mammoths (were really big)

man with mammoth tusk-blog

Mammoths were really big.  There’s a reason their name was adopted into many modern languages as a tighter-reading synonym for that awkward phrase.  Yes, the name of the animal came first, entering Russian at the time of the first recorded discoveries of bones in around 1600, and passing into Continental languages by around 1700. Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing the word “mammoth” in American English.

The Russian word for the owner of the big bones is “mamant”, derived from various indigenous Siberian words usual transcribed as something like “mamut”.  The root of this word, “maa”, means Earth in these languages, and the bones were, according to the locals, those of giant burrowing ratlike creatures.  Which would be way scarier than the actual animal, in my opinion, but did explain why the bones were often found buried underground.

But it takes a photograph like this one of a modern person with the preserved tusk of what looks like a big woolly to remind most of us of just how enormous these animals must have been.  If you, like me, are a cartoonist who likes to tell stories about mammoths, it’s wise to take a field trip to a museum of natural history every once in a while to stand next to a skeleton of a restoration and recharge your sense of wonder.  Until then, come back here once in a while to look at the man with the mammoth tusk.

This is important because the temptation to make our mammoth characters smaller than life in our drawings is hard to resist.  We don’t mean anything by it, but a mammoth is hard to fit into a panel with a human sized character, and it’s even harder to show the two of them interacting.  We all need the occasional reminder of the true scale.  The next time I draw Kekionga’s resident mammoths, I am going to make them … really big.

(To read more about the quite fascinating history of the word “mammoth”, click here.  And for a good set of basic mammoth facts, you could always check the Wikipedia.  Thanks to Wolfie for finding and sending  the photograph.)



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2 Responses to mammoths (were really big)

  1. Wolfie says:

    I found the photo on Imgur while doing a search for tusks. There wasn’t much documentation, but the description said the photo was taken in Siberia and that the tusk had been unearthed next to a riverbank. If I’m reading the photo correctly, you can see the trench that they pulled it from stretching off to the right. Then again, this was certainly staged, not the eureka moment, because it’s been cleaned of mud and debris.

    All I can think of is being strong enough to carry TWO of these around, hanging from your skull… mammoth necks must have been very strong, too.

  2. Pam Bliss says:

    Actually, if you look at the skeleton, a mammoth had a very short, thick neck and carried most of what must have been a very heavy head with its spine and its shoulders. The trunk is really an amazing structure and replaces the mobility and reach animals like dogs and horses get by putting their heads and mouths out on the end of a long neck.

    Thank you for sending me this image. Obviously, its content is relevant to my interests, but it’s also a beautiful photograph, well composed and offering an elegant contast between the dark arch of the tusk and the wide stripes of the Siberian land and sky. I love the color of buried mammoth ivory; I believe it comes from peat.

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