As the wind whips across the Bering Sea, for an instant it courses over a tiny speck of land called St. Paul Island, far off the coast of Alaska. At the peak of the last ice age some 21,000 years ago, this dot in the middle of the ocean was a volcanic mountain at the southern edge of the Bering Land Bridge, yet as the ice melted and seas rose, its black cliffs became shorelines, trapping ice age fauna on its landscape, the most massive of them the woolly mammoth.
I’ve come to St. Paul with a team of six researchers bent on solving a mystery surrounding the mammoths of St. Paul Island: Mammoths survived here for nearly 2,000 years after the last mainland mammoths disappeared from Siberia 8,700 years ago. Trapped here on the island, the mammoths were somehow protected, and the researchers, led by paleontologist Russ Graham of Pennsylvania State University, want to know why. They want to know exactly when the mammoths disappeared from the island, and whether their ultimate demise can help settle the controversy of why mammoths went extinct elsewhere. Did people, a changing climate, or something else kill the last of the mammoths?