Interview with the mammoth

Archaeology brings you some strange and marvellous places. They never told me that in the prospectus. I’m currently writing this, away up north in Kikinda, in the Banat province of Serbia, a region of vibrance and colour and richness of history, matched by the warmth and hospitality of its people. Whether it’s the fields of swaying sunflowers, making the landscape look like a golden sea, or the scarlet sunsets illuminating the deep bark of the plum trees, now heavily laden with darkest rich purple fruit, Serbia has utterly enchanted me. Any nation which can boast burek, rakija, Urnfield culture and mammoths is alright by me.

Voyvodina, Lush and green in summer!

Getting a mammoth interview!

Oh, I didn’t tell you about the mammoths, did I? Serbia wasn’t always the land of luscious fruit and vegetation it is now. Climate changed through the Holocene of course, and when humans arrived they altered the landscape by way of farming and animal husbandry. Once this dazzlingly verdant country was cold steppes, which was when Kika and her kind held sway. It’s an interesting area for the Ice Age as it was a boundary which allowed steppe animals to graze. Kika is a near-as-dammit complete ( 90% of bone present) Mammothus trogontherii found almost on the doorstep of Kikinda museum.Standing at about 4.7m in height, weighing over 7 tons when alive and tusks of over 3.5 m in length, Kika was quite a powerful animal, and lived to ripe old age of 64 before she was snagged down in a marsh, where it’s likely predators did what predators do, hence the missing shoulder bones. She’s frankly an icon here, her image is used everywhere, and I’m pretty lucky to get an up close and personal interview with this Very Important Proboscidea. So with a little imagination (because we all know fossils, artefacts and old things talk, if we listen!) here’s the transcript!

TB: Kika, first of all thank you for this interview, it’s not every day I get to meet such a European star of the Pleistocene!

K. Thank you for having me on your blog. I am very proud to represent my kind, the steppes mammoth, Mammothus trogontherii as the symbol of the human settlement Kikinda. They even have a Mammoth Fest each year to mark my (re) birthday!  In fairness I don’t remember my own birthday – and they say elephants never forget. I have forgotten, perhaps, because it always was cold! Now I celebrate in sunny September each year!

[laughs quietly]

I find the celebrity very strange, I am just a humble mammoth, but I am wise, having lived a long life breathing (I was likely about 64 of your human years when I fell asleep in the Cold Time). They tell me this as my tusks have many, many rings, which show my age, just like a tree. But I very much enjoy now these times when people from all over the world come to visit me and I share my memory and wisdom. It also pleases me to see my land look so green and beautiful, so much fruit and richness of trees and plants, we could only dream of such places. So much talk now among my human friends of climate change,  I worry that careless humankind will harm this, and it will again be like the Cold Time , when all hungered.

A humble mammoth – Kika’s replica in the courtyard of Kikinda Museum

TB: So, can I ask you about the deep prehistoric past of Serbia? What do you remember about it?

K: I lived almost a half a million years before this present time. We existed even before what you call the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus Primigenius . The humans say the great woolly mammoths are descended from us. I think we were better looking, but that is only my opinion! Although the long hair might have suited me? What do you think?

TB: * nods agreement*

K: The Balkans and Carpathians were very different indeed. No dark purple plums falling from trees, no ripe quinces like today – oh how I wish I was not bones, and could taste those! During the Cold Time ice spread from the Alps and Dinara mountains, across the Balkans. All the mountains of eastern Serbia and Bulgaria were covered in ice. Here we had steppes grasses, and while summers were cool they were welcomed greatly by all creatures. 10C was balmy for us, providing vegetation other than the grasses. Winters were cold , but not as bad as the frozen lands northwards. How did any living thing survive those times? I am still surprised at the temperatures here in modern Serbia now! In the summer, I see the people eating frozen milks, and wearing such light coverings, I cannot help but wonder if the sunshine would have taken the ache from my poor old joints! I was a little slow with rheumatism. It was my undoing, of course as Serbia also had marshes, which were not easy to get out of. Who knows? I may have breathed well past 70 years had it not been for those marshes! But I cannot complain, we ruled those grass lands, along the basins and river valleys of Pannonia . I have friends who know of Celts and Romans and all the peoples who came here through the millennia when I slept – they called my homeland the Pannonian Basin. The humankind and their animals, they made their homes here too, and occasionally found the remains of our kind, and wondered that we ever walked the earth – I suppose we do seem a little improbable!

I hear my friends in the Museum of Kikinda call those ice free plains of the Balkans ‘refugia’. And they were indeed sanctuary for many creatures, although it makes me sad our kind no longer walk the earth. I led the herd, as a grande dame should. Some of the creatures I am glad no longer exist here, for they had blood in their minds and always hungered. I think the little street cats, when they lie dreaming amidst the flowers in the museum gardens in sunshine, imagine themselves as the great fanged cats of the Cold Time. But they are little, and very sweet, and only the scuttling insects fear them.

This is not a sabre toothed cat, although Kika thinks it might want to be!

TB: How did you come to be found again after all that time?

K: Oh that is a strange story! Years and dates mean nothing to me now, but I have been told that your year of 1996, humankind were making holes in the ground to create a home for a humans called Toza Markovic” – you call this kind of home a factory? They make bricks which now make human homes. In my day, humankind made homes in caves and dug out shelters. I admit, I never saw them myself, but I knew some of the great deer who saw them for themselves. They were not very keen on humans; they said they were smelly little bad tempered things. I cannot judge, I never met one when I was breathing – this is just what the great deer said, but they were  terrible ones for cuss words! Anyway! To make this factory, the humans dug holes like the great sloths, only 21m deep! They really were digging into the past, for soil is like a time machine, it holds many secrets of plants and bones. I was found there, in a layer of the blue clay which is what was left of our old marshland, and they found me there almost as I was when I entered the long sleep in the mud. I had become old and tired and not very fast, and I sunk into the sticky muddy water, and that is where I left the Breathing Way, until I awoke as Wise Bones – you call us fossils, but we carry great wisdom within us.

Wise bones

When they saw me, they were very excited, as I was very much complete apart from a few bones, which the wretched local hyenas may have made off with. Not that it ruins my looks – I rule this museum, and my image represents Kikinda – and where are they now, eh?

Anyway, the humans formed a herd of their own to protect me, with help from an even larger herd, the humans call the European Union. They helped the Kikinda municipality, the National Museum of Kikinda where I now live, the regional chamber of economy, Natural History Museum in Belgrade ( I have not been there, they say it is beautiful but very large and noisy) the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade University, and of course the company “Toza Markovic” who now owned the land I slept in. We all share a love for our past, and well … it’s my past. I am very grateful they have worked so hard to show what my time was like.
All of these people who want to tell the story of the Cold Time! Humans call themselves palaeontologists, archaeologists, cultural tourism and marketing experts – even people who made moving pictures of me! I do enjoy being in Kikinda. I am sure Belgrade would be beautiful, if you were a mammoth from what would become Belgrade! But this is my home. I ruled my herd here, and I can still give a good stern stare down my tusks to the unruly or inattentive, be they small human children or learned doctors!

TB: What would you like to tell the readers of Twilight Beasts?

K: I would love them to come visit me here in Kikinda! My human friends here would like that too, as there are many layers of history they can tell of. Just as during the Cold Time this land was a bridge between the frozen lands and the steppes, where life was possible, so too it became a bridge for humans, travellling east to west on the little Tarpan horses (and I found that they are gone  too – this also makes me sad, they were always so friendly, carried so much gossip about new grazing grounds, although they were, mostly , how do you say now, airheads?). The humans brought metals and stories and often bloodshed, even more bloodshed than the big cats of my time, but they changed history. This land became the corridor which created Europe as it is understood today – I learned that from watching the stories about the People of the Urns, who left their Unbreathing to rest in great clay pots, with their favourite objects. And after them, so many other people it makes my tusks shake with wonder!

A rather excellent simulation of an Urnfield burial, Bronze Age Serbia, in Kikinda Museum.

My history is your history – we all are pages in this story, which get turned for the next generation, carrying that story ever forward. Please, come meet me here and chat with me and my human friends!

Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

Some refs for further reading!

Kmeťová, P., 2013. „Masters of Horses “in the West,„Horse Breeders “in the East? On the Significance and Position of the Horse in the Early Iron Age Communities of the Pannonian Basin. Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der5, pp.247-258. [Full article]

Sümegi, P., Gulyás, S., Molnár, D., Náfrádi, K., Törőcsik, T., Sümegi, B.P., Müller, T., Szilágyi, G. and Varga, Z., 2017. Ice Age Terrestrial and Freshwater Gastropod Refugia in the Carpathian Basin, Central Europe. In Biological Resources of Water. IntechOpen. [Full article]

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1 Response to Interview with the mammoth

  1. ergozen says:

    I enjoy the articles on Twilight Beasts very much although I am not a professional archaeologist, just a regular teacher. The animals discussed on TB are fascinating, but occasionally the articles can be a bit dry. This article was a welcome change in its narrative format, quite excellent. It was interesting, charming, and of course informative. Thank you!

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