The Mammoth and the Flood

by Henry H. Howorth

Anonymous review; Saturday Review, 65:52-53, January 14, 1888

(The source for this text is Strange Planet, by William R. Corliss, The Sourcebook Project.) 

Mr. Howorth treats the Bible narrative as only one out of many testimonies to the Universal Deluge. The conclusions which he formulates are six (1) that a great catastrophe took place at the close of the mammoth period, which overwhelmed that animal with its companions, over a very large part of the earth's surface; (2) that this catastrophe involved a widespread flood of water, which not only killed the animals, but buried them: (3) that it was accompanied by a great fall of temperature in Siberia: (4) that this catastrophe took place when man was already occupying the earth, and constitutes the gap which is almost universally admitted to exist between Palaeolithic and Neolithic man: (5) that the primaeval Flood which occurs in the traditions of so many races may probably be identified with this catastrophe (6) that, widespread as this Flood was, considerable areas escaped, and from them man, animals, and plants spread out again and reoccupied those districts which had been desolated.  This is a startling programme, with far-reaching issues, which will no doubt. provoke plenty of that keen criticism which Mr. Howorth invites. In the work before us the problem is approached from the archaeological and palaeontological side only, but we are glad to learn that it is shortly to be followed by a second, dealing with the geological aspect of it.  For the present, therefore, we have only half the evidence---that to he derived from the narratives of travellers and explorers---but this has been collected with extraordinary industry, and, so far as we are able to judge, with complete fairness. We cannot say that we fully agree with Mr. Howorth in his violent attack on "uniformity," towards which, while speaking with invariable respect of Sir C. Lyell himself, he adopts a scolding and abusive tone unworthy of a scientific treatise. He seems to have set up an idol for the sake of smashing it; and we fail to find any difference in kind between the deluge of his imagination and those which have taken place in our own time---for instance, in Java and Iceland. But as regards the special thesis he has set himself to defend, that water was the agent which destroyed the mammoth and its companions, we must admit that he has made out a very strong case. This we will try to state as fairly as we can, but it is no easy task to detail in a limited space even the leading points of an argument which depends on a multitude of minute facts, gathered from the whole surface of the globe. 

The existence of ivory in Siberia in a sub-fossil condition, but still sufficiently durable to be used for all the purposes to which recent ivory is applied, has been known since the middle ages, and formed one of the earliest exports from Siberia to China. The very name given to the gigantic creature which produced it, Mammoth or Mammont---probably a corruption of Behemoth---was introduced by the Arab traders who initiated the traffic in fossil ivory in the tenth century. It was not, however, until the middle of the eighteenth century that the trade became considerable. In or about 1750, Liachof, a Russian merchant, discovered vast stores of elephant tusks and bones in the northern districts of Siberia, and especially on the islands off the mouth of the Lena, which have since borne his name. The ivory brought thence, says the traveller Wrangell, "is often as fresh and white as that from Africa." Since Liachof's discovery it has been computed that the tusks of at least twenty thousand mammoths have been exported, while an even larger number are too much decayed to be worth removal, and others are so large that they have to be sawn up on the spot where they are found. These buried hecatombs of elephants abound throughout the frozen soil of Siberia, but they are more numerous the further we advance northwards, and most plentiful of all on the islands above named and in those termed New Siberia. More remarkable still are the mammoth mummies--- several of which have been disinterred, whole carcases not unfrequently standing upright in the frozen soil, with their flesh "as fresh as if just taken out of an Esquimaux cache or a Yakout subterranean meat-safe." The most widely known of these is that discovered in 1806 by an English botanist named Adams, and the skeleton, or such parts of it as could be recovered---for in the interval between part of it being laid bare and the information reaching Adams wild animals had preyed on the flesh and carried off many of the bones---ls now in the museum at St. Petersburg. Caresses of rhinoceros have also been found under similar conditions. It is agreed on all hands that these bodies must have been submitted to "continuous congelation without a break" ever since they died; in other words, the catastrophe which slew them must also have buried them and so changed the climate that their flesh ban been preserved to the present day. Mr. Howorth shows, we think conclusively, that the animals lived in Siberia, and were not transported thither after death from some other place. The bones show no appearance of detrition; the largest numbers and those in the finest condition are found at a distance from the rivers; and, farther, their numbers decrease as we go farther south. Again, though the climate could not have been as cold while they were alive as it is now; it is evident that it was by no means a warm one; for there is ample evidence that they were protected by a thick coating of hair and wool. Collateral proof of a change in the climate is afforded by the debris of trees---"large stems, with their roots fast in the soil"--found in places where no vegetation, save lichens, grows at present; and that the elephants led on these tress may be conjectured partly from their long recurved tusks, which would be peculiarly useful in pulling down branches, partly from the analogy of the rhinoceros---for the contents of a mammoth's stomach have not as yet been observed. in 1878, however, the cavities of the teeth of a rhinoceros yielded fragments of the leaves of coniferous and other trees. 

After discussing very fully what may he termed, if we may coin a word, the death-history of the Mammoth in Northern Asia, Mr. Howorth passes to Europe, and attacks the curious question of the fauna of the Mammoth period, which appears, from its remains, to have been composed of animals the most dissimilar in structure and habits; and he proposes an ingenious hypothesis to explain how it came to pass that polar-bears, lemmings, marmots, and reindeer were contemporaneous with hippopotamous, lion, and elephant. Without going into details, his contention is that portions of Europe---e. g. Switzerland and Scandinavia---were then icebound and sterile, that the levels immediately below the high mountain-ranges were inhabited by mammals and birds now living in high latitudes and mountain-fells, and that the river-valleys, sheltered by dense forests, were warm and luxuriant, and afforded a congenial shelter to animals now confined to the tropics. It is hardly necessary to add that his hypothesis does not postulate that the animals in question lived together as a happy family, but that within a comparatively short distance of each other animals were to be met with which now require wholly dissimilar climatic conditions. By what agency, however, were these animals brought together, so that we find in the same pit the bones of the whole of the above mentioned fauna---young and old together (a very important point)---nearly always unworn, and frequently with the limb-bones in juxtaposition? Mr. Howorth rejects the usual theories, and pleads for "rushing water on a great scale." This agency would drown the animals, and yet would not mutilate the bodies. It would kill them all with complete impartiality, irrespective of their strength, age, or size. It would take up clay and earth, and cover the bodies with it. . . . The occurrence of immense caches, in which the remains of wild animals are incongruously mixed together pell-mell, often on high ground, seems unaccountable, save on the theory that they were driven to take shelter together on some point of vantage, in view of an advancing flood of water, a position which is paralleled by the great floods which occur occasionally in the tropics, where we find the tiger and its victims all collecting together on some dry space, and reduced to a common condition of timidity and helplessness by a flood which has overwhelmed the flat country.  . in the present case all were overtaken by the water, tossed and tumbled together in a common destruction, and then covered thickly with a mantle of clay or gravel---a mantle, be it remembered, spread over immense areas, without a break external or internal, and in which we can find no traces of local disturbance, such as would be caused by any process of subsequent burying, and showing that bones and covering were laid down together. 

In support of this theory of drowning he cites, among other facts, the rhinoceros found by Pallas, the head of which still showed "the blood-vessels and even the fine capillaries filled with brown coagulated blood"---a condition which is just what might be expected in an animal which died from drowning; the position of many of the mammoth skeletons; and the curious fact that some of those in Siberia are standing upright, with their tails turned to the south, as though the deluge had come from that direction. Water, again, he contends, would explain the presence of the Pleistocene mammals in caverns and fissures to which they could not have been brought by hyaenas, lions, or other beasts of prey. 

The evidence afforded by the remains of our own species is marshalled by Mr. Howorth with great dexterity in support of his theory. Those who have studied this question most carefully divide primaeval man into Palaeolithic and Neolithic; and it is agreed that the former race was contemporaneous with the Pleistocene fauna and flora, the latter with modern wild animals. The former was a race of hunters, who dwelt in caves; the latter an agricultural people who built houses (not uniformly, but occasionally), kept domesticated animals, and possessed a knowledge of the arts of weaving and making pottery. The remains of the two races are never found together. The French and Belgian archaeologists are particularly emphatic in pointing out the distinct line of demarcation with separates them; and our own distinguished geologist, Mr. James Geikie, argues on the same side. "The implements or the one period," he says, "are never found commingled with those of the other, nor do the characteristic faunas of the two ages ever occur together in one and the same undisturbed deposit." In certain cases, for instance, a layer of barren loam marks the gap between the two deposits; in others a mass of stalagmite. The culture of the later period, as was pointed out long ago by M. Lartet, could not be derived from that of the earlier. A striking illustration of this gap, or interval, is afforded by the history of the horse. The horse was common everywhere in Pleistocene times, but in France, Belgium, and Switzerland it is absent from Neolithic caves and lake-dwellings. On the other hand, it occurs abundantly in corresponding places belonging to the later Bronze age. The obvious inference is that it was reintroduced by a later culture. Again, though common in Pleistocene deposits in Algeria, it is absent from the older Egyptian monuments; in America, where it abounded in the same strata, it had become extinct when the Spaniards occupied Mexico; and Mr. Howorth might have added that the Indians worshipped as a divinity a sick horse left behind by Cortes in his famous expedition to Honduras. Various expedients have been resorted to to explain the cause of an effect so universally recognized but Mr. Howorth is unquestionably right in insisting that a true explanation must account for the complete disappearance of one type of man, with a distinct fauna and flora, and the reappearance of another type with a new and equally distinct fauna and flora, but without any intermediate forms to link the two together. An immense flood, which M. Dupont had already invoked to explain similar phenomena in Belgium, is no doubt a "raison suffisante." 

Here Mr. Howorth closes his case for the Old World, and proceeds to "test the problem" in North and South America, the West Indies, and New Zealand. Over these regions, however, though the chapters dealing with them occupy nearly half the volume, and form by no means the least interesting part of it, space compels us to follow him with a very rapid Step. Throughout the American continent the great mammals---the Mammoth in the far North, the Mastodon and Megatherium in more temperate regions, and the Glyptedon, Toxolon, and Scelidotherium in the South--are found buried under conditions almost identical with those noticed in corresponding cases in the Old World. The skeletons of Mastodons especially are found entire, the contents of their stomachs lying still intact within their ribs, young and old together, and often in a position which implies that the animal was swimming when it perished. Again, the "whole area of the Pampas is one wide sepulchre"; the bones found therein are fresh, filled with animal matter, and with no appearance of detrition. Here, however, the problem is complicated by the fact that, while the large mammals have perished, the smaller have survived. To what cause are we to ascribe the destruction of the huge Glyptodon and the preservation of the small armadillo? "It is impossible," as Darwin puts it, "to reflect on the changed state of the American continent without the deepest astonishment Formerly it must have swarmed with great monsters; now we find mere pigmies." But, after stating the various theories suggested to account for these facts, the great naturalist discards them all, and leaves the problem unsolved. D'Orbigny, on the other hand, whose explorations in South America give him a right to speak and to be listened to, is less cautious, and believes that in the upheaval of the Cordilleras we may find the cause of which we are in search. This theory Mr. Howorth adopts; for says he:---"it explains how the huge unwieldy beasts and the animals living on the level plains were overwhelmed, while the smaller creatures---those with a more nimble gait or those living on planes of vantage---escaped; and it not only explains the destruction of the animals, but their burial." The same catastrophe is made responsible for the formation of the West Indian Archipelago, and the destruction of the fauna, of which scattered fragments alone remain; while a similar convulsion is evoked to explain the phenomena observed in New Zealand, where "in the caves, on the mud-fiats near the sea-shore, and on the turbary deposits, both of the North and South islands, large collections of bones are found mixed together in utter confusion, as though a number of struthious birds of different genera and species, overtaken and driven together by a common peril, had perished in one general catastrophe." If we understand Mr. Howorth aright, he imagines that the flood which devastated New Zealand was partial in its operations, leaving behind a certain quantity of Moa-birds to be hunted, and finally extirpated, by the Maoris, whose legends respecting their existence he is disposed to accept. In a concluding chapter the evidence of tradition is accumulated, beginning, of course, with the Bible, but into this part of the subject we have no space to enter. 

In the course of these remarks we have more than once praised Mr. Howorth for his industry. We wish we could extend our praise to his accuracy. It is true that he pleads, in extenuation of possible mistakes, "the double burden of bad health and too many other claims on time and leisure"; but neither sickness nor occupation can excuse the extraordinary carelessness with which his book is printed. We should have thought that an ordinary press-reader would have drawn attention to faults in grammar for which a schoolboy ought to be birched; and as for the quotations, many of which we have been at the pains of testing, it is a rare thing to find one that is correct. Even three lines from Lucretius contain two serious blunders. Mr. Howorth has yet to learn that accuracy in these matters can only be insured by comparing all quoted matter with the original text after his own work has been set up in type.

Copyright © 1998 by Douglas E. Cox
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