Originally created 06/05/06

Woolly mammoth ivory excavated for jewelry, scrimshaw



ANCHORAGE, Alaska - In Anchorage's downtown ivory shops, alongside whale baleen baskets and walrus tusk statuettes, are souvenirs made from the fossils of shaggy Ice Age beasts that died on the tundra thousands of years ago.

The bones, teeth and giant curving tusks of woolly mammoths can be found in abundance in Alaska, and the fossils of the elephant-like beasts are routinely - if not always legally - turned into jewelry and other curios.

As the warmer weather and round-the-clock daylight of summer draw tourists to Alaska, ivory shop owners anticipate the inevitable questions from visitors about mammoth ivory.

"Most people don't even know about it until they come up here, and then they see it in the store and go, 'Hmmm, mammoth ivory?'" said Barbara Lynd, owner of Alaska Arts and Ivory. A few customers have asked where they can go to see a live mammoth.

"They're not really clued in to the fact that they're extinct," Lynd said.

The woolly mammoth died out more than 10,000 years ago, killed off either by humans or climate warming, according to the main theories debated by scientists.

At Lynd's store, a piece of tusk in front of her cash register is engraved with an image of a herd of mammoths. She said the scrimshaw, as engraved ivory is called, will sell for about $4,500. Necklaces of polished mammoth-ivory beads sell for $100 to $400.

Woolly mammoth ivory can legally be taken from private land with the owner's consent, then sold and carved.

The removal of mammoth ivory from state or federal land is banned in Alaska. But with mammoth fossils spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles of sparsely populated land, law enforcement cannot protect them all.

And because mammoths are extinct, the ivory, unlike hundreds of other wildlife products, can be taken across nearly any border in the world without fees or permits, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dale Guthrie, professor emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks, said many scientists fear that trafficking in mammoth ivory could lead to the taking of even rarer fossils, and "we could lose the story of our past." Researchers use the tusks to learn about mammoth growth rates, eating and drinking patterns and migration trends.

Alaska contains the largest caches of mammoth remains in the United States. Mammoth fossils, which look like large pieces of driftwood, are often exposed by shifting rivers and eroding coasts.

"In the rest of the country, it isn't in very good shape and it's rather rare. The permafrost and the muck helped preserve it better here," Guthrie said.

For the past 15 years, Charles Foster, using a shovel and pick, has gathered mammoth ivory every summer at a secret location along a river near Kotzebue, just above the Arctic Circle on Alaska's western coast. The school maintenance worker sells the teeth for $500 each, while the tusks go for a higher price he would not disclose.

"I can get a four-wheeler with four of these teeth," Foster said as he picked through a bulging cardboard box of mammoth tusks, teeth and leg bones under a table in his living room.

Lynd said most of her inventory comes from people she has known for two decades, and "I trust they are getting it from the right places."

Scrimshaw artist George Vukson, who sells pieces to Lynd and other shops and collectors, said most of his ivory comes from Alaska Natives who find it while hunting. Vukson pays $35 to $70 a pound.

While elephant ivory is stark white, mammoth ivory tends to be brownish or bluish from centuries of absorbing minerals in the ground.