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Field Museum has a new exhibit — and it's huge

A group of fourth-graders strapped themselves into time machines Thursday, hurtling their imaginations back to an era when lion-sized cats, giant bears and the Columbian mammoth roamed Illinois.

Camila Barraza, 10, envisioned living in a “very fancy” cave, but she wasn’t quite sure what she’d eat.

“I don’t like killing animals. So I don’t know how I’d survive,” said Barraza, a student at Jungman Elementary School in the Pilsen neighborhood.

Barraza and her classmates were among the first to experience The Field Museum’s Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit, returning for the first time since 2010. And based on Thursday’s special preview, the giant bones, full-scale models and clever use of video technology will likely achieve the desired effect — inspiring minds to ponder life thousands of years before the first pioneering outposts began to appear.

The traveling exhibit, which opens May 30, runs through Sept. 13.

Bill Simpson, head of geological collections, said the Columbian mammoth, which would have dwarfed a modern day African elephant, was a common sight in Illinois 20,000 years ago — along with saber-tooth cats, short-faced bears and ancient horses. In fact, the Field has a Columbian mammoth specimen in its collection originally unearthed in Tinley Park.

Simpson said scientists don’t know for sure what led to the mammoth’s extinction in Illinois about 11,000 years ago.

“As humans migrated into the New World, they encountered these animals that had never been hunted before, and they may have had a large hand in driving this extinction,” Simpson said.

The exhibit that opens Saturday is largely unchanged from the one that came here five years ago. Among the favorites is Lyuba, a baby woolly mammoth — the most complete and best-preserved mammoth known.

“It’s a baby,” Simpson said. “It was about a month old when it died. It still has its mother’s milk in its stomach, and it was preserved frozen. It came out of the permafrost one spring. So the whole animal is there.”

The creature, found in Siberia, died from drowning in quicksand, Simpson said.

“Its trunk and its throat is filled with sand,” Simpson said. “The mother apparently couldn’t rescue it.”

For Jungman student Edwin Gutierrez, one look at the cute — albeit mummified — Lyuba convinced the nine-year-old to become a vegetarian.

“I feel bad about the animals being hunted,” he said.

The return of the Mammoths and Mastodons Exhibit at the Field Museum. Thursday, May 28, 2015 | Brian Jackson photos / For the Sun-Times