Back in February 2017 I read that scientists at Harvard were ‘within two years of cloning a woolly mammoth’. Or more accurately, they would be able to grow a part-mammoth, part-elephant embryo with some mammoth characteristics. [This post was written at the time; it’s now December 2022 and I haven’t seen any mammoths yet.]
At first I was indignant; an article in The Independent suggested that the embryo would be implanted in an elephant mother, which could prove fatal. This is an abominable idea, so I was relieved to read in The Telegraph that the clone will be brought to term in a machine. This is a bit creepy too; at the moment they’re busy growing mice in jars. But the goals are admirable. The lessons learnt might help preserve endangered living species, especially the mammoths’ nearest relative the Asian elephant. And – I hadn’t known this – mammoths helped to keep the tundra from melting by punching holes through it when foraging for food underneath. This let cold air in which kept the ice frozen. The herds of mammoths, which Harvard – and Penn State, who have their own Mammoth Genome Project – would have grazing the icy plains again could help to slow the melting of the North. Hooray for today.
But back to my knee-jerk feeling that this whole idea was cruel and pointless. Why, I thought, do we need to see mammoths in the flesh again when they’re still here, to the life, in cave paintings?
The superb drawing I’ve used as the header image is from the Cave at Rouffignac in the Dordogne. It’s incredible just to think that the artist who drew it, 13,000 years ago, had seen a mammoth in the flesh. Rouffignac is famous as ‘the Cave of a Hundred Mammoths’ and a piece like the frieze below is breathtaking. The bottom half of the picture has been clouded by a calcium deposit, but this must be exactly what a herd of mammoths looked like. The painter knew them, their habits, how they moved and what they smelt and sounded like. The sheer quality and life of cave-paintings never ceases to amaze me.