Million years of mammoths in Serbia
Latest excavation data indicate the continuous existence of mammoths in the same geographical area for almost a million of years – based on mammoths' remains from earlier periods of their evolution (ca. 780,000 years ago) to their extinction (ca. 10,000 years ago). This was proven by fossil remains of Steppe and its ultimate descendant Woolly Mammoth, which were excavated in the Drmno open-cast lignite mine, in 2009 and 2012.
During the coil exploitation in the Drmno open-cast lignite mine, adjacent to the famous Roman site of Viminacium, approximately 90km east of Belgrade, the 75m tall geological Pleistocene profiles were opened. In May 2009, the fossil remains of a large animal were found on a depth of 27m. Archeologists from the site of Viminacium supported by paleontologist of the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia, an IUCN Member, stopped the exploitation. Further investigation on the site revealed a complete fossil skeleton which was scientifically proven to belong to a male Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) that stood about 4m tall, weighted around 9,5t and was around 62 years of age when it died (Lister et al., 2012). The sensational finding from early Middle Pleistocene represents the "extremely rare" fossilized skull of a Steppe Mammoth (that lived 780,000-500,000 years ago), and is one of the most complete and best preserved skeletons of this species. Experts of the Natural History Museum of Belgrade, with the support of the director of the Viminacium project, Dr Miomir Korаć, finalized the skeleton restoration and conservation in situ. This discovery attracted the attention of numerous world media as well as distinguished scientists in the field of paleontology, amongst which Dr Adrian Lister, a mammoth expert from London's Natural History Museum and University College London that published the original scientific work in cooperation with experts from Serbia.
According to the results of the first studies, the paleontologists assumed that the discovered fossil skeleton belongs the ancient species known as the Southern Mammoth (M. meridionalis), whose antecessors migrated from North Africa to Eurasian continent more than a million years ago. The Southern Mammoth inhabited mostly the areas under forest vegetation and was adapted to live in a moderate warm climate. Approximately 600,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene, the climate become drier and colder, savannas changed into steppes. Due to climate changes, the Southern Mammoth gradually evolved into the Steppe Mammoth. The Steppe Mammoth is of special importance for the analysis of the evolution of these fascinating mammals given that it represents the transitional phase between the Southern Mammoth and the more recently widespread Woolly Mammoth.
In June 2012, three years after the sensational discovery, at only some 1,900m from the site, a large mining excavator hit a giant bone again. All the activities were stopped and group of experts from the Archaeological Institute of Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia and the Natural History Museum from Belgrade visited the site. Besides a 4.2m long tusk, a careful excavation on the very edge of the loess cliff revealed a number of bones, of most probably some 5-8 individuals, placed on 8 different locations not far from each other. Given that the bones of more individuals were not found in their natural position, the site is considered to be a “mammoths cemetery” where the bones were moved around most probably by the scavengers. All fossil findings were located at the same level, 19 meters deep. Based on the morphometric bones' analysis, the depth level and the type of sediments, it was concluded that the fossil remains belonged to Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius), a species almost 700,000 years younger than the Steppe Mammoth. It is estimated that the fossil bones from the loess deposition are 50,000-60,000 years old.
With long brown hair, huge curved tusks, tall and massive upright head, 4m tall and with 6t weight, the Woolly Mammoth became a symbol of the ice age. It was adapted to cold and harsh climate, as indicated by the frozen mammoths found in the thick layers of ice in the Arctic circle of Siberia. It inhabited ice age steppe areas rich in grass, with occasional pine and birch vegetation. It shared its habitat with other, now extinct, species such as Woolly Rhinoceros, Giant Deer, Bison, Cave Bear etc. There are several theories about the mammoths' extinction. According to the latest research the climate and vegetative changes, appearance of humans and development of hunting techniques were crucial – causing the final extinction at the end of Pleistocene era, some 10,000 years ago, when it had reached the last level of adaptation to the ice age conditions of life.
Further study might shed more light on numerous questions and clarify the facts related to the mystery of origin, way of life and finally causes of extinction of these fascinating mammals.
Author: Srdjan Marincic, Advisor paleontologist, Institute for Nature Conservation of Serbia.
Lister, A.M., et al., A skeleton of ‘steppe’ mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii (Pohlig)) from Drmno, near Kostolac, Serbia, Quaternary International (2012)
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