Mammoths Unearthed is a National Geographic special on archeologist Dr. Tim King and palaeontologist Trevor Valle hunting for mammoths in melting Siberian permafrost. Despite the oozing drama plaguing modern documentaries, it's an intriguing, surreal, and frustrating look at the reality of fieldwork.
Palaeontologist Trevor Valle (left) and archeologist Dr. Tim King (right). Image credit: National Geographic
After the headache-inducing jumpy introduction, Mammoths Unearthed covers a month-long quest to find mammoths in twenty not-so-simple steps. While funded by National Geographic for an entertainment documentary, the science expedition captures the logistical challenges, setbacks, frustrations, inelegance, and joy inherent to fieldwork of all flavours. Spoilers ahead!
Step 1: Negotiate with a tusk boss in a warehouse packed with the ivory of long-dead mammoths.
Legal bans and social pressure to stop the elephant ivory trade drive a huge demand for Ice Age ivory scavenged from mammoth carcasses. Tusk bosses control exploration and access, both legal and illegal, colouring even science expeditions with ethical shades of grey.
Step 2: Assemble a Soviet-era GAZ-71, then reassemble it in a freezing river when the water pump breaks down and a locking pin threatens to fall out.
The Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod model 71 is an all-terrain vehicle to intimidate all mere wheeled contraptions, just as long as our scientists can restore it from its partially-dismantled state. Their forlorn mid-river cries for electrical tape is the first of several times the expedition needed a friendly neighbourhood geophysicist, one who never would have leave camp unequipped with such an essential necessity.
Fording a river looks much different than it did in Oregon Trail. Screen capture from Mammoths Unearthed.
Step 3: Bribe another tusk boss.
Pairing a palaeontologist with archaeologist is a strange combination, as despite being frequently conflated, the two specializations don't usually overlap in field locations. For this expedition, King's job is to understand people and cultures, negotiating with local tusk bosses and smoothing social interactions, while Valle's job is to investigate the mammoths, using his Ice Age expertise from working in the La Brea tar pits to identify and contextualize every bit of bone and scrap of hair.
When they start travelling by boat, both their skills come into play as first King gets them access to the river, then Valle starts spotting discarded tusks among the logs and twisted roots drifting in the water. Valle's role as unofficial advocate for science also starts making an appearance, with him abandoning his boots to investigate river mud for hidden bones, then hoisting a discarded tusk while declaring, "It may not be worth money, but it's worth something to science!"
Step 4: Pair up with the local researchers.
Given that everyone is talking to the same tusk bosses to hear rumours of mammoth-finds, getting granted safe passage by the same smuggler monopolies, and hunting for the same carcasses discarded after their tusks were harvested, it makes sense that all scientists end up at the same sites.
Step 5: Rappel down soggy permafrost.
Permafrost is ground that is permanently frozen. The ice crystals give saturated soil, sand, and clay strength, building landscapes with more extreme relief than possible in warmer environments. But during the summer thaw, the surface ice melts, weakening the soils. Landforms slump, with landslides exposing new mammoth bones while threatening more dramatic collapses. Rappelling down to collect a bone is easier said than done.
Step 6: Find a cave that won't collapse.
The trickier bit is trying not to die when finding the caves that do collapse. Months after filming, our scientists retroactively contemplated just how handy a remote-controlled explorer would've been to reduce the risk of tunnel collapse on squishy, fragile humans.
Step 7: Get lost in an ice tunnel.
For an extra challenge rating, King pairs the realization of that he's lost with his lamp flickering out, then extinguishing completely to be left alone and disoriented in a freezing cold, unstable tunnel that smells of wet mammoth, dirt, and ancient poo. If only a science existed that could identify subterranean materials of differing physical properties, mapping tunnel, ice, and mammoth from the surface... A science like geophysics...
King crawling through an ice tunnel, shortly before his lamp failed him. Screen capture from Mammoths Unearthed.
Step 8: MacGyver a cooler out of a potato chip bag, fibreglass, and permafrost.
Step 9: Coo gleefully over mammoth fur.
Mammoth fur comes in two varieties: the tough, almost-unbelievably coarse guard hair, and the soft, silky under-wool. Seeing both types side-by-side to a puny human hair is unreal: those Ice Age beasts didn't fool around when it came to insulating layers.
Step 10: Wait.
Fieldwork involves long periods of monotony punctuated with brief periods of activity, all in the hope of being rewarded with glorious data. While inevitable, the punctuated monotony is too repetitive to even build a montage, leaving producers desperately inserting random flash-cuts to try to spice the up the wait while condensing a month of fieldwork into a two-hour special.
Step 11: Ask an experienced mammoth researcher.
After our producers use judicious editing to enhance the inevitable personal tensions of long field days in difficult terrain, our scientists learn about another solid lead on where to find mammoths. Dividing and conquering not only increases the odds of riveting footage, but also allows our scientists to avoid throttling their coworkers.
Step 12: Trade stories with the locals.
Cut free of his archeological partner to run interference on integrating into cultural practices, Valle promptly runs headlong into a local tradition that dictates disturbing a mammoth is bad luck. We're left pondering if it's an indication of good luck to deliberately seek out mammoths and fail to find them.
Step 13: Recruit a geophysicist.
Finally, our scientists realize that mammoths have different radar reflectivity than frozen ground, so partner up with a geophysicist and haul out a ground penetrating radar rig to search the area. The brain-numbingly dull work of carefully collecting densely-spaced datapoints to successfully image the subsurface is reduced to a mercifully short few minutes. After conducting inversion mathematics to determine the most likely source for a 2 to 4 meter anomaly, they get excited, then tricked by the cruel, cruel nature of non-unique solutions. Not shown is them cursing geophysics and geophysicists everywhere.
Step 14: Go see a man about a reindeer, a herd of reindeer, a reindeer sled, and mammoths.
Valle acquires a new, doomed travel companion. Meanwhile, King sketch-maps the tunnel system without actually reentering the tunnels.
If you give a man a mammoth, first you must give a god a deer. Screen capture from Mammoths Unearthed.
Step 15: Repair a thrown tread and a lost locking pin with a nail from a reindeer sled.
Valle pauses to contemplate the true nature of "technological advancement," and the universality of the need for a nail.
Step 16: Toast to the gods with fresh reindeer blood.
After toasting goodbye with the short-lived travel companion, Valle and his geophysics team are rewarded with a bone, another bone, and a suspiciously mammoth-shaped hole in the otherwise featureless terrain. They gnash teeth helplessly, and Valle heads back to reunite with King.
King and his team of palaeontologists locate a massive mammoth tusk, one so large they can't safely remove it without risking a tunnel collapse. Soon after Valle's arrival, they both depart empty-handed, without even the MacGyver'd cooler in tow.
Step 17: Tag along to peek at the legendary "bleeding" mammoth hidden away in a naturally-enhanced permafrost cave-freezer
Distressed by striking out completely at two sites, Valle and King change vehicle types to reflect their change in tactics. Soon, they're racing around at every possible opportunity, determined to find a mammoth by hook or by crook. Finally trusted by the grinning tusk bosses, they manage to hitch a ride as the first western scientists to peek at an astonishingly well-preserved mammoth carcass. After chipping open a stubbornly-frozen door, they both get overwhelmed with the awe of gently stroking a silky mammoth foot. Only later do they belatedly curse the unintended impact of deep freeze bursting blood vessels.
A vial of apparent mammoth blood. Image credit: Semyon Grigoriev/North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk
Step 18: Defrost a mammoth by multilingual committee.
While the arrival of an international team of scientists makes this feel convenient for words, Valle confided to me that he had no idea everyone else was showing up. "If I had, I would have contacted some of them earlier!"
King whimpers quietly at fresh chisel marks on 30,000 year old flesh, so Valle enacts revenge by mock-munching on the mammoth with a replica dire wolf skull.
Step 19: Practice comparative trunkology.
After Valle compares a muscular mammoth trunk to modern elephant equivalents, King dives into mammoth representations in ancient art, and their true-likeness to the multi-lobed tip. We're left moderately confused when computer graphic overlays project two trunks in radically different postures, then blow it off as utterly irrelevant in comparison to the surprise of stumbling upon mammoth-nipple.
Wait, where was the trunk when the mammoth died? Screen capture from Mammoths Unearthed.
Step 20: Fall in love with a giant elephant wearing a rug wielding an unbelievably dexterous trunk.
If you can forgive the overly-dramatic music, the weirdly-unexplained time pressures and the overhyped cries of impending discovery, this is the time to simply appreciate the joy and wonder of scientists overwhelmed by actually being face-to-face with a real mammoth carcass.
Mammoths Unearthed premiered on October 26th. Check National Geographic for re-airing dates.