National Geographic : 2009 May
• director of the local museum, who persuaded the local authorities to y Khudi and Serotetto back to the Yuribey River in a helicopter. When they arrived on the sandbar, however, the mammoth had vanished. Mammoths are an extinct group of elephants of the genus Mammuthus, whose ancestors migrated out of Africa about 3.5 million years ago and spread across Eurasia, adapting to a range of woodland, savanna, and steppe environ- ments. e best known of these proboscideans is the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, a close cousin of living elephants and about the same size. It rst appeared in the middle Pleistocene more than 400,000 years ago, prob- ably in northeastern Siberia. e woolly mam- moth was highly adapted to cold, with a dense undercoat, guard hairs up to three feet long, and small, fur-lined ears. Immense curving tusks, used primarily for ghting, may have also been handy for foraging beneath the snow. Because mammoths o en died and were buried in sedi- ment that has been frozen ever since, many of their remains have survived into modern times, particularly in the vast deep freeze of Siberian permafrost. In fact, the Nenets underworld tales are right: e Siberian subsoil teems with woolly mam- moths. At ice-out each summer, hundreds of their tusks, other teeth, and bones appear on the banks of rivers and lakes and along the seacoast, freed by erosion from the frozen ground where they have lain for tens of thousands of years. Since the botanist Mikhail Ivanovich Adams recovered the rst woolly mammoth carcass in Siberia in 1806, about a dozen other so -tissue specimens had been found, including several calves ranging in age from newborn to about a year. Yet no carcass of any age was as complete as the creature Yuri Khudi had found---and now lost---on the Yuribey River. In the time of the mammoths, the land- scape over most of their range looked very different than the barren heaths and boggy tundra surrounding the river today. e air was Night falls. The herd moves on, but the mother lingers. Yellow moonlight throws her humpbacked shadow across the glistening mud. e moon sets, and stars glow in the chill heav- ens. Just before dawn, she takes a last look at the spot where the earth swallowed her baby, then turns and follows the herd north, toward summer pastures. On a May morning in 2007, on the Yamal Penin- sula in northwestern Siberia, a Nenets reindeer herder named Yuri Khudi stood with three of his sons on a sandbar on the Yuribey River, holding council over a diminutive corpse. ough they d never seen such an animal before, they knew it well from stories their people sang on dark win- ter nights in their storytelling lodges. is was a b a b y mamont, the beast the Nenets say wanders the frozen blackness of the underworld, herded by infernal gods just as the Nenets herd their reindeer across the tundra. Khudi had seen many mammoth tusks, the honey-colored, corkscrew sha s as thick as tree limbs that his people found each summer. But he had never seen an entire animal, let alone one so eerily well preserved. Apart from its missing hair and toe- nails, it was perfectly intact. Khudi was uneasy. He sensed this was an important discovery, one that others should know about. But he refused to touch the animal, because the Nenets believe that mammoths are dangerous omens. Some Nenets even say that people who nd a mammoth are marked for early death. Khudi vowed to placate the infer- nal powers with the sacri ce of a baby reindeer and a libation of vodka. But rst he traveled 150 miles south to the small town of Yar Sale to con- sult with an old friend named Kirill Serotetto, who was better acquainted with the ways of the outside world. Serotetto listened to his friend s story, then bustled him off to meet with the Tom Mueller wrote on Herod in the December 2008 issue of National Geographic. Francis Latreille has photographed for Life, Time, Paris-Match, and Geo. is is his rst story for National Geographic.