Looking into the eyes of the past never got so literal.
The term “mummy” is most often associated with Pharaohs and Pyramids. But these legacies of Ancient Egypt are not the only mummies in our world. Though rare, mummification can happen in the right environmental conditions. For preservation to occur, an unlucky animal must die in very cold or dry environments where bacteria cannot survive and thus decay is impossible. If these conditions persist – or if the remains undergo fossilization – the mummies of long-extinct organisms can last into the present.
This two-part article will introduce us to some of these mummies. From armoured dinosaurs to giant flightless birds, we will see how different organisms have remained relatively intact for millennia, providing unparalleled glimpses at extinct life. Today’s article will examine mummies from the last 60,000 years, while the next will discuss those older. With that out of the way, let’s bring out the mummies!
The Upland Moa: 600 Years Old
The first mummy on our list is the only bird to be featured (unless you count dinosaurs, of course!). The Moa birds were a family of giant, flightless birds native to New Zealand that went extinct a mere 600 years ago. The mummified Upland Moa was likely one of the last of its kind, going extinct as mankind settled in the Moa’s long untouched paradise.
Ötzi the Iceman: Homo Sapiens: 5,000 Years Old
Though Ötzi isn’t the only human mummy out there, he is one of the most interesting. While Narmer was uniting Upper and Lower Egypt over 5,000 years ago, our friend Ötzi was murdered with an arrow in the Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi’s body has provided archaeologists with stunning amounts of information, including what his last meal was (wheat, deer, and ibex), the fact he was lactose intolerant, had tattoos, and had type O blood[i]. Unfortunately, his killer is still on the loose…except that they’ve been dead for 5,000 years too.
Mylodon: 13,000 Years Old
Though this article has a bias to northern (cough *frozen*) animals, there are some exceptions. The mummified skin of the Giant Ground Sloth Mylodon is known from a cave in Chile, the aptly named ‘Cueva del Milodón’. Discovered in 1895, the Mylodon skin revealed that Mylodon had a single coat of golden fur with a layer of armour embedded in their skin[ii]. Talk about heavy duty protection!
Cave Bear: 39,500-22,000 Years old
While many of the remaining animals are (depressingly) infants, one adult Cave Bear from Eastern Siberia bucks this trend. Discovered by reindeer hunters in 2020, the secrets that the Cave Bear may hold have yet to be revealed. Although cave bears like this dwarfed even the largest of modern bears, their (mostly) vegetarian diet meant they weren’t actively hunting early humans. Unless you entered their caves, that is…
Boris, Dina, Sparta, & Uyan: Cave Lion Cubs, 44,000-28,000 Years Old
Here’s where the depressing part of the article starts. Many of the mummified animals found in permafrost are infants, including four Cave Lion cubs all found in Russia. Sparta, a female cub discovered in 2018, is the best preserved, with even her whiskers being found intact. At only a month or two old, Cave Lion cubs like Sparta reveal the harsh realities of the last Ice Age.
Kolyma & Sasha: Woolly Rhinoceros, 39,000-34,000 Years Old
It turns out that the Woolly Rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis would not have been a fan of kick a ginger day. Discovered in 2015, the mummified remains of a woolly rhino infant named Sasha revealed that infants had a reddish coat of fur[iii]. Mummies of adult Woolly Rhinos, such as ones found in the Kolyma region of Russia, are hairless due to preservation in the cold, making Sasha’s discovery even more incredible.
Blue Babe: Steppe Bison, 36,000 Years Old
The largest mummy of today’s article is “Blue Babe,” the mummy of an adult male Steppe Bison discovered in Alaska. Named after the mineral vivianite which formed on his skin, Blue Babe is the second murder victim in this article. Instead of it being a human, Blue Babe was killed by the American Lion Panthera atrox, whose claw and tooth marks can be found on BB’s posterior region. Funny how film copies nature, I suppose…
Dima, Lyuba, Masha, & Nun Cho Ga: Woolly Mammoth Calves, 42,000-30,000 Years Old
Life for baby Woolly Mammoths sure was tough. Since 1977, the mummified remains of four different Mammoth calves have been discovered, with the most recent – Nun Cho Ga – being discovered a few months ago in the Canadian Yukon. The other three – Dima, Lyuba, and Masha – hail from Russia. Lyuba is perhaps the most notable, both for her young age (a mere 35 days old) and the extreme quality of her preservation (her mother’s milk was found in her intestines)[iv].
Lena: Horse Foal: 42,000 Years Old
Another youngling found in the permafrost of Russia. Lena, a horse foal discovered in 2018, is in near-perfect condition from being buried alive in mud, which has been inferred based on the presence of mud in her gastrointestinal tract. Lena’s blood and urine has been extracted by scientists to isolate her DNA and create a clone, but they have been unsuccessful thus far[v]. Not exactly Jurassic Park, but it’s close enough.
Wolf Puppy & Caribou: 57,000 Years Old
The final mummies on our list were discovered within a month of each other in the Yukon of northern Canada in 2018. The wolf puppy, named Zhùr, was discovered to have eaten fish before her untimely death at just a few weeks old[vi]. Her DNA showed that while she was related to modern wolves, she wasn’t closely related to the wolves currently living in Alaska and Northern Canada and has no living descendants.
The Caribou calf is one of the few animals on this list that is a living species. Hooray? Not much research has currently been performed on it, and apparently it was discovered at a gold mine owned by a reality TV star. Just looking at a living caribou and the mummy side-by-side is jarring, to say the least…
As you may have noticed, many of the mummies featured today were discovered within the last ten years or so. This is due to climate change and the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic, which has resulted in many frozen animals coming up to the surface. While this may be a good thing for eager paleontologists (and Mammoth tusk hunters), it’s ultimately a bad indication of where our world is heading climatically.
At least we’ll have some mummified consolation prizes.
Thank you for reading today’s (admittedly morbid) article! If you’d like to learn more about Nun Cho Ga, the mummified Mammoth discovered in 2022, then read about “Canada’s Mummified Baby Mammoth” here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article.
Header Image Courtesy of Nerdist.
[i] Pinkowski, Jennifer. “Ötzi the Iceman: What We Know 30 Years after His Discovery.” History, National Geographic, 26 Jan. 2022, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/tzi-the-iceman-what-we-know-30-years-after-his-discovery?loggedin=true.
[ii] McDonald, Gregory. “Mummified Skin of Mylodon Darwinii from Cueva Del Milodon, Chile in the …” Journal of Mammalian Evolution , 2018, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Mummified-skin-of-Mylodon-darwinii-from-Cueva-del-Milodon-Chile-in-the-Natural-History_fig1_321756417.
[iii] Gibbens, Sarah. “Extinct Woolly Rhino ‘Sasha’ Reconstructed in Russia’s Siberia.” Animals, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/sasha-woolly-rhino-mummy-siberia-ice-age-spd.
[iv] Mueller, Tom. “Ice Baby.” Magazine, National Geographic, 4 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/mammoths.
[v] Magazine, Smithsonian. “Scientists Extracted Liquid Blood from 42,000-Year-Old Foal Found in Siberian Permafrost.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 18 Apr. 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-extracted-liquid-blood-42000-year-old-foal-found-siberian-permafrost-180971979/.
[vi] Magazine, Smithsonian. “Gold Miners Unearth 50,000-Year-Old Caribou Calf, Wolf Pup from Canadian Permafrost.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 17 Sept. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/canadian-permafrost-yields-intact-remains-50000-year-old-caribou-calf-wolf-pup-180970301/.
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