Like in a TV crime drama, DNA evidence proved crucial to solving the mystery of an ancient cold case from a very cold time. A recent genetic analysis provided evidence that seems to acquit humans of causing the woolly mammoth's extinction. Instead, it seems the climate may have committed mammoth murder.
The DNA analysis suggested that mammoths nearly died out 120,000 years ago during a warm period, long before human hunters would have been a serious threat. The prehistoric pachyderms bounced back, only to decline again approximately 20,000 years ago.
Oddly, 20,000 years ago was actually the height of the last ice age. The authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggested that the environment may have become too cold and disrupted the grassland habitat the mammoths depended upon. Then, when the climate warmed again, the animals' preferred ecosystem was taken over by tundra and forest.
The one-two climatic punch may have been the ultimate reason for the furry elephant's demise, but humans may have helped them along. Archeological evidence, such as cave paintings and ivory carvings, suggest that humans hunted ice age elephants and used them as a source of raw materials.