Mystery of longest surviving mammoths|Richard_F||06/17/04 at 16:14:12|richard_f|xx|0||Mystery of longest surviving mammoths

Tim Radford, science editor
Thursday June 17, 2004
The Guardian

In China, farmers had begun to plant rice. The first orange groves were
bearing fruit in India, the North Africans had domesticated the cat and
large communities in Mesopotamia had begun to rear cattle, keep accounts and
use tokens. Across the Atlantic, settlers in the Tehuacan valley of Mexico
already grew corn, squash, beans and peppers and in Neolithic Britain
hunters speared salmon, gathered hazel nuts and made huts covered with hide.
In Thessaly, Crete and the Cyclades, the earliest Greeks had begun to
cultivate wheat, barley and lentils.

And on an island in the Bering Sea, a family of stranded woolly mammoths
clung on, oblivious to their species' extinction everywhere else.

Dale Guthrie, an Arctic biologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks,
reports in Nature today that although mammoths vanished from Siberia and the
American Arctic before the end of the ice age, they survived on St Paul
Island in the Bering Straits as late as 7,900 years ago. Wiped out
everywhere else by climate change and stone-age hunters, the mammoths became
stranded on the island as sea levels began to rise 13,000 years ago. A
similar group of mammoths is known to have survived for at least as long on
Wrangel Island off the north coast of Siberia.

Dr Guthrie used radiocarbon evidence to date a fossil fragment of a mammoth
tooth. The puzzle is: if humans had hunted the great beasts to extinction
elsewhere, how did some mammoth clans cling on.

"Why did they not find and kill off mammoths on St Paul?" he writes.
"Mammoths on that earlier island complex at 13,000 years before the present
would have been easily visible in a treeless landscape, when St Paul was
separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, in the most likely path of
coastal watercraft colonists."