June 21, 2010

Baby Mammoth Makes Its Way To Paris Laboratory

A baby mammoth named Khoma unearthed by archaeologists in northern Siberia just last year is being sent on its way to Paris to be analyzed.

This project may open another window on a distant past that is all too unfamiliar -- what life was like for creatures of that time and the environment they shared with early humans. 

Bernard Buigues, a French expert on herbivores who works in close collaboration with Russian authorities, said that Khoma is the oldest of six baby mammoths found in Siberia over the past 200 years.

"It wasn't possible to use carbon 14 to date it, which means it's more than 50,000 years old as carbon-dating isn't effective after that point," he told AFP.

Khoma died at just six or seven months old.  It was discovered by a hunter in July 2009 in melting permafrost on the banks of the river Khroma about 1,300 miles north of Yakutsk near the Atlantic Ocean.

The ice-encased body had been partially eaten by foxes, which devoured the trunk and the top of its head.

A team of Russian scientists examined the animal then informed Buigues, who works with authorities in Moscow for his paleontological project, which is behind Khoma's trip to Europe.

Buigues is a renowned mammoth specialist who unearthed Jarkov in 1999, a rare adult wooly mammoth.

Early microbiological analyses have shown Khoma is harboring very old but potentially lethal germs, most probably anthraces.

Khoma is enclosed in an isolated container and will be handled initially at a laboratory in Grenoble, which is the only one in the world specialized in gamma ray treatment.

The same technique has been used on other pre-historic and archaeological objects. 

"We treated Ramses II's mummy in 1977. It was less than 1,800 years old and was infected with a fungus that was attacking it," Laurent Cortella, the lab's nuclear physician who will treat Khoma, told AFP.

"Our baby, inside its box, will undergo three to four days of a continuous bombardment of 20,000 grays of gamma rays," he said, grays being the unit that measures absorbed dosage.

"The slightest lethargic little germ from time immemorial hasn't the least chance of resisting when you realize that one gamma ray of four grays kills a human.

"We've never handled such an old object or fossil, nor a creature unearthed from the permafrost."

Khoma will be transported to Puy-en-Velay in central France afterwards for studies and a general autopsy before going on public display in an exhibition on mammoths and their prehistoric contemporaries.