Yuka – The Siberian Baby Mammoth Killed by Steppe Lion and then Butchered by Humans

A number of television documentaries have aired recently concerning the discovery and the initial research on a baby Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) whose frozen carcase was recovered from Siberia.  Each spring, as the winter snows thaw, a number of Pleistocene animal remains are discovered as they are eroded out of the thawing ground by the action of rivers in spate.  These fossils, some of them beautifully preserved with internal organs and fur intact reveal that this part of the world during the Pleistocene Epoch was inhabited by some spectacular prehistoric mammals.

The habitat known as the Russian Mammoth steppe was a huge expanse of grassland that existed between the northern ice sheets and more wooded, mainly conifer forest that was to be found further south.  A number of large herbivores grazed on the plains.  As well as Mammoths, there were Woolly Rhinos (Coelodonta spp.), giant deer, several other types of now extinct antelope and horses.  Living alongside these herbivores there were several types of predator, a number of species of bear, plus Sabre Tooth Cats and other members of the Felidae (cat family) such as Cave Lions and the slightly smaller Steppe Lion.

Recently, the body of a baby Mammoth was discovered and scientists from the international Mammuthus organisation have been studying this carcase in a bid to find out more about Mammoths in general and to identify how this particular young animal met its end.  The baby Mammoth has been given the name Yuka, and as well as being remarkably well-preserved, this corpse reveals evidence with other inhabitants of the Mammoth steppe, including the possibility of human hunters.

Yuka – The Baby Mammoth

Mammoth Carcase shows signs of Predation

Picture Credit: International Mammuthus Organisation

 The skull and pelvis have been removed from the corpse, they were found close to the body but most of the ribs and much of the spine is missing.  There is a long, straight cut along the top of the animal’s back, this was made by people, but whether it is evidence of the body being butchered as the remains rested on the steppe thousands of years ago or more recent human activity is difficult to determine.

The scientists are fairly certain that this young Mammoth was not actually killed by people.  Yuka shows signs of being attacked by an apex predator possibly a Cave Lion or a Steppe Lion, certainly a member of the Felidae (cat family).  It is very likely that this predator killed the Mammoth calf, human hunters may have discovered the carcase and removed some of the bones and meat, or perhaps they chased the lion(s) off the kill and took over the body, robbing the big cats of their meal.

Poor Yuka, seems to have had a very unfortunate and brief life.  Healed scratches on the preserved skin shows that this Mammoth survived another attack by a cat – possibly an Eurasian Cave Lion, but much deeper wounds and a broken leg which had not healed imply that a second attack was either fatal or severely weakened the young animal.

The carcase provides evidence of potential ancient human interaction.  Radio carbon dating indicates that this Mammoth lived right at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, perhaps it was one of the last Mammoths to live in this part of Siberia.  The corpse is estimated to be around 10,000 years old.  The long, straight cut along the back, in conjunction with other cut marks that show a distinctive pattern as if they were created by a saw-bladed cutting tool of some kind, provide evidence that humans have interfered with the body.

If the liver had been removed, then this could be further evidence that the carcase had been butchered for its meat.  The liver is regarded as one of the most nutritious parts of any mammal carcase.  Nomadic hunters today, when killing and butchering large mammals such as antelope often remove the liver first.  If the liver is missing and the body cavity shows signs of intrusion then this could confirm the hypothesis that some human hunters 10,000 years ago grabbed an opportunity to get some food from the young Mammoth’s remains.

The researchers from the International Mammuthus Organisation suggest that Yuka was about 30 months old at the time of death.  In Africa, lions are known to attack young elephants (African elephants – genus Loxodonta), but this is the first time that evidence has been found of a Woolly Mammoth being attacked by members of the Felidae.

Tackling an elephant is a substantial task, even for a pride of lions.  Often the elephants are aware of the big cats, but during daylight they can fend off any attacks.  The lions tend to wait until dark, their better night vision gives them an advantage over their much heavier intended victims.  It can only be speculated, but perhaps a Steppe Lion attacked a weakened Yuka at night, finally bring the young animal down.

Much of the soft tissue is still connected to the bones, and there is a substantial amount of Mammoth fur on the remains.  Fur is still on the flanks, on the rump and the feet, it is as strawberry blond colour, bearing out predictions made a few years ago on the potential colour of Mammoth fur after a detailed genetic analysis on another frozen baby Mammoth known as Lyuba.

Finding such beautifully, well-preserved remains of these ancient herbivores will help scientists to better understand Mammoth DNA and traits such as eye and hair colour.  Although, many Mammoths were a reddish-brown colour, the gene that contains fur/hair colour is very similar to the gene that controls the colour of human hair.  This means that Woolly Mammoths could be as varied in colour as human hair – Mammoths could be blond, ginger or even brunettes.

To view Woolly Mammoth soft toys and other prehistoric animal soft toys: Ice Age Soft Toys

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