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20,300 years old. Frozen solid in the permafrost of Upper Siberia. Protected by reindeer-herding nomads. The Discovery Channel’s Raising the Mammoth (2000) and Land of the Mammoth (2000) trace the excavation and investigation of the Jarkov Mammoth from its discovery in 1997 to its study through present day.

Raising the Mammoth, the first film of the two, documents French polar explorer Bernard Burgues’s quest to locate and extract what he believed to be a fully intact wooly mammoth. Having discovered the mammoth’s tusks in 1997, the Jarkov family (the nomadic Dolgon reindeer herders or whom the mammoth was named) led Burgues to the site where they believed the entire animal to be frozen and an international team of scientists was quickly assembled to extract the mammoth. The process of extraction, tedious and beset by foul weather and failing Cold War-era equipment, is filmed over two and one-half years and the film ends with the block of ice believed to contain the mammoth being carried by helicopter to an underground permafrost tunnel in Khatanga for further study.

Raising the Mammoth, while likely a delight for paleontology buffs, left this viewer a little cold. One learns nothing of Burgues’s past nor exactly how he learned of the Jarkov discovery. The point is made repeatedly that mammoth tusks and bones frequently emerge from the permafrost during summer thaws and no information is provided on why Burgues believed that the Jarkov tusks would lead to a fully intact specimen, only twelve of which had been extracted in the last 200 years. The extraction itself is an inherently monotonous process, to be sure, but it may have been much more interesting to watch if more insight had been provided into the science behind the methods. The melodramatic narration (attributing setbacks in the excavation to a "curse" visited upon anyone disturbing the mammoth’s remains) combined with Jeff Bridges’s flat delivery make the film that much more unsatisfying. The few minutes devoted to the exploration of the possibility of cloning the mammoth provided the most interesting moments in the film. I waited patiently for the mammoth to be carved from the ice and studied, but, true to its title, Raising the Mammoth ended as soon as a helicopter pulled the block from the tundra, leaving the viewer to wonder if all of the effort had been worthwhile.

Land of the Mammoth, thankfully, picks up where its predecessor left off, and is a superior, far more rewarding film. Improved not only in the technical aspects of cinematography and editing, Land of the Mammoth also pays off in content. Beginning with the installation of the Jarkov Mammoth in the frozen tunnel beneath Khatanga, the second film in the series is better paced, quickly revisiting the events of Raising the Mammoth and moving directly to the study of the mammoth’s remains while providing extensive information on the creature’s history and habitat. Computer-generated animation impressively recreates the life of the mammoth and everything I can imagine one could want to see is illustrated, including mammoth mating and birth. The scientists return to the area on the Taimyr Peninsula where the Jarkov Mammoth was located, expanding their study from a single specimen to every aspect of the mammoth’s habitat. Theories relating to mammoth extinction are explored in Land of the Mammoth, including disease, climatic change, and human predation. Also examined in greater detail is the concept of possibly cloning the mammoth, which I found to be the most exciting aspect of the entire project.

Though Land of the Mammoth provided a wealth of information on the mammoth in general, running the gamut from evolution though extinction, very little was revealed about the actual Jarkov Mammoth. The film ends with the mammoth encased in nearly as much ice as it was at the end of Raising the Mammoth. Burgues hints that the specimen is probably not a wholly intact creature, but it is apparent that the scientists involved are thrilled nonetheless with literally tons of material for study. The viewer will also appreciate why fragments of a creature combined with surrounding plant and insect life can be just as satisfying, if not more, than simply a "complete" mammoth.

Raising the Mammoth and Land of the Mammoth are, in retrospect, fascinating when viewed as a pair of films. If you can only watch one, the latter is recommended for the casual viewer. Fans of paleontology and those hungry for more behind the Jarkov Mammoth in particular will probably enjoy Raising the Mammoth as well.

The Raising the Mammoth DVD features include biographies of the scientists involved, a conversation with Burgues and a mammoth fact-file and timeline.

The Land of the Mammoth DVD features include 16:9 anamorphic widescreen presentation, 5.1 Dolby digital sound, behind-the-scenes shorts and filmmaker commentary.

Mark Nichols


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Raising the Mammoth

Land of the Mammoth