One of the tusks found at Cainscross

The Mammoths of Cainscross

In 1844, as excavations were taking place to bring the Great Western Railway to Stroud, an amazing discovery was made on the site of what is now the Cainscross roundabout. Enormous remains which included teeth, tusks and bones were uncovered, all of which belonged to a creature that hadn’t walked the earth for thousands of years – the woolly mammoth.

Relatives of modern day elephants, mammoths were large herbivorous creatures that grazed on grasses, leaves and fruit (something that we can infer from their teeth, which show ridged molars very similar to those of elephants). The first mammoths lived in Africa around 5 million years ago, millions of years before Homo sapiens (humans) evolved. Ancestors of these first mammoths, known as the southern mammoth, appear to have reached Europe by around 3 million years ago and would have closely resembled modern elephants. By around 750,000 years ago the steppe mammoth had evolved in Northern Europe. This creature was the largest of all the mammoth species, reaching over four metres tall and weighing up to 10 tonnes! It is likely that this creature, with its comparatively small ears and shaggy coat, was a direct ancestor of the woolly mammoth.

Evidence of the first woolly mammoth dates back to around 400,000 years ago. They were smaller and hairier than the steppe mammoth, but were a successful species that spread from freezing Siberia to as far west as Ireland. Like their ancestors, woolly mammoths were herbivorous grazers. Creatures that graze need to spend a great many hours of their day eating, because the food that they eat is low in nutritional value and calories. As a result, some experts suggest that mammoths may have spent up to 20 hours of their day engaged in this activity! Mother mammoths likely experienced long pregnancies, with gestation periods estimated to be at 22 months. The calves were born in the spring time, giving them the opportunity to grow and mature over the more temperate summer months. It is estimated that mammoths lived in Europe until as recently as 10,000 years ago. This means that modern humans lived alongside these enormous creatures, and indeed there is evidence that we hunted them for their fur, meat and ivory.

There is debate as to exactly why the woolly mammoth became extinct and many different theories having been posited over the years. Today’s experts believe that there were likely a number of contributing factors leading to their extinction, but that a particularly significant issue was climate change.  As the earth warmed, glaciers melted and sea levels rose, directly leading to areas of habitable land diminishing. In addition to a loss of habitat, mammoths were not well-adapted to the warmer wetter weather and their food sources declined. This situation, in conjunction with a growing human population and their low birth rate seems to have resulted in the gradual but complete extinction of the species.

Did you know?

A 13,000 year old cave painting of a woolly mammoth was discovered in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.


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