Did the ancient Egyptians know of pygmy mammoths? Well, there is that tomb painting.


One of the things that came up in the many comments appended to the article on Bob's painting of extinct Maltese animals was the famous Egyptian tomb painting of the 'pygmy mammoth'. You're likely already familiar with this (now well known) case: here's the image, as it appears on the beautifully decorated tomb wall of Rekhmire, 'Governor of the Town' of Thebes, and vizier of Egypt during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II (c. 1479 to 1401 BCE) during the XVIII dynasty...


In 1994, Baruch Rosen published a brief article in Nature in which he drew attention to the small, tusked, hairy elephant in the painting, shown as being waist-high to the accompanying people. The people next to the elephant seem to be Syrian traders, carrying objects that include tusks (note that a small bear is shown in the painting as well: that's very interesting but I don't have time to discuss it here). African elephants Loxodonta and the now extinct Middle Eastern population of the Asian elephant Elephas maximus were both known to the ancient Egyptians, but Rekhmire's elephant doesn't seem to be either. Its apparent hairiness, convex back and domed head make it look like a juvenile Asian elephant, but then why it is shown with huge tusks? It seems to have a fairly large ear [the best close-up I could get is shown below], though whether this ear is shaped more like that of Loxodonta or Elephas is difficult to say.


Inspired by the then-new discovery that a dwarfed population* of Woolly mammoths Mammuthus primigenius were still living as recently as 3700 years ago (albeit on Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic: Vartanyan et al. (1993), Guthrie (2004)), Rosen (1994) made the tentative suggestion that the elephant shown in Rekhmire's tomb might actually be a dwarf Woolly mammoth. If true, this would have radical implications. It would mean that the ancient Egyptians had a trading link of sorts with far eastern Siberia, and also that mammoths were captured and then transported alive to Africa!

* Richard Stone's 2002 book Mammoth: the Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant includes the claim that Dirk Jan Mol was able to discredit the idea that the Wrangel mammoths were dwarfs (or dwarves. Whatever). Apparently, the 'dwarf' ones were just small, old females. I haven't read this anywhere else - does anyone know if this is correct, and was it ever published anywhere in the technical literature?


However, Rosen (1994) also made the suggestion that the elephant in the painting might be a symbolic representation of an elephant rather than a 'real-life' depiction of one. The idea here is that, since the accompanying person is shown carrying tusks, the artist added a miniature elephant to signify the known origin of these tusks. The suggestion has also been made that Egyptian artists sometimes showed non-human animals as smaller than actual size in order that the animals didn't take up too much space in the illustrated procession (Davies N. de Garis, cited in Masseti 2001). But then some people say that Egyptian artists just didn't do things this way and, in any case, the elephant in the painting doesn't look stylized - it's depicted as a real, life-sized animal. Counting against the idea of the hairy dwarf elephant being a stylized miniature is the fact that a giraffe also featuring in Rekhmire's tomb was shown as tall as possible [the image of the tomb painting shown here is borrowed from this article on Rock Art Blog]. Doubtless some of you know much more about the habits of Egyptian artists than I do, so please tell us if any of this is or is not reasonable.

A late-surviving dwarf Mediterranean elephant?


As you may already have guessed, there is then a third possibility: this being that Rekhmire's elephant is neither a Siberian mammoth nor a wrongly-scaled 'symbolic' elephant, but perhaps a depiction of one of the pygmy Mediterranean island-dwelling species. Most of the dwarf Mediterranean elephants were Pleistocene animals that were long gone by the time of the Pharoahs, but Masseti (2001) noted that a population of dwarfed elephants seem to have lingered on in isolation on the Greek island of Tilos (located between Rhodes and Kos). The Tilos elephants apparently remain unnamed [UPDATE: not true, they are Elephas tiliensis Theodorou et al., 2007] but have often been compared to E. falconeri of Malta and Sicily. Incidentally, these Mediterranean dwarf elephants are still very frequently said to belong to Elephas, but is this right? Aren't they most likely part of Palaeoloxodon? The latter is frequently stated without ambiguity (e.g., Caloi & Palombo 2000), yet still we're stuck with an archaic taxonomy. Hopefully this will get sorted out eventually [adjacent illustration, showing a Tilos palaeoloxodontine to scale with the probable ancestor Palaeoloxodon antiquus, is by A. Mangione and borrowed from Masseti (2001). And Burian's classic painting of a Mediterranean pygmy elephant is shown below].

Anyway, radiocarbon dating of the Tilos dwarf elephants apparently puts some of them as recent as about 4300 years old (+/- 600 years), meaning that they overlapped with the presence of Bronze Age people on the island (Masseti 2001). The remote possibility exists, therefore, that Tilos elephants were captured by ancient Aegeans and then traded between Aegeans, Near Eastern people, and Egyptians - in fact, known trade did occur between these regions during the late Bronze Age at least.


There are a few other possibilities that could explain the look of the Rekhmire tomb elephant though. I said earlier that its large tusks demonstrate adult status, and hence show that it can't be a juvenile Asian elephant. But maybe, just maybe, the painting could depict a freak juvenile Elephas that precociously developed large tusks. We know that African forest elephants L. cyclotis can be precocious in terms of tusk growth (this may partly explain sightings of alleged Pygmy elephants)*. Any such individual would perhaps be regarded as an unusual thing of interest and value. And there's also the possibility that the animal depicts an individual from another late-surviving dwarf population that we don't know about. Some of the extinct Mediterranean dwarf elephants are now suspected of being dwarf mammoths (as in, members of Mammuthus) rather than species of Elephas/Palaeoloxodon and, in life, these animals might indeed have looked more like the hairy, dome-skulled animal in Rekhmire's tomb [the photo of the section of the painting below is by N. Douek Galante, from Masseti (2001)].

* Indeed White (1994) suggested that the Rekhmire tomb elephant could depict a miniature African elephant. At first site this looks unlikely to be right in view of the Rekhmire elephant's hairiness, highly convex back and domed head. But you could play devil's advocate: maybe the artist screwed up (after all, none of the features are as clear as we might like), and is the animal really shown as being hairy? Maybe those lines are meant to be wrinkles. And African elephants can be very brown-skinned.


As is so often the case with pieces of evidence like this, it's likely that we may never know the truth of the matter. But not only is it fun to speculate, our speculations can mean that we gradually winnow away the possibilities and perhaps get closer to the truth. The notion that ancient Egyptians could have gotten hold of dwarf Mediterranean elephants, for example, is more likely than the more incredible suggestion that they somehow had access to those from a Siberian island.

One more thing to note: at the time of writing I haven't seen Alexandra van der Geer et al.'s 2010 book Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptation and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands. It may well contain some very relevant and interesting material on dwarf, island-endemic Mediterranean elephants that I should be noting and citing. Hey, if I had the book here, that's exactly what I would be doing. But I don't.

It's been suggested that other exotic animals were also depicted by the Egyptians. See this article on duikers for more. And for more on proboscideans at Tet Zoo, please see...

And for articles on extinct, Pleistocene or Holocene island-endemic animals of the Mediterranean and elsewhere, see...

Refs - -

Caloi, L. &. & Palombo, M. R. 2000. Dwarf elephants of the past. In Shoshani, J. (ed) Elephants. Checkmark Books (New York), pp. 60-63.

Guthrie, R. D. 2004. Radiocarbon evidence of mid-Holocene mammoths stranded on an Alaskan Bering Sea island. Nature 429, 746-749.

Masseti, M. 2001. Did endemic dwarf elephants survive on Mediterranean islands up to protohistorical times? In The World of Elephants - International Congress, Rome 2001, pp. 402-406.

Rosen, B. (1994). Mammoths in ancient Egypt? Nature, 369 (6479), 364-364 DOI: 10.1038/369364b0

Vartanyan, S. L., Garutt, V. E. & Sher, A. V. 1993. Holocene dwarf mammoths from Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic. Nature 362, 337-340.

White, W. 1994. Painted out. Nature 370, 604.


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Awesome stuff, Darren. Where is the C14 on the Tilos mammoths reported? Glad you didn't cite the Poulokakis aDNA work in this regard as it's rightly regarded as a travesty by most in the field.

By Ross Barnett (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Actually, I interpreted that small bear as a lioness.

Maybe it's just an infant elephant. They can be quite hairy.

By Viergacht (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Some of the extinct Mediterranean dwarf elephants are now suspected of being dwarf mammoths (as in, members of Mammuthus)

I think it's just the one that lived on Sardinia (Mammuthus lamarmorae, to be precise).

at the time of writing I haven't seen Alexandra van der Geer et al.'s 2010 book Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptation and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands. It may well contain some very relevant and interesting material on dwarf, island-endemic Mediterranean elephants that I should be noting and citing. Hey, if I had the book here, that's exactly what I would be doing. But I don't.

If you haven't done so already, you might also want to check out Marco Masseti's recent-ish review paper, which discusses - among other things - Mediterranean pygmy elephants:

Masseti, M. 2009. Mammals of the Mediterranean islands: homogenisation and the loss of biodiversity. Mammalia 73, 169-202.

I know that we had micro-elephants here in Cyprus (which is much nearer Egypt and, particularly, Syria than Malta is) but I'm not sure if there is a definite date for their extinction. Anybody know?

I wonder if the artist had ever actually seen an elephant.

I worked on Egyptian artistic representations of seacraft as an archaeologist for a while, and it's very hard because the artists were basically never sailors too, and they would make some pretty basic errors in their depictions. If you tried to build a boat so that it looked just like the picture, it wouldn't sail.

I doubt the artist was an animal handler or caravan driver, so my first thought is that this is evidence of someone drawing something they're not really familiar with, not of a late survival of mammoths in a region where there is no other evidence.

I can easily see the artist saying "Let's see, the procession included a baby elephant, and I know elephants have tusks because that's how everyone draws them, so I'll put tusks on mine too."

Thanks for comments. Some responses..

Ross: the dating on the Tilos elephants comes from one of these (I didn't cite them because I haven't seen them - I took this info from Masseti's paper cited above - and because I was in a hurry and am lazy)...

Bachmayer, F., Symeonidis, N., Seeman, R. & Zapfe, H., 1976. Die Ausgrabungen in der Zwergelefanten "Charkadio" auf der Insel Tilos (Dodekanes, Griechenland) in den Jahren 1974 und 1975. Ann. Naturhistor. Mus. Wien 80: 113-144.

Bachmayer, F., Symeonidis, N. & Zapfe, H. 1984. Die Asgrabungen in der Zwergelefantenhöle der Insel Tilos (Dodekanes, Griechenland) im Jahr 1983. Sitzungsberichten der Ãsterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Kl. Abt. I 193, 321-328.

Dartian: nope, M. lamarmorae is not the only one! A reinterpretation of some other Med dwarf proboscideans is (so I understand) in press.

And - psweet - that carnivoran is not a lion. It does indeed look like a bear.

A pigmy mammoth trade route all the way from Siberia to Egypt seems implausible, mainly because if it had ever existed, chances are several cultures along the way would have recorded these fascinating creatures in their art (especially in China and Mesopotamia). If it was really a pigmy mammoth it must have come from the mediterranean islands as you say. Considering the vulnerability of endemic island populations, its easy to see how a trade on these creatures would have been scandalously unsustainable. And that is just sad.

The lamarmorae Mammuthus (Sardinian mammoths) should be settled around 500,000 years ago, or shortly thereafter. Excludes it from possible candidates.

I did not know that the elephants of Tilos could have survived so long. Extraordinary (and crazy).

The measures of animals in Egyptian art are not very precise, in a tomb at Saqqara (Third Dynasty?) I saw the giant dogs, much larger than the people who accompanied them to the "leash". If a dog can be painted as big as an ox, an elephant can become as big as a dog.

However, the Egyptian civilization has existed for a long, long, long time. The artistic styles of the age of Tuthmosis III are different from others and should be a specialist to speak with precision.

However, if the bear is a normal brown bear I would say that the artist may have to comply with a scale for animals and another for men. The elephant would then be a normal elephant, maybe from Asia or North Africa..

On a related note, it just never ceases to amaze me how proboscideans went on to colonize fairly successfully so much of the world and then just disappeared from most of it. Sure, climate change at the end of the last ice age certainly was a major factor for several of the larger northern species, but what about some of the more southern variants? There were proboscidean species all the way down to Central America where the change wasn't as radical.

Most of the scale-distortion I'm familiar with in Egyptian art is related to importance. Important objects (either hierarchically important or important to the subject of the piece) can be quite a bit larger.

However, it's hard to imagine that different animals in this piece were of different levels of importance and so the scale should be constant between animals. This doesn't mean that the artist didn't just plain screw up the depiction though (although this assumes that the artist wasn't a court artist who witnessed the envoys bring their gifts).

None of the animals look completely true to life. All are stylized to a certain extent (to be generous) or the artist wasn't a very good realistic illustrator (more likely). The tusks on the small proboscidian aren't right, the way they stick up at such a sharp angle, regardless of whatever species the depiction is meant to represent. I wouldn't indulge in too much speculation based on this painting. I doubt that the artist was a zoologist, or cared too much about making a true to life depiction. He or she was probably just depicting a juvenile modern elephant and decided to stick tusks on it, just 'cuz.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Ok, I have JUST learnt that the Tilos elephants are now called Elephas tiliensis Theodorou et al. (2007).

I agree with Brian @ #6 - it's very difficult to say which references the artist might have used, and I wouldn't put too much weight on individual details. Ancient Egyptian artists managed to produce some amazingly true-to-life depictions of animals but some other depictions range from fanciful to bizarre, to the point were some of the animals depicted on Egyptian murals cannot be identified at all.

Since we have no idea whether the artist witnessed the scene in question, any or all of the details might have been drawn from some sort of outside reference or even the artist's imagination. Given the context, I would think the size of the animal is more likely to be correct than the other details, since that would have likely been included in any description given to the artist - everything else might have originated elsewhere, though, so it's just as possible that we're just dealing with a young elephant and a lot of artistic license.

On the other hand, I wouldn't fully discount the idea that a pygmy elephant might have made it to Egypt all the way from Siberia - exotic and curious animals were a status symbol in the Ancient world, and rulers often spent outrageous sums on expeditions to collect rare specimens from remote parts of the world. This didn't only go for animals, though - during the reign of Pharaoh Pepi II, one of his governor captured a pygmy during an expedition. In a letter copied to the wall of said governor's tomb, the pharaoh wrote him that bringing the pygmy back alive would mean more than all of the ivory and other valuables that were also collected during the trip - I think a pygmy elephant would have been seen as an equally valuable curio worthy of a major effort.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

A trade link between ancient Egypt and eastern Asia/Siberia at that time seems unlikely (not to mention logistical issues of shifting a mammoth, even a small one). People such as the Scythians did hold territory (and hence direct trade) stretching from Arabia to the Uralic and Turkic tribes of 'Russia', but this wasn't until about a thousand years later. As far as I am aware, when the painting was made, Egypt has links with ancient Ararat and the Caucasus, but there wasn't a direct trade route all the way to the east - this came later. Even the Cimmerians who were ousted by the Scythians post-date this painting. So, something from the Med seems more likely, or of course, artistic license/error - there are plenty of examples of Egyptian art tweaking animals to fit the 'frame' e.g. the just-over-man-height giraffe (juvenile?) at http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/89164422/De-Agostini

10000 BC, anyone?

By gray Stanback (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Having worked on ancient Egyptian bird paintings I would say that they are in general quite good and usually allow an unambiguous identification. They are usually approximately to one scale too, though there are exceptions.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

'Evolution of Island Mammals' is very good. Definitely worth getting. It covers insular mammalian faunas from the Eocene to Pleistocene (some holocene - esp madagascar and West Indies). It covers the Med islands extensively, as well as Indonesia, Madagascar, Japan and the West Indies with the Philipines and California also covered. It omits the Eocene and Oligocene apparently island faunas of Europe and Mid Miocene mammal remains of New Zealand. The first two thirds of the book is geographical in approach, the final third divided between covering taxonomic groups of particular interest (such as proboscideans) and general patterns and trends in island mammal faunas. Well worth the money.

I'm not convinced that Elephas tiliensis is such a good match for the elephant in the picture. It is described as being 2m high at the shoulder - while a smallish elephant, that is a lot larger than the depicted animal which is only waist high to the human handler. Though there was significant sexual dimorphism, so possibly a small adult female may well have been substantially smaller.

In addition to the described species of Mediterranean elephants (E. cypriotes of Cyprus, E. creutzburghi and possibly E. chaniensis (if distinct)of Crete, E. falconeri and E. mnaidriensis of Malta, and the very closely related forms from Sicily) there are also undescribed fossil elephants from several other Aegean islands (such as Rhodes, Delos, Naxos, Milos, Serifos and Kythnos) - their sizes and ages seem to be unclear, though it appears that those from Delos and Naxos (and possibly Rhodes) were more recent than most of the others.

Endemic mammoths are known from Upper Pleistocene of Sardinia (M. lamarmorae) and the Lower - Mid Pleistocene of Crete (M. creticus). E. falconeri is also sometimes said to be a mammoth, but currently they are usually treated as Elephas.

As for the tomb picture â Iâm not sure agree with the idea that the size is more likely to be correct than the other details. The art work on all the animals seems very 'naturalistic', and the elephant really does seem to have been depicted as hairy and with a domed head. Even leaving out the size, it does look different from the extant elephants. As for the size, important characters in Egyptian art tend to be shown larger (Pharoahs, gods etc, tend to be shown taller than slaves and commoners), but often it seems sizes were adjusted to fit the available space, and in paintings of battle scenes human captives are often shown smaller than their captors. I would suggest that the painting seems to be evidence that the Egyptians were aware of a species of elephant different to those now extant, which may have been a dwarf form (but not necessarily as proportionately small as the picture seems to show).

On the matter of good fossil mammal books, another book I have received recently, that is worth having is Cenozoic Mammals of Africa - it is very thorough (except for rodents). Not cheap, but by searching around on line I managed to get it at substantially less than the rrp.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Well, this inspired me to Google "Bronze Age Ivory."

I thought to myself, "hey, self, if there was a trade in live microelephants, I'll bet there was a trade in their ivory as well.

One reference (http://www.jstor.org/pss/30103117), seems to point to a dispute about whether some ivory seals on Crete were made of hippo or elephant ivory.

Since there has been a DNA test for ivory since about 2004 to track poaching, I'd suggest that it's theoretically possible to extract DNA from ancient Aegean ivory (such as the Minoan seals) and see if the ivory's source can be determined. Without DNA from dwarf elephant remains it won't be perfect, but even the partial evidence of unknown elephant DNA in Mediterranean archeological samples would be fascinating.

By heteromeles (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

I don't see the small bear.
It is indeed a lioness

Well I was not overly impressed by Evolution of Island Mammals
I learned nothing new
All Internet stuff.
Quite clinical
And no chapters about Paleoecology

I agree with the Cenozoic mammals of Africa though
very technical and no palaeoecology but it is the most comprehensive book I've seen about cenozoic African mammals after the very disappointing Evolving Eden, An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large-Mammel Fauna of Alan Turner & Mauricio Anton (though it had beautiful drawings)
Their Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Homonids was much, much, much better.

The last of the dwarf elephants and dwarf hippo's where killed off by humans so maybe some were traded to the Egyptians also.
I find it quite possible.
The Wrangel mammoth thing on the other hand is absolutely rubbish.
So maybe they

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 19 Jan 2011 #permalink

Marco Massetti (Uomini e (non solo) topi, Gli animali domestici e la fauna antropocora, Firenze university press, 2008 p.196-200) states with ample evidence that the source of the elephant in question is the Niya (northern Syria) and that this species (or subspecies) has been settled to the X-IX century BC

What I meant was extincted by 900 b.c.

Dwarf Palaeoloxodon have also turned up on Astypalaia, basically they have turned up on any of the Cyclades and Dodecanese islands that anyone has looked for them on.

Saegusa and Gilbert in the Elephantidae chapter in the book "Homo erectus: Pleistocene evidence from the middle Awash, Ethiopia" by Gilbert and Asfaw show Palaeoloxodon to have diverged from Elephas in the P. recki lineage.

N. Todd has a paper here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ar.21010/pdf

which shows the same thing.

However complicating things is that Todd's paper shows that the African Elephas iolensis evolved from the Asian E. hysudricus and re-invaded Africa.

Thus Elephas as well as Palaeoloxodon had to be in the middle east, and the eastern Mediterranean pygmy elephants could thus have evolved from Palaeoloxodon, Elephas or Mammuthus.

DNA studies of all these recently extinct populations will probably be needed to elucidate this.


Hey Darren- you got picked up by Gawker Media on this post :)

The painting really does look like a mammoth, for the reasons given in the column above as well as in comments; other animals are more or less to scale, it has big tusks unlike a baby (even a precocial one), it has a domed head, and it is notably furred, to the same degree the bear is. Seems quite likely that the Tilios mammoth may have survived into the Bronze age?? This, combined with the apparent finding of lots of Pleistocene stone tools on Crete, complicates our understanding of the nature of the anthropogenic end-Pleistocene European extinctions, as far as I understand them...

"Cenozoic Mammals of Africa"- cool, I have been looking to learn more about this; Wikipedia and google searching leave out a large number of large mammals that lived in Africa but died out sometime in the Plio/Pleistocene- perhaps because everyone assumes that there WERE no big notable extinction events in Africa and that whatever's extinct must be just some precursor of what's there today or is just your typical attrition. Which I find suspect.

@ Valagos-

Proboscideans successfully colonized every continent but Australia and Antarctica by the Late Miocene. It is probably just a matter of time before some *Stegodon* fossil is found in Papua New Guinea or Northwest Australia. From some 15 to 25 continental mainland species alone, we've now got just 3. All others lost in the last 20,000 years :-(

I've seen this picture before, and I think it's fascinating. People have made most of the points I would have made already (Trade with Siberia is ridiculous, Egyptian paintings were fairly accurate but stylized, and drawings were sized by importance) However, here's another thought. Large animals don't need hair because they have a lot of thermal inertia and low relative surface areas. Furthermore living elephants occur in pretty warm climates. It's entirely reasonable that a dwarf elephant would be hairy even if it wasn't a mammoth. It would be smaller and have a greater need for hair, the climate would have been colder on Mediterranean islands during the ice ages (not so long before the painting in elephant generations) and neotenic pathways could have conceivably provided a mechanism for the recurrence of lifelong hair growth.


All Internet stuff.

What do you mean by that?

The Wrangel mammoth thing on the other hand is absolutely rubbish.

What 'thing'? Please explain.


It is probably just a matter of time before some *Stegodon* fossil is found in Papua New Guinea or Northwest Australia.

That any proboscidean ever made it to New Guinea/Australia is possible but quite unlikely; to say that they 'probably' did that is to put it too strongly.

Before anyone else mentions it, a reminder that proboscidean fossils have indeed been claimed from Australasia. Owen (1882) named Notelephas australis (originally Mastodon australis) for a molar from New South Wales (and later referred a tusk from Queensland to the same taxon). It's generally thought that these items weren't native to Australia. Here's what Vickers-Rich & Archbold (1991) said about the case...

Because of his prodigious publication record, a few, but only a few, mistakes crept into [Owen's] work, such as his description of an elephant (supposedly a mastodont) from Australia. Many people (Leichhardt 1855, Falconer 1863) questioned the authenticity of the elephant record in Australia, and it has been suggested that the specimen probably entered as a trade item. After the challenge by Falconer, Owen quietly abandoned his claim (Dugan 1980).

There's a lot more worth saying about antipodean proboscideans. Huh, something else for the 'to do' list.

Refs - -

Owen, R. 1882. Description of portions of a tusk of a proboscidian mammal. (Notelephas australis, Owen). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 173, 777-781.

Vickers-Rich, P. & Archbold, N. W. 1991. Squatters, priests and professors: a brief history of vertebrate palaeontology in terra australis. In Vickers-Rich, P., Monaghan, J. M., Baird, R. F. & Rich, T. H. (eds) Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australia. Pioneer Design Studio (Lilydale, Victoria), pp. 1-39.


There's a lot more worth saying about antipodean proboscideans. Huh, something else for the 'to do' list.

Would your 'to do' list happen to also include the alleged rhinoceros fossil from New Caledonia..?

Sorry, to clarify... Owen initially named Mastodon australis in 1844 (for the molar), only giving it its own genus (Notelephas) in 1882 (when describing the tusk)...

Owen, R. 1844. Description of a fossil molar tooth of a Mastodon discovered by Count Strzlecki [sic] in Australia. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 14, 268-271.

New Caledonian 'rhinos': no plans to cover them, but they might get a mention in passing some time seeing as I plan to cover diprotodontids one day.


Owen picked an appropriate name, at least; it was indeed 'not Elephas'...

they might get a mention in passing some time seeing as I plan to cover diprotodontids one day

Great! More marvellous metatherians! (And, although they weren't rhinos, the biogeographical implications of the New Caledonian Iwontsaywhattheyare are still quite interesting in their own right.)

it was indeed 'not Elephas'

Hmm, now that was a total brainfart. For all I know, of course it might actually have been an Elephas. Oh well...

Brian: I like your explanation for explaining the giant breasts on young girls in sick Japanese porno manga.

Notwithstanding Notelephas, there were plenty of Stegodon species in Indonesia in the recent past - I think I'm right in saying all proven cases are the Asian side of the Wallace line, but given their swimming abilities and the closeness of islands along the Lesser Sunda chain, I can easily imagine that they may well have extended further east. Though even allowing for the increased land area when sea levels were lower maybe there was still rather too much water to get to Sahul (Australia + New Guinea).

Wilbert, I think you were a little harsh saying Evolution of Island Mammals was "all internet stuff" - Unless you are referring to material behind paywalls or have some really good online sources (if so please let us all know where it is), then I would say there was much there not readily available elsewhere.

I guess your right that it was light on paleoecology - but I think to be fair that was not part of its described remit.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

The paintings of the cat and of the people are not anatomically accurate enough to sustain such a detailed essay about this or that potential origin. Why do you assume that, just because elephants are interesting to you, the painting of the elephant will be anatomically accurate?

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

On proboscideans and Wallace's line, I agree with Mark. It isn't widely known that pigs have apparently swum 'through' Wallace's line, while some birds with rather poor long-distance capabilities (phasianids) also seem to have crossed it. I also don't exclude the possibility that elephants can get to places like Australia, but this time by drifting as bloated carcasses. More on this (yes, there are actual cases on record) should I ever get round to writing an article devoted to it.

Mark you're right.
I over-reacted a bit.
Maybe I expected to much
(like with the Book Holocene Extinctions of Samuel T Turvey)

Though most you could find on internet but it is nice to have it all written down in one readable book.

I would love to know more about enigmatic mammals like Sardomeryx, Asoletragus or Umbriotherium.

And when I was paging through my McKenna & Bell (which is completely falling apart) I saw they missed a lot of stuff
(like you wrote above. "It omits the Eocene and Oligocene apparently island faunas of Europe and Mid Miocene mammal remains of New Zealand"

So let's agree that's it's not bad but it could be so much more.
There was a also strong emphasis on the history of the fossil findings which I usually find less interesting than the palaeoecology of the mammals like the bizarre Hoplitomeryx (why that head-gear ? maybe for protection of the giant owls and eagles?)

And when you speak about "Adaptation of Mammals on Islands" I'm of the opninion that you must see the individual species in their ecological context. Including interaction with other animals.

But don't get me wrong it's a nice addition to the paleontological library.

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

I always wondered why tigers swam to Bali while the Bali starling stays on it's small island.

It also seems that the pygmy stegodonts of Flores coexisted with the Hobbits for a long time, together with a large host of 'Rodents of Unusual Size' which are frustratingly enough still still not named.

There are also reports/myths/legends of a rhinoceros of Papoea New-Guinnea.
Rhinocerosses are notoriously bad swimmers though.
(every year quite a lot of Indian rhino's drown)
Maybe they were brought their by the Dutch.

Does anybody know why stegodonts finally succumbed on the mainland ?
Was it hunting, competition ?

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink


pigs have apparently swum 'through' Wallace's line

But otters, it seems, have not, even though they too were/are found in SE Asia. And freshwater otters are, by mammalian standards anyway, quite good at colonising islands. For example, they did reach - presumably by swimming - almost all the major islands in the Mediterranean Sea; in the Pleistocene, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily + Malta, and Crete all had their own endemic otter species (however, otters never seem to have reached Cyprus, which was the most isolated of the major Mediterranean islands).

Incidentally, both otters and wild pigs are known to have reached the island of Krakatau in the middle of the Sunda Strait. If they did so by swimming - and all available evidence suggests that they did - they must have swam about 30-40 km, depending on whether they came from Sumatra* or from Java.

* If they came from Sumatra, they would have had the option to rest on a couple of 'stepping stone' islands along the way. But even in this case the otters and/or the pigs would still have to swim a minimum distance of 12 km across open sea.

Reminder: Island-endemic otters on Tet Zoo. If anyone has any pics I can use of extinct island-endemic mammals, please do send them. Finding images for articles on this subject is very difficult.

I just realised I was wrong about all the Indonesian Stegodon species all being the Asian side of the Wallace Line - though most certainly were, Flores is very definitely east of the Wallace Line. Indeed it is roughly half way between the Wallace Line and the Weber line (which runs just east of Timor).

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

Can anyone recommend a [very] complete book or web resource on pleistocene proboscideans (or ideally megafauna more generally)? I'd like to get a better handle on the old world species.

I have only an amateur interest in ancient Egyptian art and archaeology, but after many visits to the Egyptian galleries in the British Museum my impression is that their paintings of animals are generally pretty anatomically accurate, if a little stylized. For example, see the following paper:

Manlius, N. (2000) Did the Arabian oryx live in Egypt in pharaonic times? Mammal Review 30 (1): 65-72.

In the frieze we're discussing, the cattle, giraffe, horses and dogs are all shown correctly and at (more or less)the correct size relative to each other and to the human figures. The suggestion that the elephant in the painting is meant to show a full-sized individual that's just been shrunk down for the sake of convenience just doesn't ring true to me. The painting has some element of depth, so the artist could surely have portrayed the elephant at its correct size, with the human figures in the foreground. A full-sized adult elephant would have been the biggest and most imposing beast in the procession, and if I was painting it I'd make it the focus of the scene, not a peripheral element as it is here.

If I had to bet, I'd say that the painting actually shows a baby elephant, of either the African or Asian species, painted by someone who knew in general terms what an elephant looks like, but hadn't seen the specimen in question, and hence got some of the details wrong, i.e. the odd domed head and the incongruous presence of long tusks in a juvenile. The surviving Mediterranean dwarf hypothesis is appealing, but I find it hard to imagine that any population of endemic elephants on a small island could have survived more than a few years after humans had discovered them, given the usually devastating impacts that we have on island faunas. Apart from the radiocarbon dates cited above (which should perhaps be treated with caution until confirmed by more finds) there seems to be no other evidence for such late survival of insular endemics in an eastern Mediterranean that was already a bustling and well-populated place by the time this picture was painted.

By Dave Hughes (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

Mark (comment 42) - - ah yes, of course there were proboscideans east of Wallace's line. Flores had Stegodon sondaari and S. florensis, Sumba had S. sumbaensis, and Timor had S. timorensis. And then there's Stegoloxodon celebensis (supposedly a mammoth) and Stegodon sompoensis (plus an as-yet-unnamed Stegodon) from Sulawesi.

If the Wrangel island dwarf mammoths can be interpreted as only being old females, surely they were still far bigger than the animal depicted which only comes up to a man's waist? If so, how did the suggestion that they were one and the same manage to survive so long.
Or am I being naive there?
Re the New Caledonian rhino. I thought that the idea it was a diprotodont was discredited and that it actually was a rhino tooth, but presumably not of local origin. But I would love to be corrected.

By farandfew (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

In case anybody needs even more reasons to be sure it's not a Siberian mammoth, here are a few :-) As far as I remember, Wrangel Island has been inhabited by people only sporadically - that's why the mammoths could survive there for so long. Native peoples of NE Siberia had relatively small boats not capable of transporting a live mammoth, even a relatively young one. If they somehow managed to deliver it to the mainland, it would take years to transport it to Egypt, so it would arrive as an adult. Of course, someone could march a breeding herd over winter sea ice to the mainland, and then to Egypt across all those forests, grasslands and deserts... but transporting them in a flying soccer is much more plausible.

We have no idea what Mediterranean elephants looked like. Winter nights can be pretty cold there, so it's totally possible that they were relatively hairy.

As for the possible late survival of dwarf elephants on som mediterranean island it is worth noting that Eivissa and Formentera were not colonized until c. 2000 BC, that is only about 500 years before Rekhmire's tomb was built. Now there were of cours no elephants (indeed no mammals at all) on Eivissa/Formentera, but possibly some other mediterranean island was colonized equally late, and far from all mediterranean islands have been paleontologically investigated.
A dwarf elephant might not even be from the Mediterranean, considering what is known about egyptian trade connections it might be from some island in the Red Sea or Indian Ocean.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

More I look that painting, more I am convinced that the interpretation advanced by Marco Masseti is correct.

An elephant, probably E. maximus or E. antiquus, survived in the north of Syria under the indirect control of man, between the Orontes and Khabur.

This population of elephants is abundantly quoted by many sources from the Bronze Age, some Syria's tusks from bronze age are at the Museum of Heraklion.
It should be noted that the elephant in the painting is led by Syrians as a tribute
Thutmosi III knew Syrian elephants and even killed 120 in a hunt (1464 b.c.)

The painter would be very accurate in representing the anatomy (not African), but have deliberately used the "wrong" proportions, as in the case of the bear.
Dwarf elephants are amazing, but is also cool the survival of Elephans in Syria until the end of the Bronze Age.

Are dwarf elephants on Pantelleria?
When the man arrived in Balerics? Tyrberg are you sure that arrived only 2000 b.c.?

I think Darren is teasing us all into thinking that instead of a felid he sees an Atlas bear. :-)

By Loren Coleman (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

Assuming that the animal on the leash is a (fully grown, ~1m tall at the shoulder) lioness (I don't see the resemblance to a bear - the ears and seeming absence or reduction of the tail perhaps, but otherwise, no), and assuming that the animals in the painting are approximately to scale with one another (but not with the humans), the proboscidean can be inferred to have been around 1.2m tall. This is larger than the maximum size Wikipedia quotes for E. falconeri (90cm). This may sound like a silly question, but what was the largest dwarf elephant species in the Mediterranean?

Some comments:

I find it illogical that people who unquestionably accept that Egyptians travelled arduous overland route to rainforests of C Africa to bring okapis and West Africa for Jentink's duikers have problems that dwarf elephant was imported from East Med Islands, when about that time they were still alive, were geographically nearer and by lively sea routes.

I, too, heard that Egyptians shrunk objects on their paintings depending from importance. But it doesn't ring true about elephants: come on, the special thing about elephants is that they are BIG! Giraffe in the same painting is larger than human. And Syrian elephants were actually the biggest population of Elephas maximus (wikipedia quotes ca 3,5m in the shoulder).

Egyptians and Eastern Mediterranean people knew elephants well. Wild african elephants were still found at the outskirts of Egyptian kingdom then. So it is difficult to imagine that the artists was so ignorant that didn't know that elepants lack hair and juveniles lack tusks.

About hairiness. Majority of Med island elephants are believed to evolve from Elephant/Paleoloxodon antiquus, which was essentially an European form from temperate climate. So it is most plausible that E. antiquus was hairy and descending island species were hairy too. Instead it is difficult to imagine desert elephants from Syria being hairy.

About sloping back - E. antiquus also had rather sloping back.

About survival. Perhaps cultural reasons allowed one population of elephants on Tilos (and possibly few other undiscovered/undated populations on some other islands) to survive at times when advanced civilizations sailed around their islands. Maybe people around were unusually cultural, or Tilos was considered inferior to colonize and abandoned. The precedent exist: Flores stegodons (together with hominids) also survived long after people sailed to Australia. Cryptozoologists hoping for extinct megafauna surviving in small isolated pockets, take note.

About birds in ancient Egypt: most famous are depictions of Red-breasted Geese Branta ruficollis, which today don't winter in Egypt. They are taken as evidence of shift of migration pattern. RBG did it again in modern times (and possibly after the migration switch theory was first proposed), changing wintering grounds in ca. 1970s from Caspian-Aral sea to European Black Sea coast (although satelite telemetry shows that they apparently still fly most of the route the old way, turning sharply west at one point).

PS. The bear could be juvenile...

As for when man arrived in the Balearics, there are neolithic remains on Mallorca and Menorca, but no trace of humans on Ibiza/Formentera until about 2000 BC.

Those syrian Elephants are illustrated in Egyptian art too. At least two pharaohs of the 18th dynasty hunted them on their syrian expeditions (Thutmosis III was one I'm not sure of the other), they are illustrated "full-size". The range was not restricted to Syria, they apparently occurred in southern Turkey as well, and possibly in Lebanon. The last reports are apparently from the 9th century BC. It seems that they belonged to the indian species.



However they were certainly no dwarves, on the contrary they seem to have been exceptionally large.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

Re those Branta ruficollis. The species has certainly occurred further west in the past. There are fossils from the last glaciation from the Urals (presumably breeding) and from Crete, Tylos(!), Hungary, Slovakia and Italy (several). These latter are probably wintering birds. There is even one probable record from England, but that is from an earlier interglacial.

Interestingly there are some differences in plumage pattern of the head in the egyptian paintings compared to modern birds, so they may be from an extinct population.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

I agree with Jerzy all the way
Except for the bear cup/juvenile

Come on !
It could be some slung-backed form kind of Amphicyonidae (when are you treating this nomenclatura horror Darren ?)
A mysterious Miocene left-over.

But than again
I would love to hear more about the Atlas bear
Gladiators and all
And remember
North-Africa was/is the home of European fauna
Aurochs, red deer, capra, otter etc

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

Jerzy: all good points...
Tommy: I always suspected that the current weird breeding range of RBG was a relic of much whider distribution! Now I wonder what caused the retraction: selective overhunting at wintering grounds, drop in tundra falcon populations due to commercial exploitation by Russians from the 13th century onwards, or an increase in Nenets-owned reindeer herds as they switched from subsistence to trade-oriented reindeer husbandry...

Can anyone recommend a [very] complete book or web resource on pleistocene proboscideans (or ideally megafauna more generally)? I'd like to get a better handle on the old world species.

You may have already seen this, but... here's a repost of something from a few months ago. The index includes sessions titled "Pliocene and Early Pleistocene Proboscideans: sites and environment", "The Middle Pleistocene Proboscideans: sites and environment", and "Late Pleistocene Elephants, Mammoths and Mastodonts: sites and environment". All of the session papers are available as PDFs:

Index for all of the papers presented at "The World of Elephants - International Congress, Rome 2001" is available here.

(remove "pdf/Indice_Summary.pdf" from the URL to see the web archive of the entire site)

I also have a url list that can be used to download all of the pdfs from the web archive site, if anyone is interested in that.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

I swear that I`m seeing a long tail in the "bear" image.

By Sergio Rios (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

The rockartblog has a huge zoomed-in image of the scene, and it does look like there's a long tail going past the right rear hind leg of the bear/cat/whatever.

It's interesting that the artist put in so much detail to the broad collar, that long flat piece of wood/metal/whatever, and then the leather lead.

I presume that multipart system has a purpose, but what? Controlling the animal's neck if it becomes agitated?

The horse that's in front of both of them looks very strange indeed, which lends credence to the "distorted drawing" hypothesis. Maybe.

Or maybe the image was started from the left, and the artist realized that oops, there was not enough free space on the right. Hm.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

the island of Krakatau

D'oh! I meant of course the Krakatau islands (since 1883, there's been more than one).


In the frieze we're discussing, the cattle, giraffe, horses and dogs are all shown correctly and at (more or less)the correct size relative to each other and to the human figures. The suggestion that the elephant in the painting is meant to show a full-sized individual that's just been shrunk down for the sake of convenience just doesn't ring true to me.

Fair enough, but I don't think we can be sure that all the items were painted at the same time and by the same artist.


Re the New Caledonian rhino. I thought that the idea it was a diprotodont was discredited and that it actually was a rhino tooth, but presumably not of local origin.

What's your source for this information? Guerin et al. (1981) were the ones who identified the tooth as belonging to a diprotodont (a Zygomaturus, to be precise), and as far as I'm aware, their taxonomic interpretation has not been challenged in the scientific literature.


it is difficult to imagine desert elephants from Syria being hairy

Did the Syrian elephants really live in deserts? Wouldn't they rather have been living in Syria's mountainous regions, where temperatures are lower and precipitation is richer (and where it occasionally even snows during the winter)?


Guerin, C., Winslow, J.H., Piboule, M. & Faure, M. 1981. Le prétendu rhinocéros de Nouvelle Calédonie est un marsupial (Zygomaturus diahotensis nov. sp.): solution d'une énigmeet conséquences paléogéographiques. Geobios 14, 201-217.

The simple idea that the Egyptians saw with their own eyes the pygmy Mediterranean mamooths is fascinating, Darren. Congratulations for the blog!

By Carlos Pizcueta (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

It would seem from the sources that the syrian elephants mostly occurred in marshland along the Euphrates. In modern times Asiatic Elephants are largely confined to forest or scrubland, but that may be due to persecution. African elephants can be found in anything from rainforest to semi-desert (though not extreme desert, as far as I know).

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

If there's a reliable source of water you (used to) have elephants

Like the giants of the Namib or Mali.

I believe the north african elephants where also of the Elephas kind.
So I wouldn't be suprised that they would have had the same resilience as Loxodonta.

Still it makes you wonder Mali is (almost?) North Africa.
Could Elephas and Loxodonta have coeexisted in historical times ?


people who unquestionably accept that Egyptians travelled arduous overland route to rainforests of C Africa to bring okapis and West Africa for Jentink's duikers

For the record: Nicolas Manlius, who originally made the 'Jentink's duiker' suggestion (in 2001), did not suggest that the ancient Egyptians went all the way to Central Africa and brought back the duiker from there. Rather, he suggested that there could have been a relictual population of Jentink's duikers in (or near) Egypt that survived until ca. 2500 BP.

Owen picked an appropriate name, at least; it was indeed 'not Elephas'...

:-D :-D :-D

and Timor had S. timorensis.

Timor! :-o That's far out.

If there's a reliable source of water you (used to) have elephants

Like the giants of the Namib or Mali.

And those of the Namib are unusually large!

I believe the north african elephants where also of the Elephas kind.


Mali is (almost?) North Africa

Southern side of the Sahara.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

...and this is the fourth most active ScienceBlogs post at the moment.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink


* because all the references tell us they were from the Elephas kind

* yeah but the neighbour of Mali is Algeria (which is north Africa maxime overdrive)

and my question remains
Could modern Loxodonta and Elephas have coexisted in recent/holocene northern africa ?

By Wilbert Friesen (not verified) on 20 Jan 2011 #permalink

David: In 1985, Lyndall Dawson and Tim Flannery named the new (sub)genus Notamacropus for a number of species that have traditionally been lumped in the kangaroo/wallaby genus Macropus. 'Nota' comes from the Latin word meaning 'stripe', which refers to the facial stripe present in many species in this clade - but the name was also (as admitted by Flannery in his 2005 book, Country: A Continent, a Scientist & a Kangaroo) an intentional pun: Dawson and Flannery wanted to say that a Notamacropus is 'not a Macropus'...


Dawson, L. & Flannery, T. 1985. Taxonomic and phylogenetic studies of living and fossil kangaroos and wallabies of the genus Macropus Shaw (Macropodidae: Marsupialia), with a new subgeneric name for the larger wallabies. Australian Journal of Zoology 33, 473-498.

Maybe for interest:

Segments of "Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptation and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands" by van der GEER can be downloaded on the publisher site, encompassing some of the color plates with reconstuction drawings and bone figures:


P.S: Considering the pictoral depictions in Ancient Egypt a book to suggest:

P.F. HOULIHAN (1997): The Animal World of the Pharaohs. Thames & Hudson: 245

The last reports are apparently from the 9th century BC

Appian (Syrian Wars 8.46) says that, in 162 BC, there were still so many elephants in Syria that the Romans considered them a military thread, and send agents to hamstring them. However, Appian also claims that those beasts were tame, so they might have been trained elephants imported from the east, rather than a native wild population (but why should the Romans destroy trained elephants, rather than seize them for their own army?)

It could be some slung-backed form kind of Amphicyonidae

Another candidate for the Nandi Bear ;-)

The war elephants of the Hellenistic period (encountered by the Romans in 162 b.c.) were Indian elephants exported for military use (and maybe re-introduced in the syrian wild).
The Romans don't used them as war elephants (with exceptions) becose were a "weapon" with an unfavorable cost-effectiveness.

The bear is Ursus arctos syriacus, i think (note the golden color). Not lion or miocenic megafauna.
In the painting (above) there is at least a lion, and is different from the bear.

Would notice that all animals in the painting are drawn with wrong proportions.
The unusual animal, given the age of the painting, is the Giraffe, a important gift for that time and thus deserving to be represented in large proportions (but smaller than it is).
Perhaps only the horses are correct; since the Bronze Age horses were still small. For horses see Robert Drews, Early Riders, The Beginning of Mounted Warfare in Asia anf Europe, Routledge, 2004.

The Syrians elephants were not completely wild elephants, rather than semi-wild as deer.
They could have some coat, as the winter cold of Syria, and were not Loxodonta (or Loxodonta africana pharaoensis, wel know by egyptians). The anatomy is correct, only the proportions are wrong.

Egyptian art tends to pick out identifying features of an animal and display them at the angle at which they are the most recognisable--ie, with their people, the eyes are shown head-on while faces are shown in profile. Chests are also shown head-on, but the shillouette of a leg from the side is more recognizable as a leg if drawn from the side- you can see the bump of the knee and curve of the calf. I would think that this attitude, when applied to an elephant, would result in the identifying features of the animal being fairly accurate. The smallness in comparison to the person and the hair are probably right. The angle of the tusks would not be considered terribly important to the Egyptian, just that they were obviously tusks. Also, I've noticed a tendancy in Egyptian art towards valuing relative proportion more highly than correct proportion. It only matters that the dog is smaller than its master, not that it is scaled to dog-size. If there's room for it to fill up the space, the artist will take it as long as the dog is smaller than its master.
Also, I would mention that there were probably good reference pictures for elephants in the 18th dynasty.
As for the bear, I think I see a tail on its rump, too, but it's not long like a cat's tail. It gets chipped off and you can't see it below the chip. So in conclusion

By tamakazura (not verified) on 21 Jan 2011 #permalink

The Romans don't used them as war elephants (with exceptions) becose were a "weapon" with an unfavorable cost-effectiveness.

Roman war elephants were present in all the big battles between Rome and the hellenist kingdoms (Magnesia, Kynoskephalai, Pydna), and their role at Pydna was quite decisive. Ancient writers concentrate on the legion vs. phalanx aspect of this wars, but in the real world, cavalry, elephantry, light and medium infantry (thureophoroi) were as important as heavy infantry.

If the small, hairy elephant is coming from Syria, what about giraffe in the upper row? Giraffes never ranged into Syria.
OTOH It is possible that dwarf elephant was first brought from Tilos to Syria, and forwarded further into Egypt as a gift.


Anybody ever seen a real example of Asian elephant calf with precocious, huge tusks? I know of none, in contrast Asian elephants tend not to develop tusks even as adult.

Did tusks of Tilos elephant were very curved? Picture which Darren put here suggests that indeed, they were upcurved and carried relatively high. Of course, we can explain everything as artist error (a bit of poor rhetorics, I think). However, it is possible that the artist got everything right for E. tilensis or similar form.

Anybody can see how elephant in question is being led? The bear has collar and leash, but elephant?

Another thing are these lines along elephant ear. They look remarkably like attempt to draw a frill of long hair on ears, much like style of rendering of long mane of Hamadryas baboon male.

Playing devil advocate: if picture is indeed an accumulation of errors, we would expect more bad pictures with normal-sized hairy elephants and small but hairless elephants in Egyptian art. I don't know about these. In fact, other animals on the picture are shown remarkably accurately, I think it is real.

@ Jerzy

The top line describes tribute from Nubia (see the clothes, hair and skin).
Nubians are with lions, bulls, monkeys and giraffes.
All well apart from the apes of Gibraltar and Capri, there were no monkeys or giraffes in Europe (or Syria).
The bottom line describes tribute from Syria (again identified by their clothing and skin).
Syria gave tribute in horses, bears and elephants, as well as crafts.

yeah but the neighbour of Mali is Algeria (which is north Africa maxime overdrive)

Northern Mali and all of Algeria except the Atlas is full-on desert that you can't just walk through.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 23 Jan 2011 #permalink

Wilbert, you're absolutely right that chapters on paleoecology and interaction between faunal elements are missing in our Evolution of Island Mammals etc. How much more colourful and less clinical the book could have been. The reason we omitted that info was that we choose only to present verified data and consensus material (well, some sidestep here and there). And that simply does not apply to the current status of research on island paleoecology. Hardly anything has been done in this field. And more on the internet than in the lab, so much fantasy and copy-paste.
But this is out-of-topic for the current thread, I'm sorry.


There are also numerous examples of pygmy elephants from Syria in Roman, Ancient Persian and Islamic art. The documented evidence suggests that populations of these small elephants existed until the 14th and 15th centuries CE. The following link has a facinating article on elephants in ancient and medieval Iran.



What's your source for this information? Guerin et al. (1981) were the ones who identified the tooth as belonging to a diprotodont (a Zygomaturus, to be precise), and as far as I'm aware, their taxonomic interpretation has not been challenged in the scientific literature.

I had the good fortune of being on an expedition to New Caledonia in 2001 and remember getting the strong impression that very little of import about the place is published anywhere accessible. So *my* source is our honoured expedition leader who tells me *his* source is a paper by Jean Christophe Balouet. I can find online a reference to Dr Balouet's 1984 Thesis on the paleobiology of New Caledonian vertebrates from the University of Paris but that's all. If you want me to dig this paper out I will try and get it off my friend.

By farandfew (not verified) on 01 Feb 2011 #permalink


If you want me to dig this paper out I will try and get it off my friend.

Please do try; I would appreciate getting that information.


Rosen (1994) also made the suggestion that the elephant in the painting might be a symbolic representation of an elephant rather than a 'real-life' depiction of one. The idea here is that, since the accompanying person is shown carrying tusks, the artist added a miniature elephant to signify the known origin of these tusks.

This, by the way, is also the view held by Nicolas Manlius* (1997). Although he was aware of the fact that dwarf proboscideans survived on the island of Tilos until the Bronze Age, he still considered it most likely that the elephant portrayed in Rekhmire's tomb was just supposed to represent an ordinary Asian elephant from Syria, illustrated in less than actual size.

* He who suggested that the Jentink's duiker might be illustrated in an ancient Egyptian painting.


Manlius, N. 1997. Les mammouths du Pharaon. Bulletin Mensuel de la Société Linnéenne de Lyon 66, 167-173.

Something tangentially on-topic that hasn't been mentioned in this thread yet:

The suggestion that the Rekhmire's tomb proboscidean is a mammoth rather than an elephant has been made long before Rosen's 1994 letter to Nature, and long before the discovery of the Holocene Wrangel Island 'pygmy' mammoths. In 1969, the German archaeologist Burchard Brentjes suggested that the Syrian elephants were, in fact, late-surviving woolly mammoths Mammuthus primigenius rather than Asian elephants Elephas maximus. He based this idea on his interpretations of ancient illustrations such as that of Rekhmire's animal. (Brentjes didn't think that the small size of that proboscidean was supposed to be an accurate depiction of its size, however.) Unsurprisingly, Brentjes' ideas were never widely accepted; Hofmann (1974) published a paper criticising his ideas.

(Perhaps because he published mainly in German, Brentjes - who is still alive, AFAIK - is not that widely known internationally; neither Rosen (1994) nor White (1994) cite him. But he has published an impressive number of papers on ancient artistic animal depictions.)


Brentjes, B. 1969. Der syrische Elefant als Südform des Mammuts? Säugetierkundliche Mitteilungen 17, 211-214.

Hofmann, I. 1974. Die Artzuhörigkeit des syrischen Elefanten. Säugetierkundliche Mitteilungen 22, 225-233.