An Audience with Lyuba – the Mammoths come to London


What better way to spend a gloriously sunny day than to wander around a museum exhibition indoors? Doesn’t sound ideal? How about if I rephrase it: what better way to spend any day, regardless of the fickle favours of weather, than to stand in the presence of a 40 000 year-old baby mammoth! Considering she died at the tender age of one month, Lyuba has had a very eventful ‘life’: discovered by a reindeer herder; sold to a nearby shop; worried by local dogs; and now she’s travelled thousands of miles to be the centrepiece of the Natural History Museum‘s latest temporary exhibition: Mammoths – Ice Age Giants.

Taking photographs of Lyuba was prohibited, so you will have to see her. Fortunately the rest of the exhibition was a photography free-for-all. There were some lovely members of the elephant’s ancestry present, including my favourite: the shovel-faced gomphothere Platybelodon. Flora and fauna that shared their world with the mammoth also made an appearance, including a staggering reconstruction of a rearing cave bear. It is easy to see why Neandertal culture was so obsessed with them.

The whole exhibition is well worth seeing. You can tell people how big mammoths are but, until you stand under their tusks it is hard to conceptualise. The real reason to go is of course to see Lyuba. Lyuba has told us so much already: the gestation period of mammoths (22 months, similar to a modern elephant); that mammoth mothers probably fed faeces to their young, just as modern elephants do, to aid in the cultivation of digestion-assisting bacteria in the gut; that mammoths have brown fat at the back of the neck…

The Americans were not so lucky and had to make do with a model of her. The guys on the door speculated that she came here because the museum sent a specimen on loan to Russia in return – the moon rock perhaps. Whatever the circumstance, we are lucky to have her. For some of us this may be the only chance we get to see her: to gaze upon the underside of her trunk and observe just how… Elephant-like her trunk wrinkles are; to see the little tufts of hair surviving in her inner ear.