Mammoths in Art, Mythology and Folk Beliefs

Mammoths… Cute to some of us, frightening to others. The mammoths, which played an important role in the daily life of our Paleolithic ancestors, went extinct long ago. But the deep traces they left in the social memory have not completely lost their effect even today.

About the Mammoths

Mammoths, a genus of the Elephantidae family, taxonomically belong to the same family as elephants.

Mammoths were a frightening animal for Stone Age humans because of their enormous size. But hunger has always overcome fear. Mammoths had been one of the basic creatures that met the protein needs of both Neanderthals and modern humans. In addition, mammoth furs helped to meet many of the human needs, such as heating and shelter. Moreover, the furs were quite functional. Because in the Ice Age, due to climatic adaptation, the hair of mammoths became quite long and the fat layer in their fur became thicker.

Mammoths were one of the most hunted animals in the areas closer to the north. So much so that one of the two prominent hypotheses for why mammoths went extinct is that they were overfished. The other is climatic changes, which we can also define as global warming.

When did Woolly Mammoths Become Extinct?

Mammoths appeared in the Zanclean phase of the Pliocene Epoch, about five million years ago. This means that mammoths share the same earth as all human species, from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens. However, most mammoths became extinct in the Preboreal period, about 10,300 to 9000 years ago. Only a very small population survived on Saint Paul Island in Alaska until about 5750 years ago and on Wrangel Island in Russia until 4000 years ago.

Mammoths in Paleolithic Art

Cave paintings and petroglyphs contain important clues to the relationship of humans with animals. It can be said that animal symbolism has a very important place especially in Upper Paleolithic cave paintings.

Of course, it could not be expected that the Paleolithic people, who lived a hunter-gatherer and nature-dependent life, did not include mammoths in their art. In this respect, it should not be surprising to find mammoth paintings in many caves around the world.

Mammoths in Art, Mythology and Folk Beliefs
Cave of Rouffignac, France

Mammoths, one of the popular symbolic animals of the Paleolithic period, had an important place in cave art, especially. While most of the drawings were simple lines, some were artfully detailed in form.1

Some of the mammoth drawings were made with madder, some with a stick-like material or by carving the soft surface with a finger.

Mammoths in Art, Mythology and Folk Beliefs
Cave of the Pont d’Arc, France

Although there are some similarities between the Upper Paleolithic mammoth drawings, it can be said that there is no common pattern. It is noteworthy that even in caves that are very close to each other, the paintings may be quite different in terms of style. However, it is seen that the feeling of movement is dominant in the paintings in question. Some drawings are made with ivory and some without ivory.

Most of the animals drawn on cave walls during the Upper Paleolithic were mammoth, lion, rhinoceros, horse, bison, mountain goat, aurochs and deer species.

The mammoth-themed works in Upper Paleolithic art are not just cave paintings. Mammoths have also been the subject of portable art. The approximately seven-centimeter-long mammoth relief found near Brno in Czechia was dated to 28,000/22,000 years ago.

Mammoths in Art, Mythology and Folk Beliefs
Mammoth Relief

Myths and Folk Beliefs About Mammoths

As a result of the mammoth-human interaction, mammoths left deep psychological traces in the social memory of Stone Age people. This is evident in both cave paintings and mythological narratives. There have been many beliefs about mammoths and mammoth-like mythological creatures in North American, European and Turkish-Siberian mythologies.2

Given the Siberian climate, it’s no wonder that many intact mammoth remains have been found thanks to the frozen soil. However, the efforts of the local people to make sense of the mammoth remains have led to the formation of new myths and folk beliefs. Some mammoth remains found in Russia were interpreted by locals as war elephants of Alexander the Great.

According to a story in northern Siberia, one day two men found two mammoth teeth protruding from the ground. They play the drums and say some incantations, and the mammoth is suddenly covered in flesh. All the people eat that nutritious meat all winter long. When the bones are stripped of all the flesh, they are reassembled. Thanks to magic, the bones are covered with fresh flesh again.

Another interesting belief about mammoths is found in Turkic mythology. According to the folk beliefs of Turkic communities living in Siberia, mammoths were taken underground to serve Erlik Han, the god of the underworld in Turkic mythology. The mammoths, who do not want to serve Erlik Han and try to escape to the earth, are punished by freezing and sentenced to death. Mammoth corpses found in the Siberian taiga point to this. So, according to Turkic folk beliefs in Northeast Siberia, mammoths did not actually go extinct. They continue to live underground to serve Erlik Han. If that’s called living, of course…

  1. Le mammouth dans l’art paléolithique“, Patrick PAILLET & Sibylle WOLF, L’Anthropologie, Volume 122, Issue 3, June-August 2018, p. 522-545[]
  2. Mythological Beings Based On Mammoths, Petr JANDACEK & Louise JANDACEK[]

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