A fossil for 2,000 years - and then today, it's jewelry

Published May 31, 2006|Updated May 31, 2006

In Anchorage's downtown ivory shops, alongside whale baleen baskets and walrus tusk statuettes, are souvenirs made from the fossils of shaggy Ice Age beasts that died on the tundra thousands of years ago.

The bones, teeth and giant curving tusks of woolly mammoths can be found in abundance in Alaska, and the fossils of the elephant-like beasts are routinely - if not always legally - turned into jewelry and other curios for tourists.

"Most people don't even know about it until they come up here, and then they see it in the store and go, 'Hmmm, mammoth ivory?' " said Barbara Lynd, owner of Alaska Arts and Ivory. A few customers have asked where they can go to see a live mammoth.

"They're not really clued in to the fact that they're extinct," Lynd said.

The woolly mammoth died out more than 10,000 years ago, killed off either by humans or climate warming, according to the main theories debated by scientists.

At Lynd's store, a piece of tusk by her cash register is engraved with an image of mammoths. She said the scrimshaw, as engraved ivory is called, will sell for about $4,500. Necklaces of polished mammoth-ivory beads sell for $100 to $400.

Woolly mammoth ivory can legally be taken from private land with the owner's consent, then sold and carved.

The removal of mammoth ivory from state or federal land is banned in Alaska. But with mammoth fossils spread over thousands of square miles of sparsely populated land, law enforcement cannot protect them all.

Alaska contains the largest caches of mammoth remains in the United States. Mammoth fossils, which look like large pieces of driftwood, are often exposed by shifting rivers and eroding coasts.

For the past 15 years, Charles Foster, using a shovel and pick, has gathered mammoth ivory every summer at a secret location on Alaska's western coast. The school maintenance worker sells the teeth for $500 each, while the tusks go for a higher price.

"I can get a four-wheeler with four of these teeth," Foster said as he picked through a bulging cardboard box of mammoth tusks, teeth and leg bones under a table in his living room.

Lynd said most of her inventory comes from people she has known for two decades, and "I trust they are getting it from the right places."