Friday, December 30, 2011

Baby mammoth

Last night on French TV, I watched a fascinating 95-minute documentary about the discovery in Siberia, in 2007, of an intact carcass of a baby woolly mammoth named Lyuba, who died at the age of a month or two—probably by drowning or being suffocated by mud— some 40,000 years ago.

The video I saw was a compilation of documentary fragments from several sources, but it tells the story of Lyuba in a complete and constantly interesting fashion. As far as I can tell, it was a French-language version of a product made by National Geographic whose title is Waking the Baby Mammoth. In any case, this afternoon, I was able to order a copy of the French version from Amazon.

Some viewers might be shocked by a cute gimmick of a Disney kind exploited haphazardly throughout the documentary. A highly-realistic virtual representation of little Lyuba is seen scampering around, from time to time, in the real world context of modern scientists who have been examining the unique carcass. Personally, I was never annoyed by these brilliantly-created excursions into fantasy, which seemed to reflect dreamlike visions that might indeed have been present in the minds of the scientists. At times, though, it was weird in the sense that the lovely little beast seemed to be invited along to participate in her own autopsy.

I appreciated greatly the performance of the US paleontologist Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, who appeared to have a deep philosophical empathy both with the scientific phenomenon of mammoths and with the traditions of the Nenets herders who survive today in the icy Arctic world that was once the lush domain of Lyuba and her kin.

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