In a fantasy world I have planned, I wanted one of the nomadic groups to live on a frozen steppe. They would primarily subsist by herding and domesticating mammoths.

Would mammoths be comparable to, say, a Mongol's horse or a Bedouin's camel? By this I mean could my nomads be able to survive mainly off of the elephants' milk and lichen and the occasional berry or two the mammoth reveals while foraging or when they happen to wander near?


Warmth is solved by shearing parts of the mammoth for clothing as well as collecting their droppings for fuel. Wood could be collected en masse whenever the mammoths wander near a forest with the nomads strapping logs to the mammoths.

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    $\begingroup$ Are they eating the mammoths? The modern mongolian nomads eat very little that does not come directly from their livestock. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 15, 2019 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ I started wondering whether they could offer emotional support. Afterall they are big and fluffy. [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_support_animal ] $\endgroup$
    – NofP
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Take it a step farther - have the (intelligent, social) mammoths domesticate the bipedal primates. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ @John probably not often $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ What did mammoths actually eat? You seem to make some assumptions about their environment. Also there were many other prehistoric elephants besides the wooley mammoths of the far north. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 20:53

4 Answers 4


Meeting of equals.

Domestication; bah. Been done, been done.

I propose in your world the meeting of mammoth and man is more akin to the ancient meeting of wolf and man. The humans tolerated the wolves which would become dogs - they learned to keep their distance, they learned to beg for scraps, their senses are keen and they are good at fending off and detecting the most formidable enemy of humans - other humans.

So too your mammoth society. The mammoths are smart - smarter than elephants. They align themselves with humans because the cleverness and resourcefulness of the humans helps the mammoths they cannot do for themselves, or cannot do as well without human help. Together they survive better in this hostile land. Mammoth groups choose their humans and vice versa.

Once the interaction is set, the story will get energy when the combined group is visited by a male mammoth - they are intelligent too but do not associate with the herds of female and young, or with humans. But he grew up on a herd and remembers humans. What does this bull want from the humans?

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    $\begingroup$ I think this misses the actual question "By this I mean could my nomads be able to survive mainly off of the elephants milk and lichen and the occasional berry or two the mammoth reveals while foraging or happens to wander near?" $\endgroup$
    – Elmy
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, although as Elmy points out it doesn't address the practicalities of surviving off mammoth produce like Elmy's answer. If you include these issues, and potential plausible ways they can be resolved it would be a perfect answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Also, there are clear benefits for mammoths for evolving a similar semi-symbiotic relationship with humans as dogs: protection from predation by other humans. Humans are one of the very few creatures capable of predating fully-grown mammoths, and having a bunch of friendly killer apes around to protect you would be a significant survival bonus. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 16:27

If it would be practical, our ancestors probably would have done it. But they haven't. What stopped them?

Mammoths and elepants need to eat several kilograms of grass and other plant material each day to survive. That forces the people to move constantly in a nomadic lifestyle and it sets an upper number of individuals in a sustainable herd.

Your humans are supposed to eat mainly plant matter as well, which makes them direct competitors to the mammoths. It's unrealistic to let a mammoth pull a wooden contraption loaded with berries and other foods and expect it to never reach its trunk in there and eat from the supplies.

Your solution to this food competition was to let the humans drink / eat the mammoth milk or dairy products. At first glance this sounds like an excellent idea. The milk is probably rich in fat and proteins because the mammoth babies have to grow fast before the next winter strikes. A study about the composition of elephant milk found that elephant milk is 80% water and 10% fat and protein respectively. That's much better than the 3.2% and 3.9% fat and protein respectively of cow's milk, but not enough to feed an entire nomadic clan.

Elephants gestate for an entire year and lactate for 3 years (if I understand Wikipedia correctly). Additionally, one elephant bull mates with all fertile elephant cows of a herd. That means you get a stable milk supply from several cows for 2 - 3 years before you have to wait an entire year (or longer) for fresh milk (because most of them become pregnant at the same time). I couldn't find sources about the quantitive amount of milk produced by elephants, but you have to give most of it to the calf for at least half a year before you can take the bigger share for yourself.

Unlike in a cow's herd, your nomads would rely on a wild mammoth bull to impregnate their mammoth cows, which poses a great problem.

Bulls engage in a behaviour known as mate-guarding, where they follow oestrous females and defend them from other males.[130] Most mate-guarding is done by musth males, and females actively seek to be guarded by them, particularly older ones.

Elephant males have a hormonal cycle like the females. "Musth males" means that the male produces lots of hormones and pheromones that attract the females and make them very agressive. Maybe the nomads could substitute for the guarding male, but that would lower the chances of pregnancy, because the guarding male would mate with the females several times. Or they would somehow eliminate the agressiveness in centuries of selective breeding.

And last but not least, let's not forget how very intelligent and social elephants are. If the nomads slaughtered an old animal of their herd, there's no chance the remaining individuals wouldn't notice and fear or even fight their herders. There's a chance to avoid such problems if the heard neither sees nor hears the animal that's being slaughtered, but given the size, thick skin and loud voice of elephants, I'm not sure how the nomads could pull it off.

It's suggested that stone age hunters chased mammoths to make them fall over cliffs to kill them. That is in no way a clean death. The animal is likely still alive, panicked and screaming. The herd would hear this several miles away.

To sum it up:

  • The cost (plant material to feed the herd) is too high for the yield (the milk)
  • Reproduction takes too long and involves bulls in an agressive mood
  • Slaughtering would have devastating effects on the remaining herd.
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer addressing the practicalities of living off mammoth produce, especially the intelligence factor (elephants are known to mourn for their dead, so your point about their intolerance of slaughtering the aged is likely to be true). Combine this with Willk's answer and some semi-symbiotic evolution and you'd have a perfect answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Elmy couldn't the humans eat lichen or maybe make cheese? Also I think the mating strategy works out because when a male gets driven off maybe the rider and his family associated with said mammoth also leaves to find a new herd. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ @CelestialDragonEmperor Lichen doesn't have enough nutritional value for humans to survive on. They could eat the cheese, but there would be times when the herd just wouldn't yield enough milk to feed everyone. I don't understand the last sentence, though. Grown male elephants leave the heard and live mostly alone. The mating bull would be wild and have no rider. $\endgroup$
    – Elmy
    Feb 15, 2019 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Elmy lichen cpuld still help give them extra food just in case of famine. I was trying to say when ever a male elephant is driven off maybe some of the nomads follow and establish a new herd. Although it seems that won't work $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 18:36
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    $\begingroup$ Many of these problems were probably also true of the ancestors of modern cows, but millennia of domestication would have selectively bred those traits out. Not even natural selection in this case but guided selection - mammoth ranchers would choose the most docile and fecund members of the herd to breed and over time you'd end up with something similar to but not exactly like a mammoth but domesticated like cows. Even their intelligence would be bred out as it would be an undesirable trait to the nomads' ancestors, who'd prefer dumb, obedient creatures over the smart aggressive ones. $\endgroup$ Feb 15, 2019 at 19:55

they probably could - but it's not a good tradoff when it comes to danger posed.

The important thing about domesticated animals wasn't just that we were able to eat them, but also that we were able to handle them without getting killed. Slaughtering a mammoth isn't a job I'd want to do.

Cows pretty much are the upper limit in size when it comes to things we could capture and handle - that's why most cattle-subspecies we domesticated come from the same line of first captured animals.

this gets easier the more advanced your society is of course - so a neolithic civilisation pretty much would have a really hard time to tame animals even larger than elephants, while in the last centuries in india those aren't that strange anymore.

Speaking of those... they reproduce too slow, so selective breeding is impractical. You'd have to catch new ones if you'd need more of them (or, you could like... wait a few decades) - so that doesn't help either.

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    $\begingroup$ The reproduction rate is a big drawback. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 15, 2019 at 14:53

No, They may live alongside mammoths, but the mammoths alone cannot sustain them by themselves.

The closest you are going to get is something of a cross between nomadic pastoralists and Nenet of Siberia who herd dogs and reindeer and hunt extensively.

The problem of milk, milk will be a an issue because you have to choose between producing new mammoths and having milk, to use elephants as proxy, they are pregnant for almost two years, during which they will not be producing milk, on an upside you then have about ten years of milk production. but your people can't survive off milk alone, not when it can suddenly go dry for two years, there are also health issues and how they get clothing and shelter, so they either need to be eating mammoth (see problems below) or they need to be hunting as well.

The problem with eating mammoths, mammoths will reproduce incredibly slowly, 20 years to adulthood that means for every breeding pair your people can eat one mammoth every 20 years, likely far less because disease is still a thing. Worse mammoths like elephants will be both intelligent and highly social. Unlike other animals if an elephant goes missing other elephants go looking for it and they can communicate for miles so you can't separate out one without the others knowing. They also mourn their dead for years and even recognize their remains even when degraded, so you can't bring the herd anywhere near the remains. This means they are clever enough to figure out the humans are eating them, once that happens cooperation is over. Even if by some miracle you could get them separated enough, killing the mammoth will not be fast or silent worse its a mammoth, you can't exactly carry it home, and you cant use your one labor animal.

So really you have only one option. Your nomads live and travel with the mammoths, drinking milk frequently but not exclusively and hunt other things, but do not eat mammoths. In fact eating a mammoth is probably heavily taboo for them. As long as they are not eating mammoths they should have no problem living with the mammoths(given a little hand waving). But they will be spending a decent amount of time hunting and/or fishing, picture something like hunter gatherers with gathering replaced by mammoth milk and cheese. For comparison peoples consider both the Nenet people of Russia, who only eat their livestock infrequently and hunt to make up the difference and Tibetan nomadic pastoralists who survive almost exclusively off their herds milk and meat.

On the upside this explains why this is the only place mammoths survived, everywhere else they survived the change in climate humans hunted them to extinction.


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