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Raising the Mammoth: The Discovery Channel

Forget the moldy-oldie documentaries on cable TV about suspension bridges or robber barons or the Third Reich, all cobbled together from archive footage — when French scientist and Arctic explorer Bernard Buigues was led by nomadic reindeer herders to a site where nearly pristine Woolly Mammoth tusks were found, he pointed some expensive radar gear straight into the frozen ground and discovered a Holy Grail of mammoth hunters: a perfectly preserved beast, twice the size of an elephant and trapped in what used to be a river bed, where the now-extinct mammal lay undisturbed for 20,000 years. Thanks to The Discovery Channel, Buigues' tormented odyssey to transport the corpse, intact and still frozen in a block of solid earth, was painstakingly captured on video, and after the much-hyped television event in February of 2000, the documentary is now available on DVD. And the fast-paced tale is nothing short of hypnotic, at least for anybody even slightly interested in geology, evolution, genetics, polar climates, or about a dozen other scientific disciplines. Buigues' long struggle starts almost by accident, as the Jarkov family — residents of the Siberian Arctic — show him a remote location in the permafrost where they have found a valuable set of tusks. As it is late summer, Buigues and his team begin excavating around the mammoth's icy grave, but time and the weather work against them, and they are forced to abandon the site until the next year, where they again must operate in a limited window of opportunity (in the summer the excavated mammoth would thaw and spoil; in the winter everybody gets hammered by Arctic storms). In addition to the on-site footage, other sections of the 90-minute documentary address the history of various Woolly Mammoth species, their evolution and migration across the northern hemisphere, possible causes for their relatively recent extinction (only 3,600 years ago), and the opportunities that modern genetics offers if the beasts are ever to walk the earth again — something that is possible, especially with perfectly preserved DNA from Buigues' astonishing find. Narrated by Jeff Bridges. Solid 1.33:1 transfer from professional video source (it looks better than cable TV), Dolby 2.0 (mono). Textual features include an interview with Buigues, a Woolly Mammoth timeline, scientist biographies, and "Mammoth Fact Files."
—JJB



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