The beasts had long lain extinct and forgotten, embedded deep in the frozen turf, bodies swaddled in Earth’s layers for thousands of years before Christ.
Now, the Russian permafrost is offering up the bones and tusks of the woolly mammoths that once lumbered over the tundra. They are shaped into picture frames, chess sets, pendants. They are gathered and piled, carved and whittled, bought and sold on the Internet.
The once-obscure scientists who specialize in the wastelands of Siberia have opened lucrative sidelines as bone hunters, spending the summer months trawling the northern river banks and working networks of locals to gather stockpiles of bones. They speak of their work proudly, and a little mystically.
“You need to have luck to find bones,” said Fyodor Romanenko, a geologist at Moscow State University. “I don’t look for bones. I find them. They find me.
“Every find gives you a huge joy,” he said. “It’s a gift from nature, from the Arctic, from fate.”
The mammoth finds have been growing steadily over the last three decades as Russia’s vast sea of permafrost slowly thaws.
Russian scientists disagree over whether global warming is responsible. Some say yes, others are skeptical. But nobody argues that the permafrost is dwindling -- and they’re glad to have the bones and tusks, especially when the increased yields coincide with bans on elephant ivory.
Hand-to-mouth reindeer herders on Russia’s desolate tundra have coexisted with the traces of mammoths for generations. Romanenko claims that there are cases of long-frozen mammoth meat being thawed and cooked, or fed to the dogs.
Now entire villages are surviving on the trade in mammoth bones. And a new verb has entered the vernacular: mamontit, or “to mammoth” -- meaning, to go out in search of bones.
“People used to just come across bones and throw them aside or take them to the garbage, because they were not interested in them,” said Gennady Tatarinov, who oversees a reindeer farm in Anyuisk, a frigid village 4,000 miles northeast of Moscow.
“But now there’s a big demand,” Tatarinov said. “And of course there’s a lot of competition, and people who make it their main trade.”
Many of the populated areas have been picked clean, driving scavengers deeper and deeper into the wilderness in the hunt for bones.
The smoothest bones go to collectors and museums around the world; the less perfect samples are shipped to carving factories, especially in China, where they are refashioned into high-end household items and keepsakes.
The price has dropped sharply in recent months. The global financial crisis coincided with a massive sell-off of elephant ivory in Africa to gut the price of mammoth bones: The cost for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of high-quality bone plunged from $700 to $220.
Still, 50 tons of mammoth bone are turned up every year in Russia -- and the number keeps growing.
“It’s the highest it’s ever been,” said Fyodor Shidlovsky, head of the National Alliance, a network of search groups, coastal exploration bases, restoration workrooms and carving shops.
Shidlovsky recently asked the government to recognize him as a small-business owner. “They refused,” he says, smirking. “They said, ‘Your business is not small.’ ”
Shidlovsky has long been infected with a passion for Russia’s great white north. Every year since 1979, he has ventured to Siberia from June until deep into the fall, gathering bones and wading through the paperwork needed to ship them to Moscow.
He spends the rest of the year in Moscow, presiding over a kitschy Ice Age museum and peddling his finds in hopes of financing the next year’s expedition.
He lounged behind his desk in the museum office on a recent morning. Outside his door, schoolchildren climbed onto a platform and gawked down into a hole at the “mammoth in a pit,” the re-creation of a woolly mammoth snared in a trap by ancient man.
The wild-haired creature’s head rears below them, tusks high, plastic eyes panicked. The creature’s trunk is wired to flail sorrowfully.
At the other end of a showroom of elaborately carved chess sets, Shidlovsky pointed to a massive, wall-mounted television screen and pressed “play” on a remote control.
Suddenly there were images of Shidlovsky trawling the summer-thawed rivers of Siberia in a motorboat to pry bones from the exposed banks. Workers wrapped the relics in plastic bags, loaded them onto pickups and sent them off to the airport.
“Once or twice a year I buy material from the local population, and indulge in enlightening them on how to preserve and what to look for and what not,” Shidlovsky said. “I give some lectures at schools. And it brought results.”
In truth, this trade is not entirely novel. Man has been hunting mammoths in Russia’s icy north as far as memory reaches. The permafrost holds bones that bear workmanship from the Stone Age -- which scientists in Siberia sometimes call the “bone age” in homage to the many weapons and tools hacked from mammoth bones.
Wealthy Chinese imported the bones in the 1st century, and when the first Russians arrived in the far reaches of Siberia in the 17th century, they traded bones along with furs.
“It used to be when we found bones we’d donate them to museums for displays and samples,” Romanenko said.
“Now we register them, get the carbon date and either give them as gifts or. . . .” He paused.
“They make good souvenirs,” he said finally, shrugged, and smiled sheepishly. “Mammoths are considered a national treasure of Russia.”