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Travels in the Land of the Dead

As scientists raise a woolly mammoth from its icy grave in Siberia, reindeer herders warn of angered spirits beneath the tundra.

MY FAVOURITE IS THE BONE squirting blood,” said Dr. Hendrik Poinar. He clicked through computer images of bones cut in cross-sections, the fat and marrow inside tinged yellow but otherwise looking fresh.

“Here,” he pointed. “When the saw cuts into the bone, the blood thaws and falls on your fingers. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Onscreen was a piece of a large rib with a dark red pearl protruding from a saw cut. “That’s blood from a woolly mammoth dated at 40,000 years. That’s unheard of.”

He ran his hand over his short-cropped brown hair. At thirty-seven, wearing a loose black sweater over a t-shirt, Poinar looks more like a rugby player than an increasingly famous scientist, an evolutionary geneticist whose discoveries, as the Globe and Mail recently put it, may bring “extinct ice-age mammals back from the dead.” He looked out the window of his fifth-floor office at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Snow swirled in the February air, a white haze obscuring buildings across the road.

“Things are happening at lightning speed that could only have been dreamed of several years ago,” he said, swivelling around in his chair. “Five years ago, if anyone had told me we’d be able to sequence the woolly-mammoth genome, I would have laughed. It’s like cutting the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica into seven- or eight-letter words, throwing it in a heap, and then picking it up and putting it all back together.”

He grinned. The atmosphere in the room was playful. There were rubber toys on a circular table—a woolly mammoth with long curving tusks and high-humped shoulders stood tall between an Asian elephant and an African elephant. Replicas of creatures from the last ice age lined one of the bookshelves, a cave bear, a saber-tooth tiger, a prehistoric man gripping a spear. A multicoloured model of the double-helix DNA molecule sat on a filing cabinet. Posters of a dodo, a giant ground sloth, and a Tintin comic-book cover hung on the peach walls, while a large print of a glittering ice cave leaned behind a chair.

I recognized the ice cave; I’d been there five years earlier. In 2005, Poinar had entered it to sample and photograph bones. I looked at my watch: noon. If it’s noon in Hamilton, it’s midnight on the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia, on the opposite side of the earth, where the cave cuts through permafrost beneath the small Arctic town of Khatanga.

“I used to have this t-shirt, ‘Extinction Is Forever’,” said Poinar. “But the boy in me says it would be pretty cool to wake up and take your mammoth for a walk down the street.” He laughed, his green eyes twinkling. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

AS A FIELD PRODUCER for natural-history television documentaries, I went there with cameraman Richard Fox to film muskoxen, shaggy long-horned animals that live on the far edges of the peninsula, near Lake Taimyr. It was a two-hour helicopter flight north from Khatanga in an orange Mi-8, a rugged beast of a helicopter that can seat fifteen people and their gear.

The din of chopper blades and the roar of the engine filled the cabin as we flew over the vast, wet terrain, setting down at a fishing camp on the south side of Lake Taimyr to pick up a Russian-made vehicle called a Bronto Car—essentially a Lada with giant wheels.

The plan was to hoist the Bronto beneath the helicopter and carry it across the water (at 250 kilometres long and up to 30 kilometres wide it is Russia’s fourth largest lake). Unfortunately, our tall muscular pilot, Yuri Jdanov, forgot to bring the iron wire needed to lift the car in the air. Jdanov said it wasn’t a problem. “He says the Bronto floats,” translated Vladimir Eisner, our guide. “He says they will drive it across the lake.”

The north shore was a distant shadowy bump, far across the water. “Driving is the only way,” said Eisner. “If he flies back to Khatanga for the wire, it’ll be four more hours of flight time, and he’ll charge you for it.” Flight time cost over $2,000 US an hour. We were not a big-budget production, so I agreed.

We watched a fisherman get in the car, put it in gear and drive over the muddy shore, picking up speed and hurtling into the water with a splash. Its wheels churned forward until the car floated. Two other fishermen in a small open motorboat tied the Bronto to their stern and started to tow it.

Fox, Eisner and I got back into the helicopter and flew to the north shore, in sight of the black peaks of the Byrranga Mountains. Jdanov deposited us next to an unoccupied fishing cabin on the shore and flew south.
We waited all day into evening as a wind blew the water into chop, clouds covered the sky and the light went grey but never darkened into blackness.

The boat arrived at ten o’clock that night. All three fishermen were in it, but the Bronto was nowhere to be seen. Soaked and shivering, the fishermen came inside the cabin, wrapped blankets around their shoulders, and ate bread, sausage and soup. Nikolai Rudenko, a fisherman with high cheekbones, missing teeth and a busted nose that bent like a sideways v in the middle of his face, told us that all had gone well until halfway across the lake. Then a big wind picked up. Tied to the Bronto, the boat couldn’t ride the waves and had begun to sink. The fishermen, fearing for their lives, cut the rope. The Bronto had floated away in the lake.

As they told their story, it began to rain. We huddled together in the dark one-room shack stinking of fish and oil. There was a plywood bed stretched across one wall, a wooden table against another wall and buckets for chairs around a blackened oil stove.

We agreed to wait until the wind and rain died down. We waited and waited. Two days later the fishermen got into the boat and went looking for the Bronto. Only Nikolai Rudenko returned. He said the fishermen had found the Bronto. It had floated all the way to the lake’s far western shore and come to rest on a beach, on its wheels, in perfect condition. The car was close to the fishing camp, so they would drive it back there.

“He says he also found something else,” said Eisner. Rudenko reached into the boat and picked up a massive femur bone, several feet long and heavy and bulbous on both ends. He grunted as he hoisted it to his shoulder. His rugged weather-beaten face grimaced, and the bone seemed like a club or trophy, imbuing the fisherman with the aura of a hard, wild age when giants walked the earth.

THE SIBERIAN PERMAFROST is an ice-age graveyard. By some scientists’ estimations, there are well over a million woolly mammoths frozen beneath the tundra. Every year more are found on the Taimyr Peninsula, in Yakutsk, in the Republic of Sakha. Golden-hued ivory tusks poke up from the ground. Femurs and jawbones spill from thawing mud on riverbanks and lakeshores. Bones are strewn in the muck.

From 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, when most of northern Canada was covered under great sheets of ice up to two kilometres thick, the land across much of northern Eurasia was a grassland steppe. It looked more like the African savannah than today’s Arctic tundra; it was dry, with grasses and sedges that supported abundant herds of woolly mammoths, along with creatures like steppe bison, Pleistocene horses, muskoxen and reindeer. Predators such as saber-tooth tigers, steppe lions and wolves hunted the grazing animals.

By 10,000 years ago, most of those creatures were gone. One theory about their mass extinction is that the ice melted, the grassland turned to wet, mushy tundra, the animals starved and climate change killed them off. Another theory blames prehistoric men and women, hunters wandering north, slaying and eating the big animals until none were left. Still a third option is that a virulent plague swept across the plains like a wave of death.

Over millennia, many of these animals—on the Taimyr Peninsula it’s mostly woolly mammoths—were buried in the permafrost, their flesh frozen to the present day.

In recent centuries, stories were told of fully preserved adult woolly mammoths found by hunters and fishermen on riverbanks or lakesides. Expeditions were launched, but in those days it took months, even years, for scientists to travel into Siberia. When they arrived at the carcass, only bones were left, slurry flesh and piles of hair.

In 1900, a preserved adult woolly mammoth was found on the Berezovka River in eastern Siberia. It was partially eaten by dogs and wolves. Still, scientists discovered that the mammoth’s last meal included beans and mint, and buttercups were pried from its teeth. In 1977, a bulldozer in Yakutia churned up the only completely intact woolly mammoth carcass ever found, a baby with its skin stretched over sunken flesh. Soviet scientists named it Dima and preserved it by encasing it in wax.

Then there was the Jarkov Mammoth, excavated by French explorer Bernard Buigues and Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol in the late 1990s. Buigues heard of the mammoth after a family of Dolgan reindeer herders, the Jarkovs, found a pair of three-metre-long ivory tusks sticking out of the tundra of the Taimyr Peninsula. Many Dolgans believe it’s bad luck to dig in the earth, that shamanic spirits will be stirred up and released if the tundra’s surface is disturbed, so the Jarkovs cut the tusks at the base, but didn’t dig further down.

Buigues flew to see the site, 150 kilometres from Khatanga. A skull fragment protruded from the ground. Long strands of hair flopped from the earth like thin stems of reddish-brown grass. “I became obsessed,” said Buigues. “I started to be completely crazy about this.”

The discovery came soon after news of the creation of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult animal’s DNA. Dolly was international news, and there was wild speculation as to what would come next. Some scientists theorized it could even be possible to create a genetic replica of an extinct species. If an animal froze quickly after death, and remained in a deep freeze under the ground, the carcass might contain preserved DNA, possibly even sperm. In the case of the mammoth, that frozen genetic material might be implanted into the embryo of its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. The resulting hybrid creature would be part woolly mammoth, an extinct species brought back to life.

With the resurrection of the dead as a potential payoff for television viewers, Buigues convinced the Discovery Channel to finance an expedition to dig up the Jarkov Mammoth. It was a huge operation, with a film unit, scientists and a crew of Russian workmen, including Vladimir Eisner, camped out on the tundra. Filming went on for months—through a Siberian winter blizzard—as industrial heaters and jackhammers cut into the permafrost and carved out a twenty-three-tonne block of rock-hard dirt.

Dolgan reindeer herders came to the site. They asked Buigues to sacrifice a white reindeer to appease spirits angered because a mammoth was being disturbed. Buigues didn’t want to kill a reindeer on or off camera, so he laid some coins in the hole instead. Then he took the tusks the Jarkovs had cut from the mammoth and bolted them onto the block of dirt. Long and beautiful and golden white, the ivory tusks arced out from the dirt, imbuing the block with a lifelike appearance.

On a clear, sunlit morning, with the tundra dusted in a light covering of snow, the block was lifted into the sky by a double-rotored Mi-26 helicopter. It was the money shot at the end of the first documentary, Raising the Mammoth—the block and bolted tusks rising as if from the grave, soaring over the frozen land to Khatanga and the ice cave.

In a second documentary, Land of the Mammoth, Dick Mol led a team of Russian and American scientists working to free the mammoth from the block. They stood on a wooden platform, two or three at a time, running hair dryers over the dirt, stopping only to scrape a few centimetres of thawed earth away at a time. Quickly they uncovered a problem: the block appeared to contain hair, a few bones and maybe some skin. That was it. The rest of the twenty-three-tonne block was dirt.

Buigues organized a further expedition to the tundra, and the chest section of a mammoth, dubbed the Fishhook Mammoth, was found in shallow waters in Lake Taimyr. Crews searched the tundra for bones. Cameramen filmed it all. No viable DNA was found, but, on television, an animated mammoth gave birth and herds of mammoths walked across snowy plains toward the camera and through the glass as if bursting through time.

WE SAMPLED like crazy in the ice cave,” said Dr. Hendrik Poinar, as I talked with him in his McMaster office. “It’s cool. The preservation in there is exceptional.”

In July 2005, after an eight-hour flight from Moscow (during which drunks vomited in their seats and a prostitute serviced clients in the bathroom next to the pilot’s cabin), Poinar and his wife Debbie arrived in Khatanga. Over the course of three weeks, they worked with Dr. Ross McPhee (Poinar’s main collaborator), Buigues and a group of international scientists to sample the remains of 350 mammoths. “We’d work in the cave for two hours at a time, all bundled up,” he said. “Then we’d have to go out.”

Rumours in town held that in the days of the Soviet Union the cave contained nuclear missiles. After perestroika, it stored fish and reindeer meat. Today it’s a repository for ice age remains. From inside the door, the cave is a long hall stretching back to what, from a distance, looks like a semi-permeable barrier of translucent blocks. Bright lamps shine from the ceiling. Walls glitter as if sprinkled with diamond dust.

The cave is a hall of bones. Ice-age mammal remains are frozen at -15ºC, preserved so well that the dry 20,000-year-old stomach contents of the Fishhook Mammoth smell like freshly mulched grass. Tusks jut from ice blocks set in the floor. Shelves in the rooms adjacent to the hall are filled with femurs, spines, jawbones and skulls of horses, muskoxen, steppe bison and mammoths. In one room, the dirt block of the Jarkov Mammoth rises nearly ten feet high, tusks still bolted into the frozen earth.

“It’s been a wild ride,” said Poinar. Five months after he returned with the mammoth samples, Poinar was being compared to the scientists in Jurassic Park. News outlets as diverse as the CBC and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran stories about his work, leading off with references to Michael Crichton’s 1991 novel, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life using DNA extracted from their blood taken from mosquitoes preserved in amber.

The comparison is apt. Hendrik Poinar’s father, George Poinar, currently a professor at Oregon State University, is one of the world’s leading authorities on amber. He’s also, as Crichton has admitted, one of the inspirations for Jurassic Park. If there’s anyone with a headstart in the field of ancient DNA, it’s George’s son Hendrik.

“When I was coming back from Siberia,” Poinar continued, “this new approach came on the market, a machine called Genome Sequencer 20.” He waved his hands excitedly as he spoke. “Sequencing the woolly-mammoth genome would never have been possible without these types of machines.”

A genome is a species blueprint, a genetic code for what makes a mammoth a mammoth, a human a human. After death, the genome disintegrates into fragments of DNA. It’s a bit like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall: what once was whole is shattered, and in the case of extinct species, up until recently, virtually impossible to reconstruct. If you wanted to use the old method of sequencing extinct-species genomes, Poinar laughed, “you’d need hundreds of graduate students, hundreds of years and thousands of millions of dollars, and I mean, my grandchildren wouldn’t complete it.”

Using the technique of “pyrosequencing,” the new machines sequence everything within a sample. And they do it fast. In 2005, Penn State was one of only two US universities that owned one of the new machines. Poinar collaborated with scientists at Penn State and found, in one of the samples taken from a woolly-mammoth jawbone from the southwestern shore of Lake Taimyr, a “DNA motherlode.”

In five hours, they were able to sequence 28 million base pairs, or 1 percent of the mammoth genome, proving the rest could easily be done. I asked how long it would be until the woolly-mammoth genome is fully sequenced. “All I need is $500,000,” replied Poinar. “With that, we’d be done.”

Now, Poinar has his own Genome Sequencer. For $750,000, McMaster was able to purchase the first sequencer in Canada, a machine to code the blueprints for species once lost forever. It looked banal, like a photocopier. It sits in a corner in one of his four labs—the only one you don’t have to don a full body suit to enter—alongside the usual test tubes and beakers on long counters.

Poinar laughed. “I know the guy who’s working on the prototype of a new type of sequencing machine,” he said. “It can do a mammalian genome in about two weeks.” He held his hands a foot apart. “It’ll be the size of a large toaster.”

THE HOLY GRAIL, for many scientists, is cloning extinct mammals. Japanese scientists are actively trying to do it. A fully preserved mammoth head was displayed at the 2005 World Expo in Japan, and a researcher, Hiromi Kato, was quoted as saying, “My first aim is to recreate a mammoth; after that we can decide what we’re going to do with them.” I asked Poinar about cloning mammoths—would it happen?

“As an undergraduate, I said we’d never be able to clone, and I was proven wrong,” he said. “It will be technically possible, I’m convinced. But it’s a hybrid. It’s not the real organism, unless you backcross it like crazy, which would take years. And then, where are you going to put it? No one’s discussed the ethics of it, let alone cloning in general.”
“Scientists sometimes get the bad rap that they’re so excited about possibilities that they don’t think before they act,” he continued. “In fact, that’s what’s happened with the flu.”

He was talking about the Spanish flu of 1918 (possibly the most virulent virus in history, which killed fifty million people worldwide in the course of one year). The extinct strain was found in a human body preserved in the Alaskan permafrost, and the H1N1 virus was then reconstructed at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and injected into macaque monkeys. The BBC news report on the results is graphic and telling:

Symptoms appeared within twenty-four hours of exposure to the virus, and the subsequent destruction of lung tissue was so widespread that, had the monkeys not been put to sleep a few days later, they would literally have drowned in their own blood.

“They said, ‘Wow’,” continued Poinar. “‘We can study this deadly virus from the permafrost’; ‘Wow, we can put it back together’; ‘Wow, the virus is alive’; and all of a sudden you’ve got the biggest biological weapon in history sitting under lock and key in Winnipeg.”

ON OUR LAST DAY on the Taimyr Peninsula, Richard Fox, Vladimir Eisner and I travelled over the tundra on sleds, accompanied by Dolgan reindeer herders. Teams of reindeer pulled us forward into damp, soupy fog—so thick I couldn’t see ten feet in any direction.

The convoy stopped, and a Dolgan man rode up beside us, sitting bareback on a reindeer. He spoke to Eisner. “He says this is the worst fog anyone has seen in thirty years,” said Eisner. “He says the spirits are angry because another mammoth was dug up from the ground.”

“I’m getting tired of hearing that,” said Richard Fox. Earlier, in the Dolgan village of Novorybnoye, we’d spoken to a plump, friendly storyteller named Zina Portiagha. She told us that soon after Buigues dug up the Jarkov Mammoth, two members of the Jarkov family died. “The earth is charged with spirits,” she said. “They should never be disturbed.”

When we reached our destination, the water’s edge, we still couldn’t see our boat. Fox got into a small motorboat, and a Russian man named Vladimir Mammonev revved the engine and they sped into the fog, zooming off in the wrong direction. As we watched them disappear, one of the herders on shore spoke. “He says that two years ago Mammonev had a steel plate put in his head,” said Eisner. “Since then, he is not the same.”

On the charter boat we fired a rifle in the air but there was no reply. The men were gone, swallowed by the fog. We were anchored at the mouth of the Khatanga River, where the river is many kilometres wide, opening into a part of the Arctic Ocean that in late August is beginning to fill with ice. I pictured the motorboat breaking down and drifting away, the ice grinding apart the hull, the frantic men sinking into frigid waters.

I paced back and forth, sick with worry. Fog hid the prow of the boat and wisps of mist drifted over the wheelhouse.

It felt like spirits were real, as if a veil between this world and another had been shorn. In the early morning the fog finally broke. The sun was a red orb hanging low over the sea. There was no sign of the motorboat. I thought the men were dead.

In late morning, the radio crackled: Mammonev and Fox had motored back to Novorybnoye and were safe and unhurt. Motoring to the village we tied up at the dock and found the men. As we stood on the shore, a dump truck full of oil barrels backed up to the riverbank. Then its brakes failed. The truck rolled down the bank and smashed into a man leaning on the dock.

People shouted and screamed. Then a hand rose up from the wreckage, and the man was pulled up. Miraculously he’d been standing in an indent in the dock. Another man spoke to us. “He says that’s the spirits,” translated Eisner.

“They’re giving you a warning, letting you know what could have happened to you.”

We rode the boat upriver to Khatanga, said goodbye to Eisner and went to the airport. On board, we opened a bottle of vodka and, Russian-style, knocked back a toast to a safe journey. The plane lifted off. I leaned back, hoping the story was over, that the dead would stay dead. White mists drifted over the window. We hurtled on over the earth.

(Read the rest of Issue 24, Summer 2007.)