I’ve never read a scientific paper that so thoroughly gripped me in the first paragraph, so I will let the authors of a new paper from the journal Scientific Reports speak for themselves.
Readers of “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn might remember how the book starts: “In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream - and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old” (p. ix). That very same news item in Nature (‘Priroda’) continued by reporting what Solzhenitsyn did not: that in May 1946 unnamed prisoners of GULAG recovered a nest with three complete mummified carcasses of arctic ground squirrels at a depth of 12.5 meters of the permafrost sediments of the El’ga river (the upper Indigirka river basin, Yakutia). The carcasses were extremely well preserved and “smelled of dampness immediately upon their recovery but lost the smell after having air-dried and remained in a stable condition resembling that of the mummies” (p. 76). It was suggested that they had lain in the permafrost for at least 10–12 thousand years.
It turned out to be even longer, 30,000 years, according to new radiocarbon dating.
The paper goes on to describe how the team, led by Nikolai Formozov at Lomonosov Moscow State University, sequenced DNA from one of the mummified carcasses, along with DNA from four fossils found recently in Siberian permafrost and modern day Arctic ground squirrels. It was all a long time coming. Formozov first suggested studying the squirrels 25 years ago—a small blip of time when you’re talking about creatures that have laid in the ground for millennia but still, a long time in the span of a single scientist’s career.