Alces alces
300,000 – 3,925 Years Before Present
Paper cut-out bull, cow and calf elk, Mesolithic elk bone bodkins and graph showing temperature fluctuations over a 50,000 year period.

Firstly, what is an Elk? The very name is confusing…

In North America, the creature whose Linnaean moniker is Alces alces is a moose, whilst in Europe and Asia it’s an elk. So, as sitting here in north Wales we are (from a global perspective) part of the Eurasian continent we’ll call it an elk. 

Elk, in terms of prehistoric specimens from the British Isles, are as rare as hen’s teeth. But here in the Clwydians, from Lynx Cave we have a phalanx – or toe bone – the position of which within the archaeological layers of the cave earth suggests an age of around 12,000 years old. Back then temperatures were see-sawing. A millennium earlier things had warmed up quite suddenly – by about 7º in just two centuries. But by the time our beast was browsing leaves and water plants, things were cooling again. Then they warmed up. And continued to warm. The relatively stable temperatures that we’ve come to take for granted over the last few millennia are not generally the norm.

Around 10,000 years ago, a lot of water was still locked up in ice sheets – and so sea levels were considerably lower than they are now. Because of this, Britain was still connected to Europe. Where the North Sea is now lay a landscape of rivers and groves called Doggerland – and here the elk roamed. Trawlermen have hauled up their bones from the sea bed; relics of a lost land beneath the waves which tell us that within the span of geological time our island status is a fleeting reality.

As temperatures rose over the next two millennia, sea levels did the same, forcing communities to abandon Doggerland. Thus, it seems highly likely that some of us are descended from these climate change refugees…

In 6200BC a tsunami ripped across the North Sea; a wall of water over 25 metres high travelling at around 80 mph, destroying coastal settlements and perhaps turning more of our coastal dwelling ancestors into refugees.

Today, as temperatures rise yet more and the ice of the Arctic Circle retreats, the descendants of the Doggerland elks are gradually spreading north with the boreal forest. This is having some interesting cultural impacts for the Sámi, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. “I know about 1,200 words for Reindeer – we classify them by age, sex, colour, antlers” says Sámi reindeer herder Nils Islak Eira. “I know of just one word for elk – Sarvva. When I was a child it was like a mythical creature”. 

Sarvva is the name given to the Sámi cosmic elk, part of the Great Hunt constellation in the night sky. Now, because of a warming climate, the Sky Elk has landed and walks the forests; a myth that became real. 

The Sámi say that when the hunters catch Sarvva the world will end…

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