Scientists don’t know much about how woolly mammoths behaved or how far they roamed before they disappeared between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago.
Now, a female nicknamed “Elma” who lived more than 14,000 years ago is helping researchers better understand the mysterious lives of these shaggy, behemoths.
By carefully examining one of Elma’s fossilized tusks, scientists have pieced together her geographic movements and part of her life story, they report this week in the journal Science Advances.
Their analysis suggests Elma covered a distance of 620 miles in just three years. That is a “huge amount of movement” for a woolly mammoth, says study co-author Hendrik Poinar, an anthropologist at McMaster University, in a video shared by the school. They also suspect she died at the hands of early hunter-gatherers.
Elma is short for Élmayuujey'eh, which means “hella lookin” in the Mendas Cha'ag tribe’s Dené language, reports LiveScience’s Sascha Pare. (It’s also an “affectionate nickname for things that look funny,” says study co-author Evelynn Combs, an archaeologist and tribal member, to Science’s Michael Price.) Scientists know about Elma because they found her fossilized remains, including one of her complete tusks, in 2009 in east-central Alaska at an archaeological site called Swan Point.
To learn more about Elma’s life, scientists cut open her tusk lengthwise and analyzed the different layers of ivory. Like the rings of a tree, ivory can offer clues about a mammoth’s history, based on the presence of certain chemicals.
From this, they were able to glean that Elma was born in what is now the Yukon, the territory in northwest Canada, near the end of the last Ice Age. She spent the first ten years or so of her life in the Yukon before venturing west into present-day Alaska. There, she made it to around 20 years old—early adulthood for a mammoth—before she was likely killed by early Beringians.
Why did she travel so far from her original home? That remains unclear, but perhaps “resources dried up” in the Yukon and Elma “just spent a while trying to find another preferable area to live in,” says study co-author Audrey Rowe, a biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to the New York Times’ Carl Zimmer.
At the time of her death, she was well-nourished. Scientists believe she died in late summer or early fall, which aligns with the timing of seasonal hunting camps that hunter-gatherers set up near Swan Point. This makes sense because “humans are the only regular predators of mammoths, and probably the only ones able to kill prime adults,” says Hervé Bocherens, a paleobiologist at the University of Tübingen who was not involved with the research, to Science.
The team also analyzed DNA from Elma’s tusk and compared it to the remains of eight other woolly mammoths that were also discovered near Swan Point. This added even more detail to the picture of Elma’s life. For example, the findings indicate she was closely related to a newborn and a juvenile woolly mammoth found nearby. The DNA analysis also revealed that two separate matriarchal herds had been spending time in the Swan Point area.
The findings suggest hunter-gatherers set up their seasonal camps in the Swan Point area precisely because they knew mammoths tended to congregate there.
"The data, to me, suggest that these were Indigenous people that appreciated, looked at, loved these phenomenal beasts walking on this landscape, and they worked in a balance,” Poinar says in the university video. “But it would make sense too, that in times of need, that you would kill them—a mammoth like that could provide food for a huge number of people over a long period of time."
In this way, the research not only offers new insights about woolly mammoths, but also adds to the understanding of early humans. It also bolsters the theory that both hunting and climate change were likely responsible for pushing mammoths to extinction, per the New York Times.
“This is more than looking at stone tools or remains and trying to speculate,” says study co-author Tyler Murchie, an anthropologist at McMaster University, in a statement. “This analysis of lifetime movements can really help with our understanding of how people and mammoths lived in these areas.”