He struggled for a long time, bogging down his giant ten-ton carcass in the swamp with each effort. The drama took place about a million years ago in the south of France. This “southern mammoth”, a young 25-year-old male, 4.5 meters high at the withers, ended up engulfed in the sediments which fossilized his enormous skeleton… to sit enthroned today as a star, freshly restored, dominating the others, at the bottom of the fabulous paleontology gallery of the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris.
This precious giant – it is the most complete of the rare specimens ever found – was much larger than its young successor: the woolly mammoth of Siberia. “And since it lived in a warm temperate climate, we think it was hairless,” said Bruno David, the president of the Museum, who came to unveil the new presentation of the animal and which recalls the story of its discovery.
It was in 1869. On the way between Alès and Durfort in the Gard with his friend, the prehistorian Jules Ollier de Marichard, to visit a cave, Paul Cazalis de Fondouce sees, from the top of the carriage, “a fragment of molar” of elephant he believes. This geologist will undertake excavations and offer in 1873, to the National Museum of Natural History, the remains of the mammoth of Durfort which will be sheltered, from 1898 in the newly built gallery.
One hundred and fifty years later, the fossil suffered “because of coal heating, the passage of visitors. We had to fill cracks with resins, remove crumbling plaster…” Bruno David further specifies.
A historical monument
In 2020, it is decided to restore it. But in the meantime, the mammoth has become… a historical monument: a negotiation begins between the curators who make it a witness to the beginnings of modern paleontology, of the museum presentation to the public of the Belle Époque, and the scientists who know today much more about mammoths.
The latter thus obtained to modify the position of the legs of the skeleton which we now know that it walked at an amble like elephants (both legs on the same side, raised at the same time). On the other hand, the restorers will respect the old reassembly of the skull based on the knowledge of modern Asian elephants, while the mammoth had a much narrower and higher skull: “We noticed that our predecessors had only found a few remains of bones that they drowned in plaster, explains Cécile Colin-Fromont, project manager. But this mistake is now also part of the history of the mammoth.” She also admires the very respectful work done at the time, by those who circled the bones with a metal frame to hold them together, without ever piercing them.
This restoration project, which ended on June 28, mobilized around a hundred people. In addition to the restorers and the basers, a real scientific investigation was carried out by around twenty researchers from the Museum: with new excavations very close to the prehistoric site of the mammoth to document the environment of marshes and forests where the animal lived. With also, the rediscovery of texts by Paul Cazalis de Fondouce which have shed light on his work. In all, a budget of €400,000 was needed, funded for more than a quarter by an appeal for donations from individuals. “Sharing the emotion of the latter and the inhabitants of Durfort who have already come to see it, testifies Catherine Crocq, one of the restorers of the Aïnu company, it is the real treasure of our profession.”