Radiocarbon evidence of mid-Holocene mammoths stranded on an Alaskan Bering Sea island


Island colonization and subsequent dwarfing of Pleistocene proboscideans is one of the more dramatic evolutionary and ecological occurrences1,2,3, especially in situations where island populations survived end-Pleistocene extinctions whereas those on the nearby mainland did not4. For example, Holocene mammoths have been dated from Wrangel Island in northern Russia4. In most of these cases, few details are available about the dynamics of how island colonization and extinction occurred. As part of a large radiocarbon dating project of Alaskan mammoth fossils, I addressed this question by including mammoth specimens from Bering Sea islands known to have formed during the end-Pleistocene sea transgression5. One date of 7,908 ± 100 yr bp (radiocarbon years before present) established the presence of Holocene mammoths on St Paul Island, a first Holocene island record for the Americas. Four lines of evidence—265 accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) radiocarbon dates from Alaskan mainland mammoths6, 13 new dates from Alaskan island mammoths, recent reconstructions of bathymetric plots5 and sea transgression rates from the Bering Sea5—made it possible to reconstruct how mammoths became stranded in the Pribilofs and why this apparently did not happen on other Alaskan Bering Sea islands.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Rise in sea level of the Bering Sea with time, modified from Manley's approximate contours and transgression dates10.
Figure 2: Rank comparison by AMS radiocarbon dates of woolly mammoth from the Alaskan and northwest Canadian mainland showing their relation to the specimen from the Pribilofs.


  1. 1

    Palombo, M. R. The World of Elephants. Proc. 1st Internatl. Cong. 486–491 (Comune Di Roma, Consiglio Nazionale della Ricerche, Rome, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Sondaar, P. Y. in Major Patterns of Vertebrate Evolution (eds Hecht, M. K., Goody, P. C. & Hecht, M. B.) 671–707 (Plenum, New York, 1977)

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Agenbroad, L. D. Pygmy mammoths, Mammuthus exilis, from Channel Islands National Park, California (USA). Deinsea 9, 1–39 (2003)

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Vartanyan, S. L., Garutt, V. E. & Sher, A. V. Holocene dwarf mammoths from Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic. Nature 362, 336–339 (1993)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Manley, W. F. Postglacial Flooding of the Bering Land Bridge: A Geospatial Animation v1. INSTAAR2002 〈

  6. 6

    Guthrie, R. D. Rapid body size decline in Alaskan Pleistocene horses before extinction. Nature 426, 169–171 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Falconer, D. S. An Introduction to Quantitative Genetics (Longman, Harlow, 1989)

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Frankham, R. Inbreeding and extinction: island populations. Conserv. Biol. 12, 665–675 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Hopkins, D. M. & Einarsson, T. Pleistocene glaciation on St. George Is. Pribilof Islands. Science 152, 343–345 (1966)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Sulerzhitsky, L. D. & Romanenko, F. A. The ‘twilight’ of the mammoth fauna in the Asiatic Arctic. Ambio 28, 251–255 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Crossen, K. J., Graham, R. W., Veltre, D. W. & Yesner, D. Abstr. Ann. Geol. Soc. Am. Conf. NW Div. 424 (Geol. Soc. Am., Seattle, Washington, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Scheffer, V. B. Rise and fall of a reindeer herd. Sci. Monthly 73, 356–362 (1951)

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Colinvaux, P. A. Historical ecology in Beringia: the south land bridge coast at St. Paul Island. Quat. Res. 16, 18–36 (1981)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Guthrie, R. D. Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990)

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Ager, T. A. Late Quaternary vegetation and climate history of the Bering Land Bridge from St. Michael Island western Alaska. Quat. Res. 60, 17–31 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Martin, P. S. in Quaternary Extinctions (eds Martin, P. S. & Klein, R. G.) 345–403 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 1984)

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Guthrie, R. D. in Quaternary Extinctions (eds Martin, P. S. & Klein, R. G.) 259–298 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 1984)

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Agenbroad, L. D., Johnson, J. & Morris, D. Abstr. Am. Quat. Assoc. 17th AMQUA Biennial Meeting (Am. Quat. Assoc., Univ. Alaska, Anchorage, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Fitzhugh, W. W. Global cultural change: new views of circumpolar lands and people. Anthro. News Natl Mus. Nat. Hist. 9, 1 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Gerasimov, D., Girya, E., Pitulko, V. & Tikhonov, A. New Materials for the Interpretation of the Site Chertov Ovrag on the Wrangel Island [in Russian] 379–383 (Mat. 2nd Dikov's conf., Magadan, SVKNII, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Fladmark, K. R. Routes: alternate migration corridors for early man in North America. Am. Antiq. 4, 55–69 (1977)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Laws, R. M., Parker, I. S. C. & Johnston, R. C. B. Elephants and their Habitats: the Ecology of Elephants in North Bunyoro, Uganda (Clarendon, Oxford, 1975)

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Lister, A. M. Epiphyseal fusion and postcranial age determination in woolly mammoth. Ann. Nat. Hist. Mus. Rotterdam 6, 79–87 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I thank O. Geist and R. Carroll who collected these island fossils, and the curators of the UAM, USNM and ANMH. M. L. Guthrie edited the manuscript. A. Lister and A. J Stuart provided reviews, and they also corroborated the mammoth date using their NERC Grant. My dating projects have been funded by the NSF.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Dale Guthrie.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Specimen details and radiocarbon dates. (XLS 44 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dale Guthrie, R. Radiocarbon evidence of mid-Holocene mammoths stranded on an Alaskan Bering Sea island. Nature 429, 746–749 (2004).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing