Japan took a break from its obsession with the future this week as a new exhibition sent visitors 39,000 years back into the past. That's the estimated age of Yuka, a mummified woolly mammoth that has just been placed on public display for the first time ever. The show runs until September.
Yuka was found three years ago in the Siberian permafrost and was between six to eleven years old when she died. The mammoth takes her name from the Yukaghir coastline; Yuka is also a common girl's name in Japan, paving the way for countless cute cuddly toys.
The exhibition is big news in the country, with colossal posters adorning buildings in the bustling Shibuya entertainment district. Rather than a museum, it's being held at Yokohama's Pacifico convention center, normally used for large events such as the CP+ photography show.
Calling the discovery "the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology," lead researcher Semyon Grigoriev explained to The Siberian Times in May that Yuka stayed in such good condition because she remained frozen for a long, unbroken period of time.
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"We suppose that the mammoth fell into water or got bogged down in a swamp, could not free herself and died. Due to this fact the lower part of the body, including the lower jaw and tongue tissue, was preserved very well. The upper torso and two legs, which were in the soil, were gnawed by prehistoric and modern predators and almost did not survive."
Although the carcass was frozen for millennia, the team was even able to extract flowing blood from Yuka — the first time scientists have managed to do so. "Our suspicion is that mammoth blood contains a kind of natural anti-freeze," says Grigoriev.
South Korean scientists have signed a deal giving them rights to attempt to clone the mammoth; Hwang Woo-suk, who produced the world's first cloned dog in 2005 before being convicted of lying about breakthroughs in human stem cell research, has taken delivery of tissue samples that may contain intact cells.
However, serious doubt remains over whether it is possible to find or construct a complete, viable mammoth genome from such old material. "Every time a new well-preserved mammoth is found," said Professor Adrian Lister of London's Natural History Museum to The Guardian, "people also repeat the claim that we will soon be able to clone them, and I very much doubt that we will."
- Yuka is being shown in a cabinet with a temperature of 14 Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) in order to prevent decomposition.
- Yuka had a broken leg when discovered, suggesting she had been attacked by predators. Parts of her body such as her feet have been remarkably well preserved.
- Yuka's skull had been removed, and was discovered separately from the body. It appears that human hunters cut open the carcass.
- A close-up view of Yuka's dissected skull.
- The skin surrounding the tail remains in almost perfect condition.
- Preserved mammoth hair retains its reddish coloration.
- The skull was so well preserved that scientists were able to extract Yuka's brain in excellent condition.
- This bisected mammoth skull shows the brain cavity.
- Also on display was a mummified woolly rhinoceros carcass from around the same time as Yuka lived. The rhino was about 20 years old and was found in the lower reaches of the Kolyma river in northeastern Siberia.
- Mammoth teeth show fine grooves.
- The exhibition featured reproductions of woolly mammoth cave art.
- This house was constructed from mammoth bones and hide. A similar, 44,000-year-old example was discovered in Ukraine in 2011, demonstrating that Neanderthals were capable of constructing sophisticated structures.
- A mammoth skeleton displayed alongside a full-size illustration of the beast.