I really enjoyed the long and involved debate that followed my article on the small elephant depicted on the wall of Rekhmire’s tomb. Thank you to (just about) everyone who contributed. As I tried to make clear in the actual article, we’ll likely never know the truth of the matter, and this whole exercise should be seen as a bit of fun speculation [image below © Alessando Mangione and Marco Masseti].
Those of you who argued that the elephant could likely be stylized, or an inaccurate rendition of either an adult or juvenile Asian elephant Elephas maximus, could well be right. But, equally, those of you who noted that the Rekhmire tomb elephant looked different enough to perhaps be a true depiction of a now-extinct dwarf elephant might be right instead. So far as I can tell, both hypotheses are equally likely, especially when we allow for the possibilities that dwarf Mediterranean elephants could have been shaggy coated and still alive just 4000-3500 years ago (Masseti 2001, 2008, Theodorou et al. 2007).
Something I didn’t note in the previous article (though it did come up in the comments) is that the dwarf species Elephas tiliensis* – suggested by Masseti (2001, 2008) to be the species depicted in the painting – has been reconstructed with strongly upcurved, very slender tusks like those shown in the Rekhmire tomb elephant. Courtesy of Georgalis Georgios, I was very interested to discover recently that a life-sized model of E. tiliensis is on display at the Palaeontology Museum of Athens. Here it is (sorry there’s no scale)…
* As discussed previously, it seems that at least some of the Mediterranean dwarf elephants are part of the group conventionally called Palaeoloxodon, and in some studies have been suggested to be close to the large species P. antiquus. Indeed Theodorou et al. (2007) regarded E. tiliensis as a probable descendant of P. antiquus. As is clear from Todd’s (2010) recent paper on elephantid phylogeny, however, a lot of work remains to be done, and the affinities and nomenclature of many of the taxa involved remains unclear. A section of Todd’s phylogeny is shown below: there is a clade that includes both P. antiquus and the Mediterranean dwarfs, but it also includes (and has as ‘ancestors’) species conventionally regarded as part of Elephas. Accordingly, some authors include all palaeoloxodontines in Elephas. I just wish people were consistent: if you’re going to say that your Mediterranean dwarf is a descendant of the species you call Palaeoloxodon antiquus, call the dwarf Palaeoloxodon too!
Fossils of E. tiliensis do reveal tusks of this shape, but because only one (as yet unfigured) specimen preserves a tusk in place within its alveolus (Theodorou et al . 2007) it’s not yet completely clear what the animal’s head looked like in life. As indicated by the image shown at the very top – produced by Alessando Mangione and Marco Masseti and appearing in Masseti (2008) – there is indeed a superficial similarity between E. tiliensis and the Rekhmire tomb elephant.
During the discussion on Tet Zoo, some of you brought attention to the possibility that the Rekhmire tomb elephant might represent an individual of the now extinct Syrian population of the Asian elephant. We know from tooth and bone fragments found in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon that Asian elephants were still living in the region in the latter part of the Bronze Age. These were wild elephants and different from the African and Asian elephants transported to within reach of Egypt later on. The Syrian elephants were definitely familiar to the ancient Egyptians: in fact I’ve just learnt that Bökönyi (1985) and Moorey (1994) specifically referred to the Rekhmire tomb elephant as a piece of supportive evidence for this contention!
Interestingly, some pictures of Syrian elephants [like this presumably reconstructed skeleton shown here, sorry for small size] hint at the possibility that (like the Rekhmire tomb elephant) they had particularly slim tusks. Further support for a Syrian origin for the animal in the tomb painting comes from the fact that the adjacent people are apparently Syrian. While this could well support the idea that the Rekhmire tomb elephant is a Syrian Asian elephant, it would still mean either that the artist erred or fabricated in drawing a juvenile with the tusks of an adult, or that they drew the elephant at completely the wrong size. There’s no suggestion (or evidence) that Syrian elephants included any dwarf populations – they were actually particularly large (though I can’t find anything specific on their size).
Again, I have to emphasise for those nay-sayers that we’re never going to know either way what that elephant painting in Rekhmire’s tomb really depicts. Much as I like the idea that dwarfed, slim-tusked island-endemic Mediterranean elephants were transported to ancient Egypt, reconsideration leads me to favour the idea that the painting is an inaccurate depiction of a Syrian Asian elephant.
As some of you noted, the notion that the Asian elephant was living in the Middle East until as recently as about 700 BCE (mostly around the Euphrates) is pretty incredible.
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…
- Of dragons, marsupial lions and the sixth digits of elephants: functional anatomy part II
- RIP Yeheskel Shoshani
- How do you masturbate an elephant?
- The tangled mammoths
- The domes of wisdom
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 5: of elephants and gorillas
- Pouches, pockets and sacs in the heads, necks and chests of mammals, part II: elephants have a pouch in the throat… or do they?
- What happened here? The remains of a corpse.
- Did the ancient Egyptians know of pygmy mammoths? Well, there is that tomb painting.
Refs – –
Bökönyi, S. 1985. Subfossil elephant remains from southwestern Syria. Paléorient 11, 161-163.
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.
– . 2008. The most ancient explorations of the Mediterranean. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, Fourth Series 59, Supplement I, No. 1, 1-18.
Moorey, P. R. S. 1994. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: the Archaeological Evidence. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Theodorou, G., Symeonidis, N. & Stathopoulou, E. 2007. Elephas tiliensis n. sp. from Tilos island (Dodecanese, Greece). Hellenic Journal of Geosciences 42, 19-32.
Todd, N. (2010). New Phylogenetic Analysis of the Family Elephantidae Based on Cranial-Dental Morphology The Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology, 293 (1), 74-90 DOI: 10.1002/ar.21010