Sweden's rise as a major European power was abruptly ended in 1709, when an army led by King Charles XII was defeated by the army of Peter the Great at Poltava in far-away Ukraine. Charles, badly wounded, barely escaped by dashing south into Turkish territory. The majority of his army, their escape cut off by Russian cavalry, surrendered and became prisoners of war. Somewhat ironically, this national tragedy for Sweden, and personal tragedy for the prisoners and their families, turned out to be a bonanza for European science. When the prisoners returned to Sweden, they brought back information about lands rarely visited by literate Europeans. The prisoners solved some scientific mysteries, created some new ones, and, for others, added new layer to the mystery without solving them. In the last category was the enigmatic beast known by the name of mammoth.
One of the many, many injustices of war is the uneven treatment of prisoners. Officers are almost never treated as badly as enlisted men. The prisoners of Poltava were no exception. The common soldiers were marched off to labor in the frozen swamps of the Neva delta building Peter's new capitol city. For them, captivity was brutal and many died before the final peace was signed and they could be freed. Their officers were exiled to Tobolsk, the capitol of Siberia, and surrounding areas. Once they arrived in their places of exile, the Swedish officers were allowed considerable freedom. The highest officers were treated as honored guests and lived in the homes of the local political elite. Lower officers were allowed freedom of movement in the district, but left to their own devices to make a living. Many of them became ivory carvers.
The state of war between Sweden and Russia lingered on for twelve years after the Battle of Poltava. Swedish officers became a permanent fixture in Tobolsk. Siberia had never seen so many educated men. Once it became clear that they would not be going home any time soon, the officers busied themselves learning about their new home. Curiosity and boredom were their main motives, but gathering intelligence for Sweden played a role, too. Various officers collected information about the geology, resources, history, anthropology, languages, and natural history of the remote parts of Russia. Some of the educated Swedes turned to teaching. Voltaire tells us that they were so highly esteemed that the great families of Moscow sent their children to Tobolsk to be taught by them. When Peter realized what a resource he had in the Swedish officers, he hired many of them satisfy his restless curiosity. When the Treaty of Nystad was finally signed in 1721, formally ending hostilities and freeing the Swedish officers to return home, Peter asked some of them to stay and continue working for him. Most politely refused.
At the meeting of the Swedish Literary Society (formerly the Royal Society of Sciences) held on December 14, 1722 in Uppsala, the society's founder Erik Benzelius exhibited a drawing that he had received from Baron Leonard Kagg, an officer just returned from Siberia. Kagg had told Benzelius that the drawing, labeled "Behemoth" and "Mehemot," was of the mammoth. The mammoth was something of a mystery in 1722. A little over thirty years before, ivory had begun to trickle into Europe from Siberia, the source of which was a creature called "mamant" or "mammot." In 1722, there were only a half dozen published accounts that mentioned the creature. None of the writers had seen a live mammoth and drew on hearsay to speculate about what kind of animal it was. All except one of those writers spoke of the ivory being dug from the ground where the mammoth beast lived. All of the writers, again except one, believed the mammoth was an elephant-like creature, but were at a loss to explain how elephants came to be in Siberia unless their corpses had been washed there by the Flood and had laid frozen in the earth ever since. These accounts all mentioned that the non-Russian Siberian natives believed the mammoth was a still-living subterranean creature that died when it was exposed to surface air. The one account that disagreed with the others was that of the Jesuit Philippe Avril who had been told that the Siberians hunted live sea-mammoths on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The Swedish Literary Society was happy to get any new information that might clear up the nature of the mammoth. But the mystery was not to be solved that easily.
The drawing Kagg brought was of a animal with a cow-like body, long horns twisted around each other, a lion's tail, and large feet with long, curved claws. The drawing came with the following description:
The length of this animal, called Behemot, is 50 Russian ells [29 meters or 69 feet]; the height is not known, but a rib being 5 arshin long [3.55 m or 11.66 ft], it may be estimated. The greatest diameter of the horn is half of an arshin [35 cm or 14 in], the length slightly above four; the grinders like a square brick; the foreleg from the shoulder to the knee 1 3/4 arshin long [124 cm or 4 ft], and at the narrowest part a quarter in diameter. The hole in which the marrow lies is so big that a fist may be inserted, otherwise the legs bear no proportion to the body, being rather short. The heathens living by the River Obi state that they have seen them floating in this river as big as a "struus," i.e. a vessel which the Russians use. This animal lives in the earth, and dies as soon as it comes into the air.
Society members Olaus Rudbeck and Petrus Martin thought that the animal was a sea creature. They supported their opinion with the fact that several returning prisoners had mentioned dead mammoths mostly being found on the banks of rivers and near the Arctic Ocean. Rudbeck pointed out the curious detail in the drawing that the animal had both claws and horns. No other mammal they knew of had both. The Society decided to write to Kagg to find out how he had obtained the drawing and if he could give them any other information about it. The minutes of the meeting end with the statement, "There is a description about this Mehemot in Capt. Müller's account of the Ostiaks."
Captain Johann Bernhard Müller was captured after the defeat at Poltava and sent to Tobolsk along with the other Swedish officers. In 1712, Tsar Peter hired Müller to travel among the Ostiaks (now known as Khanty) along the Ob River between Tobolsk and the Arctic Ocean. Müller completed his report four years later and sent it to St. Petersburg with a flattering dedication to Tsarina Catherine. Peter was so pleased with the report that he allowed it to be published abroad even before Müller was allowed to leave the country. The report was published in Berin in 1720, in English the following year, and in most of the other major European languages before the end of the decade.
Müller's description of the mammoth, which he calls "mamant," appears at the beginning of the report as part of a description of the resources of Siberia. He uses the word mamant to describe just the ivory. It is worth quoting at length, both because it shows the extreme rumors then in circulation regarding the mammoth, and because it is so entertaining.
There is a Curiosity in Siberia, no where else to met with in any Part of the World, for ought I know. This is what the Inhabitants call Mamant, which is found in the Earth in several places, particularly in sandy Ground. It looks like Ivory both as to Colour and Grain. The common Opinion of the Inhabitants is that they are real Elephants Teeth, and have lain buried since the universal Deluge. Some of our Countrymen think it to be the Ebur fossile, and consequently a Product of the Earth, which was likewise my Opinion for a good while. Others again maintain that they are the Horns of a live huge Beast, which lives in Morasses and subterraneous Caves, subsisting by the Mud, and working it self by the Help of its Horns through the Mire and the Earth; but when it chances to meet with sandy Ground, the Sands rowling after it so close, that by reason of its Unweildines, it cannot turn itself again, it sticks fast at last and perishes. I have spoke to many Persons, who averred to me for the greatest Truth, that beyond the Beresowa, they saw such Beasts in Caves of the high Mountains there, which are monstrous according to their Description, being four or five Ells high [2 m or 6-7 ft], and about three Fathoms long, of a greyish Coat, a long Head, and a very broad Forehead, on both sides of which just above the Eyes, they say, stand the foresaid Horns, which it can move, and lay cross-ways over each other. In walking it is said to be able to stretch it self to a great Length, and also to contract it self into a short Compass. Its Legs are, as to Bigness, like those of a Bear.
Müller went on to discuss whether mammoth ivory is real ivory or some mineral (Ebur fossile) that merely looks like ivory. He was inclined toward the latter opinion, but admitted that stories of the ivory being found with bloody bones argued for the former. In either case, he utterly rejected the idea that it came from elephants killed in the Flood: "the Notion that these are real Elephants Teeth, cannot be supported by any probable Argument." Müller's mammoth was much smaller than Kagg's, but matched it in other respects, such as the horns being mounted on the forehead. Müller is the only source that mentions live mammoths living in the mountains or it having an inchworm-like ability to change length.
The Society took up the question of the mammoth several times through the course of the next year. On January 11, Martin reported that he had carefully examined the works of zoology, but could find no sea animal like the one in Kagg's drawing though, in his opinion, it resembled the Nile hippopotamus. Benzelius announced that a Lt. Col. Schönström would be sending them a complete tusk for their examination when he returned from Siberia. At the next meeting, a letter was read from the linguist Johan Sparfvenfelt concerning the relation between the words "mammont" and "Behemoth." Finally, on February 15, Benzelius was able to report back to the Society with Kagg's answers to their questions. Unfortunately, most of his answers were "I don't know." Kagg wrote Benzelius that he had received the drawing from one Captain Tabbert and that he, Kagg, had no firsthand knowledge of mammoths. Although Tabbert had returned from Siberia by that time, there is no indication in the Society journals for 1723 that they made any effort to contact him.
Captain Tabbert was Philipp Johann Tabbert von Strahlenberg*, another captive officer who had made good use of his time in Siberia. Tabbert spent his early years of his captivity working for the director of mines and was allowed to travel and collect geographic information. The map he eventually produced was a tremendous improvement over previous maps of Northeast Asia and the first to use the Ural Mountains as a border between Europe and Asia. He followed up his map by collecting comparative lexicons of thirty-two Siberian languages, tracing pictographs in Central Asia, and he wrote the first description of the psychoactive properties of magic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). As many of his fellow prisoners were employed in ivory carving, he would have been familiar with mammoth tusks from the earliest days of his captivity, but it was a trip he made at the end of his captivity that was most important to Tabbert's understanding of mammoths.
During the summer of 1720, a gloomy German doctor named Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt arrived in Tobolsk on a mission from the Tsar to conduct a survey of medicinal plants in Siberia. His written instructions also directed him to gather "all the curiosities to be found in the region of Siberia, including objects of antiquity, pagan idols, [and] large mammoth bones...." With his wide ranging interests, Peter was, of course, aware of the mysterious mammoth. In his efforts to find new sources of revenue to pay for his wars and new capitol city, he had declared a royal monopoly over the ivory trade. But, being Peter, he wanted to know what the mammoth was and he wanted to have one for the Kunstkammer, his personal museum. Messerschmidt spent the winter in Tobolsk planning his expeditions and gathering information from the locals. By the end of the winter, he had come to regard Captain Tabbert as an indespensible intellectual companion and gained permission for Tabbert to accompany him on his travels as his assistant. The two worked together for over a year. In May, 1722, they arrived in Krasnoyarsk where Tabbert learned that the war was over and he was free to return home.
During their year together, Tabbert and Messerschmidt actively investigated the mammoth question. During the winter in Tobolsk, as they prepared for their summer expedition, they interviewed Siberian merchants to find out what they knew about mammoth remains. During their travels, they gathered mammoth bones in addition to the familiar ivory. No doubt, they discussed their ideas about the beast while they were on the road. It was Tabbert's bad luck that the one time he could have seen mammoth remains in situ, he and Messerschmidt were traveling separately and only the doctor was able to examine the site. When Tabbert returned to Sweden, all of the samples stayed with Messerschmidt. Messerschmidt did ship some molars and a piece of tusk to a scientific colleague in Danzig, Poland, but these samples would be unknown to the Tabbert and the Swedes until years after the discussion of Tabbert's drawing was over.
The earliest date I can find for Strahlenberg and the Society making contact with each other is June 11, 1724. On that date he arrived at a dinner of the Society and dazzled them with tales of "strange ice caves, about all sorts of unfamiliar fruits and trees, petrifications, deer, reindeer, mountain goats, elk and deer on the Yenisey, Tomski and several other rivers, and of Ostiaks on the Obi River, who said they 'come from a country-called Suomi-roll, which could be none other than Finland.'" If Strahlenberg said anything about mammoths beyond general comments about Petrifactions, it wasn't memorable enough for the Society to record in its journal. However, we have a good idea what he could have said because he later published it in his book about Siberia.
At four pages, Tabbert's is the longest account of any of the early Siberian travelers. In it, he uses the word mammoth to describe the whole animal, not just the ivory. He begins by repeating many of the points made by the others. The bones and teeth of mammoths are found in the spring when the floods wash them out of riverbanks. The teeth (as he calls them) can be made into anything ivory can. He is sure that it is real ivory and not a mineral. After a long discussion of the etymology of the name (which he is certain derives from Behemoth), Tabbert finally addresses the question, what kind of animal was the mammoth? "But this is not so readily answered," he admits.
[Muller] says, That these animals were nine Russian Ells long; But an ancient Painter, one Remessow, a native of Russia, who liv'd at Tobolsky, informed me, in the presence of Dr. Messerschmidt and many others, that he and thirty more of his Companions had seen between the Cities of Tara and Tomskoi, near the Lake call'd Tzana Osero, an entire Skeleton of one of these Creatures, thirty-six Russian Ells long, lying on one Side; and the Distance between the Ribs on one Side, and the other, was so great, that he, standing upright, on the Concavity of one Rib, could not quite reach the inner Surface of the opposite Rib with a pretty long Battle-Axe which he held in his Hand. To which may be added, that, not only, almost all over Siberia, there are found Jaw-Teeth or Grinders of twenty or twenty-four Pounds Weight each, and Bones of a vast Bigness; but Dr. Messerschmidt himself has seen the Bones of an whole Skeleton, of a monstrous Size, lying in a Heap in a Ditch between Tomskoi and Kasnetsko, on the banks of the river Tomber. Besides, every one of the Swedish prisoners, must remember that a Head of one of these Creatures is to be seen in the city of Tumeen, two Ells and a half long, which the Russians reckon to be one of the smallest Size. Considering what has been said, it is not to be believed that these Bones are Minerals and a Lusus naturae; And if we look upon the mighty Size, and take notice both of a whole Skeleton, and the Teeth, and at the same Time, take Notice their Crookedness, it is as impossible that they should be the Remains of Elephants. I have, indeed, formerly thought them to be Relics of Elephants ever since the flood; but there is no Manner of Proportion between them and the Skeleton of this huge Animal; I am therefore constrain'd to believe, that these Teeth and Bones are of sea animals, such as the Danes formerly us'd to bring from Greenland and Iceland, and sell for those of Unicorns. This might be illustrated by comparing those with these, especially that Tooth or Horn which is to be seen in the Musaeum of the King of Denmark.
Tabbert goes on to conclude that the mammoth was not a land animal, nor was it an amphibious animal that lived on the banks of rivers. He believes that it was a sea creature that lived in the Arctic Ocean before the Biblical Flood and that the bones found in his day were the remains of sea-mammoths stranded when the Flood's waters receded. He does not express an opinion as to whether or not sea-mammoths still exist. He concludes by saying that he's open to changing his mind if anyone should come up with a better solution.
Tabbert does not include a drawing of the mammoth in his book, but is clear that what he has in mind is nothing like the mammoth we know. A close reading of his account reveals that most of what he is describing is hearsay. The two complete skeletons he mentions were described to him by the painter Remessow and by Messerschmidt, who saw the skeleton when they were traveling apart. Messerschmidt left most of the bones of that mammoth behind, collecting only a molar and a part of a tusk. Strahlenberg clearly hasn't seen the narwhal horns in the Danish Kunstkammer or he would have known that they bear no resemblance to a mammoth tusk. It's not clear the ever saw a complete mammoth skull. He says the Swedish prisoners all knew there was a large skull in Tyumen, not that he had seen it. Messerschmidt sent a skull back to Europe, be he collected it the year after he and Tabbert parted ways. If Tabbert really had seen a mammoth skull, it's hard to see how he could have constructed the head that placed on his drawing.
Tabbert's mammoth drawing appears to a collage made from different sources, tusks and bones that he saw himself and tales recounted by others. Some of those tales were probably honest miscommunications while others, such as Remessow's giant, were likely tall tales. It's also possible that of the bones that he did see, not all of them were from mammoths. The head and body of his sea-mammoth are much easier to understand if we assume he was basing his reconstruction, at least partly, on the skull and bones of a woolly rhinoceros.
Whatever Strahlenberg said about mammoths in his dinner conversation with the Society, it wasn't enough to satisfy the members, who continued to send out letters requesting new information. Any time an officer returned from Russia with a bone or piece of ivory that was believed to come from a mammoth, the Society asked to see it. On October 3, 1723 Benzelius exhibited a part of a jaw of a mammoth brought back by Capt. Clodt von Jürgensburg. The next month, he brought in a "part of the tusk of a Behemoth, which was exactly like ivory." Finally, in 1725, Benzelius acquired the best testimony to date through the intermediary of Lt.Col. Peter Schönström, who had been mentioned in minutes two years earlier as the possible owner of a complete tusk.
Schönström had been the private secretary to King Charles at the time of the Battle of Poltava but was not part of the party that escaped with the king. In Solikamsk, where he spent his POW years, he was allowed access to old Russian and Tartar records that he studied for clues to early Scandinavian history. While there, he became acquainted with a veteran from the winning side at Poltava: Vasily Nikitich Tatishchev. The meeting might not have been an accident. Tatishchev was the director of mines for the Ural district, and Schönström was the cousin of Emanuel Swedenborg the assessor of the Swedish Board of Mines (and later a famous mystic). Following Schönström's return to Sweden, Tatishchev received permission to travel in Sweden where he and Schönström's cousin probed each other for intelligence on the mining and industrial capabilities of the other's country.
Tatishchev used his time in Sweden to pursue far more than his official goals. Like Schönström, Tabbert, and many others, he was deeply interested in the human and natural history of the northern countries. Tatishchev collected books, visited achieves, and sought out Swedish scholars. He visited Tabbert, whom he had also become acquainted with and, for a time, employed, in Siberia, at his home in Stockholm where he helped the former POW edit a manuscript that he was writing about the history of Siberia. In the spring of 1725, Tatishchev met with Benzelius. At some point, the conversation touched on the mammoth. Tatishchev revealed that during his own travels in Siberia, he had done some research into the subject. Benzelius asked the Russian to write a paper on the mammoth for the Society's journal. Tatishchev's paper is the first scholarly work devoted exclusively to the mammoth.
While Tabbert, Müller, and others before them had asked around about mammoths and sought out bones to examine, Tatishchev used his official authority to make systematic enquiries. As director of mines and governor of the Urals, Tatishchev was tasked with cataloging the resources of the district. To this end he developed a questionnaire that he sent to officials around the country. On section specifically asked about "subterranean petrifactions" and reminded the officials of their duty to report discoveries to the tsar. Tatishchev was able to acquire three good tusks. The first he sent to the tsar for his collection, the second to the Imperial Academy, and the third he kept for himself and had carved into "various pieces of work."
The paper that Tatishchev wrote for the Swedish Society covered much of the same ground that Müller and his predecessors had. Like all of the observers so far, his main focus was on the ivory if the animal he called "mamont". There is no doubt in Tatishchev's mind that the ivory is of an organic, and not mineral, nature; he calls it bone or horn throughout his paper. He mentions how the ivory is found eroding out of riverbanks in the far North every spring. He describes the texture of the ivory and lists the uses to which it is put. He repeats the primary theories of its origin: the natives believe the bones are the remains of a giant mole-like creature that lives underground while learned men believe they are the remains of elephants either brought there by the flood or by ancient armies. So far, there is nothing new here. Where Tatishchev outdoes his predecessors is in examining bones and ground in a way that is unmistakably scientific.
He measured the size and shape of the tusks he found and describes how they differ from and an elephants. He examined the chemical content of the ivory before declaring it to be of an organic, and not mineral, nature. He sought out other bones to study (much as Messerschmidt was doing at the same time). Sadly, the only skull he found was too "spoiled by age" for him to determine just how the ivory had been attached but, it was big enough, in his opinion, to be an elephant's. His most original contribution is in examining the native belief that the mammoth is an animal that burrows through the Earth. Most travelers had dismissed the idea as a superstition of savages. Tatishchev does too, but before coming to that conclusion, he tested a part of it.
Besides the simple fact that the bones were found underground, Tatishchev's informants gave him one other piece of evidence for their belief that the mammoth was a burrowing animal.
Besides, they tell, that some have obferv'd the earth rais'd into mounds, which happen'd while this animal was busy below in digging; and when he proceeded farther on, that the earth subsided again; and that, therefore, he left a tract or certain pit in the surface of the earth; as the trace of his subterraneous passage.
Such humps and pits, both small and large, are common and mysterious features of permafrost soils. At the time, most European scientists did not believe that deep frozen soil could exist. Didn't miners report the Earth getting warmer as they dug deeper? The very existence of permafrost wouldn’t be accepted until the middle of the nineteenth century and a detailed understanding of it's behavior wouldn't emerge until after WWII. We still don't completely understand it. Because he spent several years in and near the permafrost zone, Tatishchev knew that frost heaves and melt pockets were real and that they needed to be explained. His explanation of the pits is that they are sink-holes:
I afterwards enquir'd into those pits, which this animal was said to form as it walk'd under ground, and, I view'd them in different places, and I think I have discover'd what they are, namely, cavities and passages form’d by subterraneous waters; whence the incumbent, earth afterwards unexpectedly fell in; for, in Permia, upon examining such a pit, I found a torrent of water gliding under a hill.
With all the available evidence laid out before him, Tatishchev concluded that neither the "simple and credulous" natives nor the learned were on the right track. He was confident that he had disposed of the idea that the mammoth could be a subterranean animal. He thought it unlikely that the Flood would have swept elephants up in the tropics and deposited them in Siberia alone. As to an invading army with war elephants, there was no other evidence of such an event and it failed to explain how the bones became so deeply buried. Tatishchev didn't believe the ivory came from elephants at all. He thought ", that they are rather to be reckon'd to the class of horns than of teeth, and that they were parts of an animal different from an elephant." He also thought that there might be something to the Ostiak belief that the mammoth had movable horns.
Tatishchev's paper didn't go very far toward solving the mystery of mammoth ivory for the Swedish Society. After three years they had five possible explanations. Siberian natives thought mammoth ivory was the horn a giant mole-like creature. Russians living in Siberia thought it was the remains of elephants brought from somewhere else, probably by the Biblical Flood. Müller believed that mammoth ivory wasn't from an animal; he thought it was a mineral that grew in the Earth like coal or rock salt. Capt. Tabbert thought it was the tooth of a sea mammal, possibly related to the narwhal. Tatishchev thought it was the horn of a giant, as yet undiscovered, buffalo-like creature. The one man who had proof of the elphantine nature of the mammoth was Messerschmidt. A year after he and Tabbert serperated, he acquired a complete mammoth skull in excellent condition. However, during the years the Swedish Society was looking into the question, he making his way deeper into Siberia, nearing the Pacific Ocean and the Chinese frontier. None of Messerschmidt's notes were published during his lifetime. Indeed, most of them languished in boxes in the archives of the Russian Academy until the 1960s.
If the investigations of the Swedish Academy and Tatishchev did not solve the mystery of the mammoth, they nevertheless mark an important transition. Before their investigations, information about the mammoth was anecdotal, collected by travelers and lexicographers and presented in the context of of much larger projects. The Academy and Tatishchev brought the mammoth to the forefront, made it a subject of study in its own right, and systematically gathered information about it. The questions they asked and the methods they employed were becoming more recognizably scientific. Tatishchev recognized that more research needed to be done: "I, therefore, conclude, that so long as anyone cannot aver, that he has seen this animal, many doubts must still necessarily remain, which must be left to time and farther observations to clear up."
The fate of the Swedish prisoners after Poltava was a tragedy. Thousands did not survive their captivity. Those who did survive were separated from their families and communities for over ten years. At the same time, the officers' time in captivity produced a treasure trove of scientific progress. Not only did they advance European knowledge of the archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, and natural history of Russia and Northern Asia, they trained the next generation of Russian scientists and provided them with intellectual contacts in the West. From this, can we come to the Panglossian conclusion that everything works out for the best? I think not. The world would not have been worse off if it had taken us twenty years longer to learn about Siberia and more prisoners had survived. But, I do think it is a powerful example of the power of human curiosity. Even under the worst of circumstances, people will look up and start to ask questions. And, three hundred years later, we can be glad they did.
* Later historians refer to Tabbert as Strahlenberg. He, along with his three brothers, was enobled to that name in 1707 for their military service to King Charles. However, the contemporary sources I'm quoting here all refer to him as Tabbert, making my job just a little more difficult.