So, at last, it’s that war rhinos post you’ve all been waiting for…
Remember that all the things I promise will appear eventually, it’s just that these things take time. Tetrapod Zoology is becoming an increasingly active site that now generally gets over 1000 hits a day, so to all those who visit regularly, and to those who leave comments, many thanks. Please note that I’m starting to expand the about me section of the site: I’ve recently added a list of publications and will be adding links to pdfs as and when they become available. On the subject of things becoming available, those of you interested in the historical literature will be pleased to hear that several of my colleagues – namely Matt Wedel, Randy Irmis and Mike P. Taylor – have recently scanned, converted to pdf, and made available a huge list of publications by O. C. Marsh. They’re available, free, here. Knock yourself out. Anyway, to business.
This week the Warner Brothers movie 300 opens in the UK (if you’re elsewhere in the world you may already have seen it). Based on Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel, it’s a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and is not meant to be historically accurate. But regardless of what you make of the film (and I haven’t seen it yet so am not exactly in the best position to discuss its merits or otherwise), one area that has got a lot of people talking concerns the use in the film of armoured war rhinos. The idea that species belonging to one of the most fantastic and awesome groups of living mammals might have been trained, armour-plated and employed as living tanks in warfare is, to put it mildly, exciting, and it has certainly grabbed my interest.
Given the film’s extremely loose attachment to historical reality, the fact that armoured war rhinos appear in 300 may or may not mean anything, but of course this isn’t the only place where the concept of the war rhino has appeared. Having looked into the area a bit, I can report that there’s good news, and there’s bad news. Followers of Tetrapod Zoology will by now be familiar with most of the arguments, pro and con, given the long and edifying exchange that various of you have had in the comments section of the previous teaser post. So let’s hope that I can add at least something new and that all the many cats haven’t been let out of their many bags…
Most people are familiar with the use of elephants in combat. What’s not so widely appreciated is that elephants belonging to all three living species have been used in warfare. Nubians and Egyptians used the African forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis, the Macedonians, Seleucids and Vedics used the Asian elephant Elephas maximus, and the African bush elephant L. africana was apparently used by the Egyptians and possibly the Carthaginians. Note that there is still a considerable amount of controversy as to which civilization used which species, as the evidence for these identifications is often based on unreliable artwork and old confused accounts (Spinage 1994). Anyway, I’ll stop there as it would be all too easy to spin off at a tangent and concentrate on war elephants.
Far less well known is the possibility that rhinos may have been used in warfare too, but not only is this idea poorly known, it is also considered highly doubtful by most who have considered it. As I’ve said, there’s good news and there’s bad news. We begin with the good news: namely, that there are at least a few references, here and there in the literature, to the possible existence of war rhinos. As we’ll see, they are all, sadly, generally problematical. That’s the bad news.
We begin with two early renditions of what are apparently collar-wearing rhinos, though how they are interpreted is very much open to debate. In 1616 Ulisse Aldrovandi published a drawing of an animal that he termed Asinus cornutus, the horned ass. Aldrovandi had received this drawing from Joachim Camerarius in May 1595; it depicts a two-horned rhino seen some years prior in Constantinople, and apparently collected from Egypt (Rookmaaker 2005). The interesting thing about the rhino is that it’s clearly wearing a collar. A second image, printed on a seal, comes from the late Harappan phase of the Indus Valley civilization. Without doubt it depicts an Indian one-horned rhino Rhinoceros unicornis [see adjacent image], but what makes the image unusual is that the animal appears to have a trough, and have a rope around its neck. These features have led some to conclude that the Indian rhino was ‘a domesticated animal’ in the Indus Valley civilization (Lahiri-Choudhury 1991). I’m far from convinced. What is interpreted as a rope doesn’t really look like one – it instead looks more like a defect on the seal. Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of this image on the web, so you’ll have to trust me here, but it’s not tremendously different from the Harappan seal image that you can see at the top of the article.
Do these images of collared rhinos tell us anything about domestication as has been implied? The undoubted collar on Aldrovandi’s rhino is highly curious, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what relationship this animal had with the people that owned it. We just don’t have that information. And despite Lahiri-Choudhury’s claim that the rhino depicted on the Harappan seal was domesticated, the evidence is highly dubious and, even if a rope really is depicted, it doesn’t tell us anything about whether, and how, this animal was used. There’s no reason to think even that a tamed, collar-wearing rhino is anything to do with the use of that animal in warfare, but I hope you agree that I just had to mention these historical snippets.
Having mentioned Indian one-horned rhinos, of interest is that the next bit of evidence – a small piece of text from a highly dubious source – also pertains to this species. The dubious source is wikipedia’s entry on ‘military animals‘ (viz, the historical use of animals in combat). According to the article, Indian rhinos were used in warfare by the Ahom people of Assam. Apparently…
Rhinos would be made to drink alchohol to make them inebirated [sic] and then made to charge against any arriving troops. Any well formed infantry or cavalry would be instantly decimated. Their thick skin also gave them protection from archers.
Curiously enough, this fantastic bit of information was uncredited and requests for a citation went unheeded. I’ve been unable to find this information repeated anywhere in the literature, and so has everyone one, so the relevant chunk of text has since been removed. Wikipedia also mentioned some other stuff about historical renditions of armour-wearing rhinos, but it seems safest to assume that it was speculative and not evidence-based. Indeed it was suggested in the same article that the armour plating shown on the one-horned rhino illustrated by Albrecht Durer in 1515 (or thereabouts) might be based on an interpretation of real, metallic armour (Durer’s rhino is shown in the adjacent image). It seems far more likely that Durer’s rhino owes its bizarre appearance to Durer’s elaborate style. Insert criticism of wikipedia here [then again, these problematic bits of text have been removed, so insert praise of wikipedia here].
A similarly speculative appearance of armoured war rhinos comes from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond (1997) mentions the idea of rhino-mounted Bantu shock troops battling against Romans, but not because he thinks it might have happened. Rather, because it never happened. His point was that rhinos cannot be domesticated and used in war but that, if they had, then Bantus might have had cultural supremacy over their European neighbours, though this is highly arguable of course.
So, aside from a few possibly irrelevant or erroneous pictures of collar-wearing rhinos, some highly dubious text deleted from wikipedia, and a bit of colourful speculation, what do we have? Nothing. In desperation, I asked world rhino expert Kees Rookmaaker. He hadn’t heard of any of the dubious claims I had come across, most notably the alleged use of war rhinos by the Ahom people. He did, however, have this to say…
In my book, The rhinoceros in captivity (1998, p. 29), I refer to a statement by Fernao Mendes Pinto who says that during their siege of Peking in July 1544, the army of the Kings of the Tartars included “four score thousand rhinoceroses.”
Holy crap – real live genuine war rhinos! However…. he went on to explain that…
A modern edition translates the word used “banda”, which usually means rhinoceros, as yaks. That would be the more likely proposition.
D’oh! So I conclude that there is no historical evidence whatsoever for the use of rhinos in combat. Not exactly a conclusion that many of you will be surprised about, but worth stating nonetheless. Why haven’t rhinos ever been trained for use in combat? It isn’t true that rhinos can’t be tamed, or trained. Some captive White rhinos Ceratotherium simum have become incredibly tame, and there have been specimens at zoos, game parks and circuses that have become affectionate, friendly and altogether very co-operative. In The White Rhino Saga, Ian Player discusses and includes photos of a White rhino that was trained to lie down when a radio was played (Player 1972). These observations all negate the idea that rhinos can’t be trained.
But it appears that rhinos cannot be trained to serve as mounts, nor do they apparently have a psychology that allows them to be trained to do the sorts of things that horses and elephants will do. I’m not entirely sure why this is: is it because rhinos are less smart than the other mammals trained for use in combat? Or is it because rhinos are less flexible, behaviourally, than these other species? I don’t know if intelligence is important here, as Moose Alces alces are relatively intelligent, yet efforts to train them for use in combat were unsuccessful (Geist 1999).
Despite best efforts then, I have spectacularly failed to find any compelling evidence for war rhinos, and indeed there are reasons for thinking that this might not have happened because it couldn’t happen. Of course, I’d love to be proved wrong. Bring it on.
Right, leaving soon for that British big cats conference. News on that soon, followed by stuff on rhinogradentians (yes, really), bizarre cetaceans, sebecosuchians, non-avian theropods, Triassic crurotarsans and so on and on and on.
Refs – –
Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Co., New York.
Geist, V. 1999. Deer of the World. Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury.
Lahiri-Choudhury, D. K. 1991. Indian myths and history. In Eltringham, S. K. & Ward, D. (consultants). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Elephants. Crescent Books (New York), pp. 130-147.
Player, I. 1972. The White Rhino Saga. Collins, London.
Rookmaaker, L. C. 2005. Review of the European perception of the African rhinoceros. Journal of Zoology 265, 365-376.
Spinage, C. A. 1994. Elephants. T & A D Poyser, London.