Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Alexander Winchell (18241891)
[Born in North East, Dutchess Co., N. Y., 1824. Died at Ann Arbor, Mich., 1891. Sparks from a Geologists Hammer. 1881.]
IT is the extinct Siberian elephant which has given us the word mammoth. It comes from the Russian mamant, a name applied by the native tribes to a huge beast supposed to burrow underground, and to perish whenever by chance it becomes exposed to the light. Some, however, think it is derived from the Hebrew behemoth.
It is impossible to refrain from speculating on the nature of the events which resulted in the burial of entire mammoths in glacier ice. That the climate in which they had lived was not tropical, like that of Africa or India, may be regarded as proved by the presence of the fur in which these animals were clothed. That it was not similar to the existing climate of northern Siberia is apparent from the consideration that such a climate would not yield the requisite supply of vegetation to sustain their existence. More especially would forest vegetation be wanting, which seems to have been designed as the main reliance for proboscidians. Northern Siberia must, therefore, have possessed a temperate climate. If the change to an arctic climate had been gradual, the herds of mammoths would probably have slowly migrated southward; or, if no actual migration occurred, the extinction of the mammoth population would have been distributed over many years, and the destruction of individuals would have taken place at temperatures which were still insufficiently rigorous to preserve their carcasses for a hundred ages. Whole herds of mammoths must have been overwhelmed by a sudden invasion of arctic weather. Some secular change produced an unprecedented precipitation of snow. We may imagine elephantine communities huddled together in the sheltering valleys and in the deep defiles of the rivers, where, on previous occasions, they had found that protection which carried them safely through wintry storms. But now the snow-fall found no pause. Like cattle overwhelmed in the gorges of Montana, the mammoths were rapidly buried. By precipitation and by drifting, fifty feet of snow, perhaps, accumulated above them. They must perish; and with the sudden change in the climate, their shroud of snow would remain wrapped about them through all the mildness of the ensuing summer. The fleecy snow would become granular; it would be névé or firn, as in the glacier sources of the Alps. It would finally become solid ice,compact, clear, and sea-green in its limpid depths. It would be a glacier; and so it would travel down the gorges, down the valleys toward the frozen ocean, sweeping buried mammoths bodily in its resistless stream. Thus, in the course of ages, their mummied forms would reach a latitude more northern than that in which they had been inhumed. It may even have been the case that living mammoths lingered in the country which had witnessed the snowy burial of herds of their fellows. Some must have escaped the first great snow-deluge, and there must have been a return of sunny days, during which they could seek to resuscitate their famished bodies; and spring must have come back at last, and another hope-inspiring summercheering, but short and illusory. And if a secular pause in the severity of the climate ensued, a few survivors may have lingered for many years. But winter, dire and permanent, was on the march, and the record which it has left declares that the mammoth population struggled in vain against the despotism of frost, and that the empire which was set up has crumbled only under the attacks of many thousand summers .
Geological evidences of a great and somewhat sudden change of climate throughout the north temperate zone, in times geologically recent, are too familiar to require more than a mere mention. The greater part of Europe, and all America, to the latitude of 36°, were once buried beneath sheets of glacier ice. In Europe we have the evidence of the presence of man while the continental glaciers were flooding the rivers of France by their rapid dissolution. At the same time the mammoth was there. While thousands of his fellow-mammoths were lying frozen and stark in the icy cemeteries of the north, a few of the giants of a former age had chanced to dwell in latitudes which perpetual snow had not invaded. These were a part of the game which the primeval inhabitants of Europe pursued. Of his ivory they made handles for their implements and weapons. On his ivory they etched figures of the maned and shaggy proboscidian, of which neither history nor tradition has preserved the memory. The bones and teeth of the mammoth are strewed through all the cavern homes and sequestered haunts of the oldest tribes who hunted and fought upon the plains and along the valleys of Europe.
The reader will irresistibly inquire, How many years have elapsed since Siberian elephants were encased in ice? How many since their survivors thundered through the forests of England and central Europe before the chase of the human hunter? To answer these questions we must ascertain the remoteness of the epochs of continental glaciation, and of the disappearance of the continental glaciers. These are unsolved problems in science .
The present writer is of the opinion that the geological events which have taken place since the epoch of general glaciation do not demand over ten thousand years; and he inclines to think that the pluvial epoch of western Europe may correspond with those cataclysms of Europe and Western Asia known as the deluges of Ogyges, Deucalion, Noah, and perhaps of the Great Yu in China.