It takes a certain kind of determination to hunt for buried treasure at the edges of the Earth, especially if that treasure isn’t gold but rather a 20,000-year-old mammal encased in 23 tons of ice and clay. But French explorer Bernard Buigues wanted to obtain a frozen specimen of a woolly mammoth for scientific use including the possibility of cloning. He also just wanted to touch the wiry hair of such a magnificent but long-extinct creature.
Discovery Channel has almost singularly propelled the field of nature documentaries, elevating the genre from channel surfer’s distraction to an attention-getting art form. “Raising the Mammoth,” one of Discovery’s “Watch With the World” events that will air in 146 countries, also proves how adept the service is at hedging its bets when it comes to funding expeditions.
After all, Buigues’ proposal didn’t sound like a clear-cut winner. The Siberian tundra that is 477 miles north of the Arctic Circle is a graveyard of mammoth remains, but most excavations take place in the summer months, and therefore limited scientific data can be cultivated from the decomposing carcasses.
Buigues learned of a frozen mammoth from a nomadic Siberian family and was determined to remove the large specimen from the permafrost. It was no easy task.
Director Jean-Charles Deniau takes viewers through every step of the two-year expedition, not the least of which is the ongoing relationship between the explorers and the Dolgans, the indigenous people of Siberia who believe that mammoths were creatures of the underworld.
The Jarkov family, who found the mammoth, particularly wanted to make sure that the remains were treated with respect so as not to offend the spirits. As partial payment and out of respect, Buigues named the creature the Jarkov mammoth.
As Buigues and his team of experts, including Larry Agenbroad, Dick Mol and N.K. Vereshchagin, set about to unearth the Jarkov mammoth with jackhammers, state-of-the-art computer animation gives viewers a glimpse of what woollys would have looked like as they roamed the tundra in search of hearty grasses.
Deniau has a modern-day elephant seemingly wander chronologically through a display of his various ancestors while writer Adrienne Ciuffo, through narrator Jeff Bridges, explains how the beasts slowly made their way from Africa to Siberia.
Deniua’s biggest feat, however, is capturing the natural beauty of the area from the playful Arctic fox that romps through camp to the herds of galloping reindeer. Deniau also spends a generous amount of time on the Dolgans and their amazing ability to not only adapt but flourish in such a harsh environment.
Technical credits are top notch and a special medal of valor should be awarded to Didier Portal and Robert Pauly, who kept the lenses focused on the action, despite a raging Arctic storm that nearly ripped the crew’s 400-pound tents to shreds.