U of T science historian's research on woolly mammoths comes alive in children's play

The Last Mammoth sees a young girl and her mammoth friend explore questions about climate change, extinction and environmental preservation

The Last Mammoth, a children’s play, was developed by U of T science historian Rebecca Woods and her PhD student Alexander Offord (supplied image)

One summer day in 2022, a gold miner working in the Yukon came upon something even more valuable than what he was looking for: an almost perfectly preserved woolly mammoth, with skin and hair intact.

The baby female calf was thought to have been resting in the permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

It was among the biggest paleontological finds in Canadian history – and the latest milestone in a great tradition. Since the 18th century, frozen woolly mammoth specimens (usually skeletons or bones) have been periodically found in diverse locations around the world.

A science historian, Rebecca Woods shows how animals such as frozen woolly mammoths can teach us about the march of history (supplied image)

Such finds captured the imagination of Rebecca Woods, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s department of history in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Her current research focuses on the place of frozen woolly mammoths in the global history of science – work that is being transformed by Alexander Offord, her research assistant and a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology (IHPST.)

Alongside his academic career, Offord and his partner Nicole Wilson are the artistic directors of Toronto theatre company Good Old Neon. Their new children’s play is called The Last Mammoth, which sees a young girl and her mammoth puppet friend embark on a journey to explore questions about climate change, extinction and environmental preservation.

Alexander Offord is a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology and co-artistic director of Toronto theatre company Good Old Neon (supplied image)

Woods, who is cross-appointed to IHPST, says she first became interested in mammoths through her research on sheep.

“As a historian of science I find myself drawn to stories about animals and the ways in which they can help us understand different historical processes,” she says.

For example, in her 2017 book The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900, she illustrated how farmers in Australia and New Zealand created sheep breeds to serve British meat markets. In the early days of refrigeration, diners were mistrustful about eating meat that had been slaughtered six months previously – so vendors decided to allay their fears by pointing to the example of a famous woolly mammoth discovered earlier in the century in Siberia, which had been unearthed from ice and fed to dogs without harm.

“That story got me thinking about how the scientific and cultural meanings of mammoths have changed since that time,” says Woods. “For contemporary audiences, in a moment of great anxiety about global warming, frozen mammoths preserved by permafrost serve as a loud warning bell about a warming earth. It’s totally different than how they were first understood in the early 19th century.”

Indeed, recent reports suggest that as the planet warms and permafrost melts, ever more mammoth discoveries are being made.

Along with an impressive baby mammoth, The Last Mammoth’s animal characters include two mischievous raccoons (supplied image)

The idea for a children’s play was born out of a desire to showcase Woods’s research in schools – and Offord, not surprisingly, played a key role.

“We’d never made theatre for young audiences before,” Offord says, admitting that the subject matter did not immediately lend itself to a production for kids.

“A lot of children’s shows are very optimistic and shiny. And we said to ourselves, ‘How do we speak to some of the darkness that children will go through on this topic in a way that is respectful to them?’”

First workshopped in September, The Last Mammoth’s script continues to evolve (supplied image)

Offord says he feels an urgency to the project given the climate crisis.

“Mass species extinction is happening,” he says. “And because it’s new, adults don’t really have the language to talk about it, let alone in a way that kids will understand.”

He adds that he felt it was necessary to create a piece that made these concepts accessible to children in a fun and honest way.

With funding from a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant and sponsorship by the Jackman Humanities InstituteThe Last Mammoth was first workshopped in early September for an audience of elementary school students and caregivers. The feedback is being used by Offord’s company as it continues to develop the script.

Though in its early stages, the play offers ample proof that it’s not only possible, but necessary to translate academic research on serious issues that will affect future generations.

“To me it feels like an incredible honour,” says Woods. “What I appreciate so much about it is that a cross-generational audience from all walks of life can learn about my research – embodied in this incredibly evocative puppet, these gifted actors, and Alexander and Nicole, who’ve figured out how to make it all come alive.

“It’s a play that really gets at the emotional core of what’s at stake in the work that I do.”

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