear some 10,000 years ago? The col­lec­tive of Rus­sian, Yaku­tian, Mol­da­vian, Korean and Dutch sci­en­tists hope to get de­ci­sive an­swers to these ques­tions on this ex­pe­di­tion in far north­ern Rus­sia.

This group of is­lands in the Rus­sian Arc­tic are named af­ter Rus­sian mer­chant and ex­plorer Ivan Lyakhov, who first ex­plored the ter­ri­tory in the 1770s in search of mam­moth ivory. Given harsh me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions, the Lyakhovsky Is­lands are rarely vis­ited. Tem­per­a­tures can plum­met to be­low –20°C. Cross­ing the strait on boats with small out­board mo­tors built dur­ing the Soviet era is risky: Strong and sud­den storms oc­cur of­ten in the nar­row strait be­tween the con­ti­nent and Bol­shoy Lyakhovsky, the south­ern is­land of the archipelago, and the largest of the Lyakhovsky Is­lands. De­spite these tough con­di­tions, the is­land at­tracts palaeon­tol­o­gists like bees to a hive.

But it’s not only sci­en­tists flock­ing to the is­lands: The archipelago is also the hunt­ing ground of ivory traders look­ing for mam­moth tusks, as the is­lands are fa­mous for their high den­sity of mam­moth ivory – home to more woolly mam­moth ( Mam­muthus prim­i­ge­nius) re­mains than any­where else on Earth, as the re­mains are very well pre­served in the per­mafrost.

Their mis­sion is guided by a set of ques­tions: Why – and how – did the mam­moth dis­ap­pear some 10,000 years ago?

• Woolly mam­moths are closely re­lated

to to­day’s Asian ele­phants • The giants of the Ice Age weren’t as large as you think: They were about the size of to­day’s African ele­phants, grow­ing to a height of be­tween 2.7 and 4.6 me­tres (in the case of the steppe mam­moth) • A mam­moth’s ears were shorter than the mod­ern ele­phant’s ears – an adap­ta­tion to pre­vent frost­bite • Mam­moth ivory trad­ing – un­like

ele­phant ivory – is le­gal • The hunt for mam­moth tusks in Arc­tic Siberia has been en­abled by global warm­ing, as the per­mafrost melts, re­veal­ing the re­mains • A mam­moth tusk can range from three

to four me­tres in length • A top-grade mam­moth tusk can fetch

around USD400 per 500 grams The con­cept of mam­moth cloning is con­tested – and con­tro­ver­sial – in sci­en­tific cir­cles, pri­mar­ily be­cause there is con­cern that the woolly mam­moth’s habi­tat is no longer, so it would not sur­vive in to­day’s cli­mate. Mi­crobes – which an­i­mals rely on to di­gest food – have changed in the 10,000 years since the woolly mam­moths were around

How­ever, for Pro­fes­sor Hwang Woo- Suk, who has been work­ing on mam­moth cloning for sev­eral years, these dis­cov­er­ies are but an­other dis­ap­point­ment. The pro­fes­sor heads up the SOAAM Biotech Re­search Foun­da­tion in South Korea, and has been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Rus­sian sci­en­tists at the North East­ern Fed­eral Univer­sity in Yakutsk, which is set to be­come home to the World Cen­tre for Mam­moth Stud­ies. The South Korean spe­cial­ist had joined the ex­pe­di­tion with the hope that he would find some soft tis­sue re­mains of these giants. Ac­tive tis­sue cells with pre­served DNA are a key com­po­nent for the mam­moth cloning project’s suc­cess, but he has had no luck yet.

By the late af­ter­noon, the teams aban­don their mis­sions and make their way into the icy wa­ters to col­lect their boun­ties of omul that have been caught in the nets. These fatty white­fish are the only source of vi­ta­mins and fresh protein that the team has con­sumed dur­ing the last three weeks, and are some­thing of a del­i­cacy on Bol­shoy Lyakhovsky.

The ex­pe­di­tion mem­bers have not an­swered all the ques­tions they ar­rived with. A vi­o­lent storm kept them from in­spect­ing a site sit­u­ated on the north­ern coast, where some years ago, tusk hun­ters found a spear made of woolly rhino horn; it is thought that this re­mark­able weapon may have been carved by Palae­olithic hun­ters.

An­other ex­pe­di­tion may be on the cards in the next decade, pending fund­ing and lo­gis­tics. Be­fore then, a nearby is­land will be­come home to a new mil­i­tary base, which will house some 2,000 sol­diers look­ing to con­trol the north­east­ern ter­ri­to­ries and their grow­ing ship­ping traf­fic in search of oil and nat­u­ral gas.

Snow has be­gun fall­ing, slowly cov­er­ing the tun­dra once more. This sig­nals that it’s time to be­gin prepa­ra­tions to make the trip back to the con­ti­nent, be­fore ice grips the is­land’s wa­ters and makes a re­turn jour­ney im­pos­si­ble. But, the sci­en­tists and ivory hun­ters will hold out for an­other week. At this cru­cial time of the year, ex­hum­ing as much mam­moth ivory and arte­facts as pos­si­ble is the pri­or­ity. ag

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