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Of fables and fossils: what we know of early human-elephant interaction

Recently unearthed evidence suggests that species of the homo genus have been hunting elephantine species since as long ago as 125,000 years in the past. Evidence of tool markings on the fossilised remains of a straight-tusked elephant, or palaeoloxodon antiquus, suggests that h. neanderthalensis, hunted these creatures in the Pleistocene epoch.

This discovery is presently being used within pre-history disciplines to suggest that Neanderthal hominid was more than the knuckle-dragging brute we have long thought it to be. The use of tools and the high number of tool-worked bones in certain discovery areas suggests to archaeologists a greater degree of preparedness in h. neanderthalensis as well as the possibility of cyclical group meetings at the spot.

For the study of early mankind, and for our understanding of other early hominids, this is huge. It, as has been stated, threatens to undermine an entire paradigm. That the neanderthal was a grunting, antisocial ape who could not socially comingle with more than 25 individuals is presently being reconsidered.

For the study of humans relationship with elephantine species, this discovery is also significant. The evidence, located at a spot in east-central Germany, suggests that the straight-tusked elephant, which were roughly twice as big as today’s African elephant, were butchered in the same spot cyclically, once every five to six years.

Are we going too far to assume that this regularity may have some ritualistic nature to it? The researchers working on the spot in Germany state that one p. antiquus would have provided enough food for 350 h. neanderthalensis individuals to eat for a week. Does that not seem significant? Especially when we consider the difficulty that must have been inherent in the killing of a creature twice the size of modernity’s largest.

This discovery, that our early cousins interacted with cousins of the earth’s mightiest mammal before even some theoreticians suggest h. sapiens emerged, tells us of a relationship that is older than even our evolutionary memory can attest to.

Human-elephant interaction: Folklore on elephant and where they come from

The natural inclination for those that, today, find themselves caught within the constant negotiation of what our relationship with elephant is and will be in future, is to look at this early account of hominid interaction with an elephantine species and wonder what we thought of them.

We obviously have no access to what h. neanderthalensis thought of the potentially-14 tonne p. antiquus but we do have access to some of our early ancestors considerations. Folklore may not have the scientific legitimacy of carbon dating, nor the internal access of discovered diaries, but as source material it is still valuable.

With our own species known capacity for fictionalisation, we cannot take folklore stories as indicative of presumed truths. They still, however, have value. They can suggest at values of the past, at perceived threats or condemnable attributes. They can, and do, provide a useful lens for considering the human in isolation. What does it care about? What does it disdain?

Human-elephant interaction: the Wakamba story on the genesis of elephant

One of the more interesting fables about elephant is said to come from the Wakamba, right here in Kenya. According to the tale, the elephant species were born from human beings, from the wife of a poor man.

This poor man is said to have heard of Ivonya-Ngia, ‘He who feeds the poor’, a wealthy man with many herds of livestock. The poor man journeyed to the home of Ivonya-Ngia who received him courteously.

The poor man spoke of his plight and asked that Ivonya-Ngia help him. Ivonya-Ngia recognised the need of the poor man and offered him a hundred sheep and a hundred head of cattle to alleviate the man’s poverty. In some accounts the poor man refuses on the grounds that he wants no charity. In others, his refusal is due to the fact that livestock herding is too much work.

So, this poor man, whether he be lazy or proud, is given an ointment instead. He is instructed by Ivonya-Ngia to rub this ointment on his wife’s canines. She accedes and, in a few weeks, finds that her teeth have grown into tusks.

The poor man pulls his wife’s tusks and sells the tusks. Encouraged by the sale, the poor man and his wife repeat the process, however, this time, with her tusks longer than they were before, his wife refuses to let them be pulled.

Instead, she runs away, her skin greying, her body growing. She lives in the bush then, having turned into the first elephant, and, there, she gives birth to this species that are, as the story goes, the relatives of man.


Of course, not all folklore accounts of elephant are so respectful. There is the well-known story of how elephant got his trunk, for example. And yet, even in the story where the elephant’s nose is stretched by a crocodile’s unyielding bite, the elephant is portrayed as curious.

Though we cannot be sure, there is evidence all around us, should we care to look for it, that elephant are deserving of human respect and, if we can be so bold, the story from the Wakamba may even suggest that we owe these creatures a debt.

We, so the story says, put them on this planet. Let it not be that we did so just so we might wipe them from it.

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