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Cenozoic World

When Mammoths Roamed England

by Helen Briggs, 2 November 2001. Updated 22 December 2017

A clash of the mammoths thousands of years ago could have taken place in what is now southern England. Fossils found in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk in 2001 suggested that two types of mammoth lived side-by-side in the prehistoric landscape.

Experts generally believed that herds of more advanced mammoths moving south from Siberia encountered primitive European ones. The newcomers were better adapted to a cold climate and eventually outbred their contemporaries. But the European mammoths may have interbred with the Siberian invaders, leaving their mark in the gene pool.

Until recently it was thought that the woolly mammoth and the two species of mammoth that preceded it evolved gradually, never walking the planet at the same time. But in the last few years (up to the time of writing) the theory had been called into question by new fossils uncovered in Europe. The discoveries, by a Russian and British expert, suggested that different species of mammoth co-existed at two critical stages in their evolution.

Climate change

Andrei Sher, of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, was able to provide the case for the new theory. It was a classic concept that mammoth ancestors came from Africa 3-4 million years ago and then gradually evolved in Eurasia during the course of a period of climate change - the trend towards a colder climate.

According to existing theory, their evolution in Eurasia was gradual, culminating in the woolly mammoth. More recently, however, new evidence had been emerging from Europe that didn't fit the picture. Three species of mammoth are known to have been present in Europe and Siberia.

The most primitive mammoth was the ancestral or early mammoth, which lived in Europe between about 2.5 million and 700,000 years ago. This was followed by the steppe mammoth, which lived until about 200,000 years ago, then the woolly mammoth, which finally died out about 3,500 years ago. Climate cooling, the appearance of permafrost and a very harsh climate appeared in Siberia much earlier than they did in Europe.

Consequently, the mammoths that lived there had to evolve much more quickly. The problem was working out how they interacted with the European mammoths. To answer that question, Dr Sher, and Dr Adrian Lister of University College, London, UK, looked at fossil samples from various sites in European Russia, Europe, and Siberia.

They came to the conclusion that during two critical periods in the evolution of mammoths, Siberian mammoths migrated south and encountered their European relatives.

Clash of the giants

Evidence from a site in what is now West Runton in Norfolk, England, shows that steppe mammoths from Siberia encountered ancestral mammoths in England about one million years ago. Mammoth teeth found at a second site, in the village of Marsworth in Buckinghamshire, pointed to a second clash of the giants, later in their evolution.

This took place about 190,000 years ago, between woolly mammoths from Siberia and the steppe mammoths of Europe. Dr Lister believed that the newcomers probably replaced the older mammoth populations. The older ones were dying out because the changed habitat wasn't to their liking, whereas the newcomers were adapted to the colder climate and to more open, treeless vegetation.

But Dr Lister believes there was probably limited interbreeding between the different mammoths, and even some squabbles. He concluded that closely-related species like that wouldn't normally fight, But it's possible that they could have fought over patches of feeding ground.

Mammoth timeline
  • 3-4 million years ago: mammoths appeared in sub-Saharan Africa
  • 1.7 million years ago: mammoths crossed the land bridge linking Siberia and Alaska
  • 13,000-10,000 BC: Earth's climate changed and ice sheets gradually diminished
  • 10,000-9,000 BC: mammoths started to die out in Europe and Asia
  • 8,000 BC: full-sized mammoths became extinct in Siberia and the Americas
  • 2,000 BC: the last mammoths, a dwarf species found on an island off the coast of Siberia, die out


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