Sometimes scientists will admit they're amazed that we know anything at all about the ancient past. For the remains of a prehistoric animal to be found, conditions have to be just right. It has to have died and been buried quickly, perhaps in the silt of a river. Then it has to go undisturbed for eons, until someone finds it — and recognizes that it's unusual.
That's why French scientists say they're pleased to have found a nearly-complete skeleton of a woolly mammoth near Changis-sur-Marne, in the countryside northeast of Paris. They nicknamed it Helmut.
"A true discovery, in its original context, is exceptional in France, since only three specimens have been exhumed here in 150 years," write researchers from France's National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), in an announcement posted on their website and translated by ABC News.
Helmut is believed to be between 50,000 and 200,000 years old, and the scientists say they believe it drowned or became trapped in mud. Two small shards of flint were found among the bones, perhaps a hint that Neanderthal cavemen cut into the body for meat. The researchers say it is unlikely the cavemen killed Helmut; the pieces of flint are too small.
Helmut probably had a thick coat of fur, good for the then-chilly climate of northern Europe. It had an easier life than its descendants; mammoths are believed to have gone extinct in Europe about 10,000 years ago, unable to cope with climate change and human hunters.
Copyright 2012 by ABC News
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