The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic

The world's largest mammoth cemetery

Remains of ancient giants on the banks of a Yakut river

12.12.2022// Yakutia is Russia’s leading region by volume of discovered remains of ancient animals, especially mammoths. Bones of these giants are found all over the republic, but the Berelekh site is considered to be the largest mammoth cemetery not only in Russia but in the world.

It was discovered in the 1940s in the place called Berelekh in Allayikhovsky ulus, on the left bank of the eponymous river, a left tributary of the Indigirka, 90 km northwest of the settlement of Chokurdakh. The scale of the find was immediately apparent: according to eyewitness accounts, the entire bank of the river was literally strewn with mammoth bones over a distance of 250 metres.

However, the first major palaeontological expedition led by B.S. Rusanov, N.K. Vereshchagin, and P.A. Lazarev was only organised in 1970–1971, many years after the discovery.

As a result, some 8,500 bones belonging to 140 mammoths of various ages – from newborns to very old animals – had been collected. Here is how Vereshchagin described the mammoth cemetery: 'The riverbank is topped with melting ice and hillocks... After a kilometre, a vast scattering of huge grey bones – long, flat, and short – appears. They stick out from the dark, damp ground in the middle of the riverbank slope. Sliding down a lightly sodden slope towards the water, the bones have formed a headland protecting the bank from erosion. There are thousands of them, a scattering stretching for two hundred metres along the shore and into the water. Across the river, the low slip-off right bank is only eighty metres away, and behind it are impassable willow thickets... everyone is silent, overwhelmed by what they see'.

An interesting find was the frozen hind leg of an adult mammoth, 170 cm long. Over several thousand years, the leg had mummified, but it is still in good condition, complete with skin and fur, some strands of which are up to 120 cm long. The Berelekh mammoth leg was estimated to be about 13 thousand years old. One of the most northerly campsites of ancient man, dating back 10–13 thousand years, has been discovered not far from the bone scattering. Numerous kitchen scraps and tools have been found at the camp of the Dyuktay people.

The reason for the mass death of mammoths is still unknown. According to one version, the animals died during a flood or simply fell through the ice on a lake. Another theory claims that they had been killed by hunters, the ancient inhabitants of the area.

Tourists are taken to the Berelekh Cemetery as part of individual tours from Yakutsk. The tour operator takes care of organising the complicated logistics—first, you have to get to Chokurdakh settlement by plane, then take a boat up the Indigirka River and finally walk quite an impressive distance through the wilderness. Of course, one can try it alone, but only experienced travellers who have been to completely unspoilt places before can be advised to do so. You should have a camping kit with you, as well as warm clothing and an insect repellent kit. Even in the summer, it can be very cold in the Arctic Circle, and clouds of midges, gnats and other fresh-blooded lovers can make the journey unbearable. If you find something in a mammoth cemetery, however, the find should be brought to the local authority. It may be donated, but if it is of scientific value, it is more likely to be given to scientists.

In addition to searching for the remains of Pleistocene fauna, fishing and swimming in the local lakes, famous for their clear water, can also be enjoyed in the Allaikhovsky district. Locals particularly recommend trying to catch the broad whitefish, a valuable commercial fish with a delicate flavour.

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