Why Russia is the homeland of the elephant

“God disfigured the turtle, but with the elasmotherium, he really went to town,” Anna says. “The animal was huge, but fairly dumb: Its small brain had a hard time controlling its monstrous body.”

“God disfigured the turtle, but with the elasmotherium, he really went to town,” Anna says. “The animal was huge, but fairly dumb: Its small brain had a hard time controlling its monstrous body.”

Ekaterina Filippovic
A Russian palaeontologist’s quest to find ancient beasts and unicorns.

Anna at work. On her table rest the skulls of Medieval horses that were discovered a month ago near the resort town of Kislovodsk. / Photo: Ekaterina FilippovicAnna at work. On her table rest the skulls of Medieval horses that were discovered a month ago near the resort town of Kislovodsk. / Photo: Ekaterina Filippovic

There’s an old Soviet joke that satirizes the USSR’s penchant for declaring itself a leading force in various fields. It goes like this: During an international competition, schoolchildren from several countries are challenged to write an essay on elephants, and one Soviet kid proceeds to write a long paper entitled “Russia: The Homeland of the Elephant.” Cue the laughs, because obviously Russia is by no means considered a natural habitat for the huge mammals, and the child was simply displaying his patriotism – so it’s funny because it isn’t true. Except, ironically, it turned out the kid may have been right after all, and ancient elephants did once inhabit the country.

One of the few museums to exhibit not one, but two complete skeletons of the Southern mammoth — the ancestor of the ancient mastodon — is located in Russia, too. The huge animals roamed the country from 0.7 to 2.6 million years ago. The unique exhibits in the City Museum of Stavropol in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region (1,400 km south of Moscow) are in fact discoveries of the palaeontologist Anna Shvyreva. There are in total only seven such skeletons in the world.

The ancestors of mastodons

Many people may think museums are boring but Anna begs to differ: She believes working in a museum is like being in an action-packed movie where you are constantly taking part in an exciting adventure. Anna will turn 80 this year, and for the last 55 years – which she considers the happiest of her life – she’s been working in the City Museum of Stavropol. She talks about her exhibits passionately:

“The Southern mammoth was the ancestor of the mastodon, but it had no fur. His skin alone was so tough his enemies had no chance. Who would dare to attack such a scary neighbor? “

“God disfigured the turtle, but with the elasmotherium, he really went to town,” Anna says. “The animal was huge, but fairly dumb: Its small brain had a hard time controlling its monstrous body.” / Photo: Ekaterina Filippovic“God disfigured the turtle, but with the elasmotherium, he really went to town,” Anna says. “The animal was huge, but fairly dumb: Its small brain had a hard time controlling its monstrous body.” / Photo: Ekaterina Filippovic

The museum acquired is first Southern mammoth before Anna started working there. In the 1960s, a preserved skeleton of the animal was discovered in the Stavropol region. The locals quickly came up with a name for the animal, calling it Arkhip.

Anna wouldn’t discover her own mammoth until she was 70. In 2007, she couldn’t stay away from the excavation work despite still recovering from a serious illness:

“I had no intention of staying at the office. My colleagues wanted to encourage me a little, so, when we discovered the mammoth was a girl, it was decided she would be named after me.”

It took seven years to restore the skeleton. In 2015, Anna the Elephant was finally assembled at the museum in front of a stunned audience. The assembly process was supervised by Anna herself:

“We fixed up a restoration lab right in the museum hall. There was dirt, plaster, and flames everywhere. The visitors were watching the process from a viewing platform — they were actually giving us advice and offering their help. I really wanted to do away with the stereotype that museums are quiet places where everything moves at a leisurely pace, that we do nothing but remove dust from exhibits. I think it worked.”

And unicorns too

Apart from the ancient elephants, Anna also found an elasmotherium. This is her real treasure, taking pride of place among her discoveries. Also known as the Great Rhinoceros of Siberia, the elasmotherium inhabited the Northern Hemisphere over two million years ago. Weighing over four tons, it was about five meters long and up to two meters tall.

Arkhip and Anna, the Southern mammoths of Stavropol. / Photo: Ekaterina FilippovicArkhip and Anna, the Southern mammoths of Stavropol. / Photo: Ekaterina Filippovic

Fifty years ago – when Anna was already an employee of the museum – several curious animal bones were found near Stavropol: A skull with a bulging lump on its forehead, a humpy spine, and rows of long ribs.

“I was running around the dig site, giddy with excitement,” Anna said. “It was then that I was shown for the first time how to operate properly during an expedition. The main thing was that you had to dig in the direction away from the bone, cleaning it of sand.’

The discovery made the headlines. People were interested and visitors came to the museum in their droves. According to Anna, scientists only understood that they had found a very well preserved specimen, but were having trouble figuring out what it was. 

“There were curious visitors coming here all the time. One woman came really close to our discovery’s head and asked: ‘What’s this?’ To specify what she meant, she decided to touch the skull with her leg. Of course, it broke into a thousand pieces,” Anna recalls. “We all gasped. Fortunately, the lower jaw remained intact. Using it, we eventually found out the remains belonged to the elasmotherium, or, as it used to be known, the ‘Russian Beast.’”

Arkhip's teeth, which did not allow him to live to old age. / Photo: Ekaterina FilippovicArkhip's teeth, which did not allow him to live to old age. / Photo: Ekaterina Filippovic

A couple of years later, Anna hit the jackpot yet again, as another elasmotherium skeleton was found in the Stavropol region. According to the palaeontologist, the animal likely met its death near a lake – she thinks it drowned in a bog while trying to drink.

After coming across the elasmotherium, Anna decided to retrain as a palaeontologist to broaden her understanding of ancient life. Many years later, in 1995, she wrote a thesis on the animal:

“This terrifying beast became my lucky animal and my lifetime research project. Most of my works were devoted to it. Because of its massive horn, the elasmotherium was considered to be the prototype for the legendary unicorn. They say if you meet a unicorn once, you will always be happy. I met a unicorn twice.”

Read more: 5 shocking facts about Siberia's unicorn