Zazula, who also participated in the study, is fascinated by the prospect. “It makes me wonder about oral histories like the Whitestone Mammoth,” he says. Found in the Yukon’s Old Crow region in 1967, the well-known fossil was tracked down by the Canadian Museum of Nature’s C.R. Harington after Gwich’in Elder Joe Kyikavichik shared the account of a “monster” that broke out of a lake, ran up a river and was still there to this day. “Harington assumed it was just a story explaining why the bones were found where they were and didn’t consider that people might actually have encountered these things in recent history,” says Zazula. “Were early Holocene people living with mammoths, horses and lions in the Yukon? I’m really curious now. For me, the ultimate would be to find a mammoth bone in an archaeological site that was, say, 6,000 years old. The DNA work is saying that’s now a reasonable expectation.”
In the children’s book Kaska Tales, author Roy Langdon brings to life ancient Yukon oral histories related by Kaska Elder Mida Donnessey. The book’s first story, “The Girl and the Mammoth,” recounts the escape across the ice of Watson Lake by a small band of Kaska from a woolly mammoth that eventually fell through the ice. Since Neolithic tales often lace oral histories in many parts of the world, who’s to say this didn’t happen sometime in the last 10,000 years?
Given the scant attention paid to oral traditions by European colonists, however, North American settlers remained ignorant of such Pleistocene avatars until informed via another route. “The first people in North America to find and accurately identify mammal fossils, and have their impressions recorded in writing, were African slaves,” writes Steve Brusatte in The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us. The enslaved Africans were converting a South Carolina swamp into field around 1725 when they came upon familiar-looking teeth. “Each was the size of a brick and covered in glistening enamel, with corrugated ridges aligned in parallel. … The pattern would recall the sole of a running shoe.” While Christian plantation owners would be wont to dismiss these as evidence of Biblical beasts lost to Noah’s flood, the Africans knew better: here was de facto evidence that elephants once lived in North America, more evidence of which piled up fast as the American colonies expanded.
Perhaps it was fitting that the first North American known to become obsessed with mammoths was Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Despite the demands associated with governing a country, he still found time to collect, buy and order military leaders to bring him the bones of mammoths and other extinct fauna. Jefferson was fascinated by what the fossils represented, but also fixated on repudiating French naturalist Comte de Buffon’s theory that North America’s “unfavourable” climate turned out mostly weakling animals (and people). Jefferson was a vocal shill for the outsized importance of the New World and his own nascent republic — it was he who popularized the term “mammoth” as a synonym for big. Convinced living versions of fossils would turn up in the continent’s vast, unexplored interior, Jefferson directed Lewis and Clark to map his growing backyard and, while they were at it, find the phantom critters whose bones and tusks were turning up everywhere.
Surely, the beasts were still out there. And, if not, where had they gone? Just arrived as Europeans were, so to speak, already there was a sense they’d just missed something and needed to conjure forth the world as it was geological moments ago. It’s a feeling that lingers to this day. As Brusatte puts it, “If the world seems a little empty now, that’s because it is. … There is a woolly-mammoth-size hole in the tundra.”
And while that may well be, modern science is doing a yeoman’s job of filling it in.