Liakhov: The Ivory Islands of the Russian Arctic

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

Around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, Liakhov Island began appearing on maps of Asia and Siberia. This island group, alternatively called Lyakhov, Liakhov, or Lyakhovsky, is today part of the New Siberia Island Group. Though Liakhov Island had most certainly been visited earlier, its official discovery is credited to the Russian fur and ivory trader Ivan Liakhov, who happened upon the islands in 1773. Liakhov notes discovering a copper pot on one of the islands, now aptly named Kettle Island. While it is impossible to know where this pot came from, there is a good chance it was left behind by one of the two Cossack expeditions known to have reached the island in the first part of the 18th century.

Liakhov’s first inkling that there might be a land north of the Siberian coast came from caribou tracks leading northward across the Arctic ice sheet. Navigating his sled on the trajectory of these tracks, he discovered the unusual coastline that was later named after him. The most interesting and distinctive feature of Liakhov Island it is massive mammoth ivory deposits. Liakhov discovered such enormous quantities of fossilized ivory on these islands that he was led to speculate that many of the islands were formed entirely of the stuff. Further it is said that this ivory, due to the permafrost, was of such fine quality that it matched and even surpassed the elephant ivories of Africa.

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Though we do not know for certain why so much mammoth ivory rests on the island, the most common route of speculation follows. About 35,000 years earlier, during the last great glaciation, this island was little more than a hill on the vast Arctic plain. Mammoth, rhinoceros, musk-oxen and other mega-herbivores roamed widely across the plain. As the glacial period came to an end, ice melt caused a global increase in sea level, thus turning the once great Arctic plains into an even greater Arctic sea. As the mammoth and other mega-herbivores fled to ever higher ground, they eventually found themselves stranded with limited sustenance and began to die off at an alarming rate. We know that the sea in this region has as many or more mammoth ivory deposits than the island itself. Liakhov and other subsequent explorers of the island group noted that, following Arctic storms, the shores were always littered with bones and ivory. Over thousands of years, these storms deposited layer after layer of ivory creating the impression, noted by Liakov and others, that the islands were actually composed of ivory. Of course, there are problems with this theory – most notably that the catastrophic nature of the event described is incompatible in regard to time frame with most contemporary theories of glacial regression.

To Liakhov and most who followed him to New Siberia the significance of this find was the staggering economic value of the ivory deposits. On his first trip, Liakhov returned to the mainland with 10,000 tons of mammoth ivory. Subsequent traders would score even larger payloads, some in excess of 30,000 tons. Within a few years of Liakhov’s discovery over 200,000 tons of ivory had been removed from the island. Even in the 1880s, after 100 years of providing the bulk of the world’s supply of ivory, travelers to the region noted no apparent diminishment of fossil ivory.

In 19th century, Europeans had a fascination with these islands and they figured prominently in two Jules Verne novels, Waif of the Cynthia (1885) and César Cascabel (1890). The story of Liakhov Island’s ivory deposits is also popular with creationists, who believe that it proves a Biblical rather than evolutionary timeline – though it our opinion the exact rational on this is inconsistent and confused. Today, Liakhov Island is the site of a Russian weather station.


Whitley, D.G., 1910, “The Ivory Islands of the Arctic Ocean”, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute. vol. XLII, pp. 35-57.
Fujita, K., and D.B. Cook, 1990, “The Arctic continental margin of eastern Siberia, in A. Grantz, L. Johnson, and J. F. Sweeney, eds.”, pp. 289-304, The Arctic Ocean Region. Geology of North America, vol L, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.


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6 Responses to “Liakhov: The Ivory Islands of the Russian Arctic”

  1. I’ve enjoyed your recent posts, but this one in particular. I had no knowledge of the islands’ rich history or the large mammoth deposits located there. It’s always fascinating to learn something new. Thanks.

  2. Kevin Brown says:

    By the way, I happened across your own blog via this comment – it’s really interesting. I’ll be certain to visit the Abingdon estate next time I fly into the area.

  3. John McKay says:

    I don’t know if you monitor comments on posts this old, but I hope you do. I came across this looking for an early map of the Liachov Islands. I love the blank coastline above the islands. In the desperate hope of finding an Arctic land mass it keeps moving around and changing names. In that neighborhood it becomes Sanikov Land. A century later Perry and Scott were naming land masses above Greenland.

    I’m curious about the date of the Pinkerton maps. This one has a mess of contradictory clues. The routes of sea explorers cover the 1770s to early ’90s. The borders in Europe are vague but two clear details are Poland with the border of the second partition, which only existed 1792-95 and Sweden holding Finland, which it did till 1809. South Africa looks very British, which it became in 1795. All that argues 1795. Then we move up to the Russian Arctic and find Cape Bykhovskoi on the (wrong) side of the Lena delta and a Tungus village just upstream. These appear to be references to Mikhail Adam’ account of recovering the frozen mammoth that now bears his name. His account was published in French in 1806 and in English the following year.

    To me, it looks like this was based on a map drawn in the 1790s and only slightly updated around 1808. What’s your professional take on his?

    • Kevin Brown says:

      All Pinkerton maps are dated and generally reflect the most recent information available to the cartographer at that time. That information may well be 10, 20 or 30 years old. The state of the partitions of Poland as presented, and for that matter many other political matters, do not necessarily reflect the age of the map as much as they may reflect negligence on the part of the cartographer and the cartographer’s own political bias. The more specific map of Poland issued with this atlas presents a more up to date analysis of the partitions. Most date to the first edition of the Atlas in 1808. Some underwent significant revisions and updates, some did not.

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