Tetrapod Zoology

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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].

i-315181651d45cc475d88221f03e17f8f-Mangione-and-Masseti-pygmy-elephant-drawing-Jan-2011.jpg

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)…

i-684c38b26eabd37634aa0ca3bf0beb2d-Palaeoloxodon-tiliensis-Athens-Jan-2011.jpg

* 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!

i-c16c707d994839591dda257d82df7036-Todd-2010-section-of-elephantid-phylogeny-Jan-2011.jpg

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!

i-5e375303fd5e58bbb2afcbcaa0a1ae4c-possible-Syrian-elephant-reconstruction.jpg

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.

i-e195fdcbfee6e582f0746ec3b20a9bbc-Rekhmire-tomb-elephant-cropped-Jan-2011.jpg

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…

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

Comments

  1. #1 Nathan Myers
    January 26, 2011

    I read the title to suggest that the elephant was actually typical, but the Syrian guy leading it was a giant.

  2. #2 SamW
    January 26, 2011

    I would favour the inaccuracy theory. Maybe the artist had never actually seen a mature Asian elephant and only juveniles? Maybe he had also seen some tusks and somehow put the two together… inaccuracy of “monsters” and other fanciful creatures is common when the artist is not drawing an unfamiliar animal for reasons other than describing it/accuracy, is it not?

  3. #3 valerio
    January 26, 2011

    Very fun Nathan.

  4. #4 LeeB
    January 26, 2011

    Darren,

    Elephas and Palaeoloxodon taxonomy is currently messy but the animals are starting to be studied more.
    I agree that if you use Palaeoloxodon for the mainland ancestor you should also use it for the dwarfed descendants.
    But according to Saegusa and Gilbert’s paper P.antiquus evolved from P.recki when it spread to Europe and Asia and then later evolved into P. namadicus.
    (The skull shape of the earlier P. antiquus is different from that of the later P. namadicus).
    So the later form in Europe should be called P. namadicus and this may be the ancestor of some of the dwarfs.

    It would also be fascinating to see the teeth of that Turkish Elephas in the photo compared with those of E. iolensis (which is mainly known from teeth).
    As Todd’s paper shows E. maximus and E. iolensis are close relatives so the geographically intermediate population could potentially belong to either species.

    And apparently V. Herridge has been working on the taxonomy of all the dwarf Mediterranean elephants and hopefully should publish on them.
    http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/133456/

    LeeB.

  5. #5 Jerzy
    January 26, 2011

    Thanks Darren for more take about this!

    The skretch above shows clearly that the small elephant is led by a collar and a leash.

    Now, if you think twice, this is inaccuracy. Modern domestic elephants cannot be led this way – they are too strong, and their neck too insensitive. Well, even the angry cattle bull cannot be led on a collar. Domestic elephants are instead controlled by a sharp hook, ankus, and eventually chained by their forelegs. But if the elephant was indeed dwarf the size of cow’s calf, it could be practically walked on a collar.

    Another piece to my suggestion, that this is faithful depiction of extinct dwarf Mediterranean elephant, rather than extremely distorted Syrian (also extinct) one.

    BTW – the latest known dwarf Mediterranean elephants are 90-120cm ones from Tilos dated 4390 radiocarbon years BP (they even made into Walker’s Mammals of the World). However, there was relatively little research, especially radiochronology done on Mediterranean proboscidean populations. I would not be surprised if more dating showed that dwarf paleoloxodontines survived on more islands, and longer than currently known.

  6. #6 heteromeles
    January 26, 2011

    Well, there are elephant tusks and ivory artefacts recovered from Knossos and other Minoan sites (the Bull Leaper statue, at least one snake goddess statue) and from Thebes (Mycenae). I’m not finding much data on sizes or sources, but it looks like it’s high time for someone to make the rounds and determine what the ivory source for was.

  7. #7 K. Capach
    January 26, 2011

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter because of the links]

    I don’t know if this has been brought up already but scale in Egyptian art was sometimes fudged for the sake of the image. Usually with people of status shown larger than their servants or captives.

    Here are some examples:
    Giant heron
    http://booksofart.com/wp-content/gallery/egyptian-art/egyptian-art-01.jpg
    Mini-bull
    http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/wysiwyg/image/thothmosisIIItomb.jpg
    Pharaoh vs hoards of tiny Hyksos
    http://img178.imageshack.us/img178/773/govt04bjt9.jpg

  8. #8 CJO
    January 26, 2011

    heteromeles:
    Thebes (Mycenae)

    Uh, Mycenaean Thebes (Mycenaean can refer to an era), or Mycenae, not Thebes? Thebes is in Boeotia, a couple hundred miles north of Mycenae, which is on the Peloponese.

    On the depiction: stylization and disregard for scale are evtremely common features of ancient representations. There’s a famous Ptolemaic coin depicting Alexander driving a chariot pulled by elephants, in which the figure of Alexander towers over the elephants. Were they dwarfs too?

  9. #9 jwbjerk
    January 26, 2011

    There’s always the outside chance that we’ll find a mummified mini-elephant in some egyptian tomb….

  10. #10 Dartian
    January 27, 2011

    Darren:

    The Syrian elephants were definitely familiar to the ancient Egyptians

    Indeed they were. For example, the Egyptian pharaohs Thutmose I, Thutmose II, and Thutmose III all invaded Syria during their respective reigns and all of them claimed to have taken part in wild elephant hunts there. During such a hunt in 1464 BCE, Thutmose III was charged by an angry elephant; he was saved by one of his generals who – allegedly – cut off the elephant’s trunk with his sword (Hatt, 1959).

    Reference:

    Hatt, R.T. 1959. The mammals of Iraq. Miscellaneous Publications of the Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan 106, 1–113.

  11. #11 Tim Morris
    January 27, 2011

    Thing that strikes me most is the relatively enormous head of the dwarf mammoth, what a boofhead!

  12. #12 Dartian
    January 27, 2011

    Tim:

    what a boofhead!

    You meanie! That’s the cutest little proboscidean evah.

  13. #13 Dave Hughes
    January 27, 2011

    As “jwbjerk” correctly points out, there is at least a small chance that we might find physical remains that would settle the question. The Egyptians seem to have had a mania for mummifying all sorts of birds and beasts, and a dwarf elephant would be small enough for their technicians to handle. Back in 2004, the first ever mummified lion was found in a tomb in Egypt, so there could still be some surprises in store.
    See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3395487.stm

  14. #14 valerio
    January 27, 2011

    A mummified elephant? It is unlikely to find it.
    The ancient Egyptians mummified sacred animals only. I do not know that the elephant was sacred.

    Instead they buried it often enough animals for slaughter, company or war in their graves, which were kept as nearly mummified.
    We’ll see.

    Also I would be interested to know if there are representations of elephants in the Mycenaean, Minoan and north-east Anatolia art. In Syria, Persia and Egypt there are, but I interpret as elephants Syrians. If, however, there were also in the Dodecanese islands is another matter.

  15. #15 Stu of the Peak
    January 27, 2011

    Looking at the mural it seems that most of the animals portrayed could be found in Africa. Could our little elephant be the fabled pygmy ‘red’ elephant of the Congo? Apparently one was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo These animals seem to belong to genus Loxodonta although according to Debruyne et al it’s status as a specific taxon is dubious (link to abstract below).

    Looks like a hyaena rather than a lion to me as the front legs seem longer, although it does.’t appear spotted.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6X1F-49J87W2-9&_user=10&_coverDate=07%2F31%2F2003&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1621647379&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=cc6a73ff387e2c95af08291d6f4f22d4&searchtype=a

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    January 27, 2011

    Is that tree based on a phylogenetic analysis, or is it a scenario-driven depiction of a scenario?

    (Yes, the second option would be circular logic.)

  17. #17 Darren Naish
    January 27, 2011

    My understanding from the paper is that it’s a scenario based on a parsimony-generated phylogeny (the paper is mostly about character analysis and generating parsimonious trees).

  18. #18 johannes
    January 27, 2011

    Further support for a Syrian origin for the animal in the tomb painting comes from the fact that the adjacent people are apparently Syrian.

    According to Bryce – http://www.amazon.com/Hittite-Warrior-Trevor-Bryce/dp/1846030811 – the long “Syrian” gown was also worn as a kind of desert kit by Anatolian or Aegaean people when traveling or campaining in countries with hot climates.

    There’s a famous Ptolemaic coin depicting Alexander driving a chariot pulled by elephants, in which the figure of Alexander towers over the elephants. Were they dwarfs too?

    Scale in ancient art reflects importance, Alexander was important, a mere animal driver wasn’t.

    BTW, the elephant depicted in the tomb painting looks quite hairy, and a small (by proboscidan standards) animal has more need for isolation against heat loss than a large one.

  19. #19 Tommy Tyrberg
    January 27, 2011

    “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.”

    They certainly survived until after 900 BCE. Several Assyrian kings mention hunting elephants in their annals from the eleventh centur on. The last as far as I know was Shalmaneser III (c. 858-824 BC).

  20. #20 Tommy Tyrberg
    January 27, 2011

    It might be worth noting that the hippopotamus survived until surprisingly late in Middle east too. Until c. 1500 BCE on the Orontes and into the Iron Age on the coastal plain of Israel (Cultural and Environmental Implications of Hippopotamus Bone Remains in Archaeological Contexts in the Levant: Liora Kolska Horwitz and Eitan Tchernov: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 280 (Nov., 1990), pp. 67-76)

  21. #21 Alan
    January 27, 2011

    On a related issue – there is a Crocodile River in Israel north of Haifa. I gather it is an ancient name – did Nile crocodiles ever live in it? Given that Nile crocodiles can tolerate reasonably low temperatures seasonally and can tolerate salt water, it looks a fairly short trip from the Nile delta for one to make.

  22. #22 Jerzy
    January 27, 2011

    I think radiocarbon dating (and maybe dating by isotope analysis) will turn many surprises in Middle Eastern ivory. Even if no late surviving pygmy Paleoloxodon turns in Egypt, maybe there will be surprising trade links between different cultures.

    On the other hand, I wonder how many bone remains of Syrian elepants were preserved?

    @Alan. Unsure about Crocodile river, but nile crocodiles indeed lived in Zarqa river in Jordan.

    Less known is that hartebeest also lived in the Middle East several millenia ago.

  23. #23 Tommy Tyrberg
    January 27, 2011

    The hartebeest survived much later than that. It was last reported by Tristram near the Dead Sea in 1882, though I don’t know of any archaeological records younger than the bronze age.

    And yes, the Nile Crocodile also occurred both on the coastal plain and in the Jordan valley. I think the last report from the Jordan valley was in 1898.

  24. #24 Owlmirror
    January 27, 2011

    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.

    PDF link to the above paper.

  25. #25 Darren Naish
    January 27, 2011

    Jerzy: there are quite a few tooth and bone fragments of Syrian elephants, but (so far as I know) they are indeed fragments (I don’t know anything about the provenance of that skeleton shown above). Some are figured in…

    Bökönyi, S. 1985. Subfossil elephant remains from southwestern Syria. Paléorient 11, 161-163.

    … which I have as a pdf and can send you if you want.

    The historical presence of Nile crocodiles in Israel, and elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast, is reasonably well known and confirmed by existing museum specimens. Note also that there still are, so I understand, Mugger crocs Crocodylus palustris in Iran.

  26. #26 Vladimir Dinets
    January 28, 2011

    Darren: there are muggers in Iran, but only in the extreme SE part, and there’s no indication that their range has recently been much more extensive. I don’t think they’ve ever been in contact with Nile crocs, at least not in Holocene.

  27. #27 Dartian
    January 28, 2011

    Jerzy:

    I wonder how many bone remains of Syrian elepants were preserved?

    In addition to the reference that Darren gave, also see Becker (2005), who has illustrations of some femur and rib fragments. This material was found at the Tell Sheikh Hamad site in NE Syria, and the youngest of these elephant specimens are believed to be from the Late Assyrian period (ca. 900-600 BCE).

    Becker, C. 2005. Small numbers, large potential – new prehistoric finds of elephant and beaver from the Khabur river/Syria. Munibe (Antropologia-Arkeologia) 57, 445-456.

  28. #28 Tommy Tyrberg
    January 28, 2011

    I knew I had seen a better photo of that elephant skeleton Darren illustrated somewhere, and I finally found it:

    http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/13793700.jpg

    It was apparently found when Gavur lake in Kahramanmaraş province was drained.
    Interesting that elephant and beaver apparently occurred together in the Zagros area.

  29. #29 David Marjanović
    January 28, 2011

    The historical presence of Nile crocodiles in Israel, and elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast

    Where elsewhere?

  30. #30 Dartian
    January 28, 2011

    Alan:

    there is a Crocodile River in Israel north of Haifa. I gather it is an ancient name – did Nile crocodiles ever live in it?

    Yes. The Crocodile River, or Nahal Taninim, seems to have been the last stronghold of crocodiles in this region; according to de Smet (1999) a few were still present – and killed – in 1905. And a specimen which is now in the Zoological Museum of Tel Aviv University is said to have been shot there as late as in 1912.

    Incidentally, according to Masseti (2009), Nile crocodiles are also said to have been found in Sicily(!) on a few occasions; the last such records are from the 18th and the 19th centuries. Whether these Sicilian crocodiles were genuine vagrants or the results of deliberate human introduction is not known, but Nile crocodiles did persist at/near the Mediterranean coast in Algeria and Tunisia until relatively late (de Smet, 1999); thus, spontaneous dispersal from Africa is perhaps not entirely out of the question.

    References:

    Masseti, M. 2009. In the gardens of Norman Palermo, Sicily (twelfth century A.D.). Anthropozoologica 44, 7-34.

    de Smet, K. 1999. Status of the Nile crocodile in the Sahara desert. Hydrobiologia 391, 81-86.

  31. #31 valerio
    January 28, 2011

    Do not remember the source but there were crocodiles in the Daunia (northern Apulia) in the VI-V centurys BC.
    Maybe imported by man.

    Others were kept for religious reasons and commercial (skins) in Lazio and Campania in the first century AD.
    If I remember correctly al least one died in the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD).

    The crocodile is a charismatic animal, the man may be responsible for it’s dissemination.

  32. #32 Darren Naish
    January 28, 2011

    Yeah, this is what I had in mind on ‘coastal Mediterranean’ crocodiles: Algeria, Tunisia and rumoured presence on Sicily and even Italy. While we’re here, a reminder that Saltwater crocs made it to the Seychelles, and possibly to the coast of Kenya. Refs and a little more here.

  33. #33 David Marjanović
    January 28, 2011

    Wow…

    The things I learn on Tet Zoo. <headshake>

  34. #34 Jerzy
    January 28, 2011

    Thanks Darren and Dartian, I was wondering what source is of this alleged giant size of Syrian elephants and supposed subspecific distinction of E.m.syriacus.

    About Masetti’s article – I didn’t know it. Incredible!

    Can you pinpoint the source of one other Mediterranean megafaunal para-fact – that wild Asian buffaloes lived in the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa? I know that Pelorovis which is likely a morphotype of African buffalo Syncerus caffer survived in North Africa until 2000 BC.

  35. #35 wolfwalker
    January 28, 2011

    Regarding this:

    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.

    another possibility occurred to me. Whatever this animal was, it was being given to either Rekhmire (a very powerful man) or his master the Pharaoh, who (depending on the year) was either Tutmosis III or Amenhotep II. That suggests it may have been something fairly rare and/or special, and thus suitable for a gift to a powerful man. Could it possibly have been a baby elephant that had already grown tusks, due to a genetic mutation of some kind? Has anyone ever seen such a mutation in a living elephant?

  36. #36 valerio
    January 29, 2011

    At that time all the elephants (egean, sirian, genetic mutation…) was prominent gifts in Egypt, “fairly rare and/or special”.

    I believe that to understand the elephant should be understood all across the tomb of Rekhmire.
    Rekhmire was vizier of Thutmose III, a very warlike faraon, but in his grave there is no war scene (and even hunting). On the contrary there are numerous scenes of taxes, farm work, parties and banquets, etc..
    There are also other animals ad ghift, a cheetah, ostrich eggs, leopards, antelopes, elephant tusks (African), monkeys, cattle and male and female slaves. Maybe those who thought they were lions, are dogs.

    These are from every country under Egypt: Nubia and Syria in particular (Syria as a historical region, not as a modern nation, covering the entire Mediterranean side of the middle east). I don’t know if some tribute arrive from egean, I think it’s beyond areas under Egyptian control.

    Above all, the paintings are related to enrollment, but I can not read the egyptian.
    However it is not only a document iconological, has a written text.

  37. #37 valerio
    January 29, 2011

    Sorry.
    Lost in traslation
    I wanted to say, maybe what I thought were lions (top left in picture) are actually dogs

  38. #38 wolfwalker
    January 29, 2011

    Valerio: “I don’t know if some tribute arrive from egean, I think it’s beyond areas under Egyptian control.”

    Yes, Aegean nations were sending tribute to Egypt in Rekhmire’s time. Rekhmire’s tomb-art includes scenes of gift-givers dressed as Greeks, and also some dressed in a style that represents Minoan Crete.

  39. #39 jomega
    January 29, 2011

    I don’t know what types of dwarfism elephants can fall victim to, but couldn’t it have simply been a severely deformed individual of an extant species?

  40. #40 farandfew
    January 30, 2011

    OK, I’m obsessing a bit about scientific reasoning right now so sorry if this seems a bit wild-eyed but it seems to me that it depends where you’re starting from and what proposition you’re trying to ask.

    If you’re asking ‘what’s the most likely identification of the animal in that painting?’ then I’d think as follows: Painting is about 3470 years old. Last E. tiliensis dated at about 4300 +/- 600 years. Presuming that’s a 95% confidence interval, then I would accept 5% chance (that’s 1 in 20!) that those fossils are actually 3700 years old *or less*. Of course the last fossils are not necessarily the last individuals. There are a lot of islands in the Mediterranean and it seems more likely than not that some of the dwarf elephants or mammoths survived 230 years longer than the most recent fossils we have. We know that, whether they’re ambassadors or vassals, the people in the picture are bringing cool animals to Egypt, some of which are not native. We know that waist-high elephants count as cool animals which even raises the possibility that they could have been deliberately preserved in situ or in semi-captivity by people impressed by their coolness and capacity to impress powerful foreign dignitaries. On the other hand we don’t know of any mutant little Indian elephants with tusks and, from what Darren says above, there’s no evidence that the Syrian elephants survived any more recently than the island dwarfs.
    I think the thing is that it somehow seems especially unlikely that an Egyptian governor (as opposed to, say, a Siberian hunter gatherer) might have seen an extinct species of proboscidean but it actually seems like the most likely explanation.

    Arguably it doesn’t really matter and I should get back to work.

  41. #41 Dartian
    January 30, 2011

    farandfew:

    from what Darren says above, there’s no evidence that the Syrian elephants survived any more recently than the island dwarfs

    Incorrect. Available evidence suggests that the Syrian elephants survived for several centuries longer than the last of the Mediterranean island pygmy elephants, until ca 2800 years before present (give or take a century or two). See comments #19 and #27 in this thread.

  42. #42 valerio
    January 31, 2011

    @ wolfwalker
    I am more than skeptical of the hypothesis that some Aegean was dominated by the Egyptians.

    The Egyptians were able to dominate Lebanon and the forests that have served to have a fleet, but I do not think he could exercise a thalassocracy.
    The Greeks and the Anatolian instead had men and means to control their coastal waters.
    So the Minoans and Mycenaeans (in addition to Anatolian) who went to Egypt made him a free man to do business, not as subjects carrying charges.
    Of course they could also donate a dwarf elephant (if still there), but as a free gift.

    The Egyptian empire had geopolitical limits: few sailors and few forests prevent the birth of a naval power.
    Vessels from Egypt, and their subject from Syria, could control Cyprus and protect the cost line.
    Rhodes and Crete were in another sphere of influence.

    Many Greek myths refer to the power of Egypt.
    I think, however, that no power aegean became a satellite state of the Pharaonhs; it happened for the east coast of the Mediterranean almost to Iskenderun, where the Egyptian army could intervene (marching).
    The Egyptian Empire was an empire ruled by the army, not by the navy.

    @farandfew
    For elephants in Syria to return what I said. The Syrian original species became extinct at the beginning of the Iron Age, with some remaining until 900 BC. During the Hellenistic period were re-imported from India and Ceylon.

    My guess is that the elephant was neither a mutant or a dwarf form, but a Syrian elephant (extinct), which was maybe a bit ‘hairy.
    The idea that the Syrians elefant have been gigantic comes from the fact that those reared in the Hellenistic period actually were. But it was E. maximus maximus.

  43. #43 Anthea Fleming
    February 1, 2011

    I have given a lot of thought to the accuracy of ancient artists, and I would generally rate Egyptian artists pretty high – particularly for birds. But most of the animals they depicted must have been fairly well-known to them.

    The animal in Rekhmire’s tomb is some kind of elephant. It is being brought by Syrians, so it probably comes from somewhere they knew or traded with. The fresco painter was probably working from a sketch made by someone else and/or a description. The tusks were probably better known than the animal, and added on to the drawing.

    (Incidentally the odd elephant reached medieval England; a miserere carving is quite accurate apart from the feet – which are hooves. If the artist saw it surrounded by a crowd, from an upper window, he wouldn’t have seen them.)

    In 1960, when studying Ancient History, we were told that the ivory used in Bronze Age Greek art came from Syria and that wild elephants persisted there till the 6th century BC at least; but no reference was ever given. I asked were they Indian or African elephants, and was told that as far as ivory went there was no difference. I have always wondered – now it seems that they were Indian elephants.

    The onager hunt of Assyrian reliefs is well-known, but the artists were clearly working from descriptions, not specimens – or they could not adapt their conventional horse outline beyond a horsey animal with a broom tail, no mane and longish ears – the diagnostic details.

    I cannot believe the carnivore led in front of the little elephant is a bear – it’s much more feline in shape – could it be a lynx or caracal, which have shortish tails, but much longer than a bear’s. (The tail is visible behind its hind leg). Its peculiar lead is a rigid piece of wood between collar and lead proper, enabling the handler to fend it off if it attacked him.

  44. #44 Dartian
    February 1, 2011

    Anthea:

    I asked were they Indian or African elephants, and was told that as far as ivory went there was no difference.

    Way to not answer your question…

    could it be a lynx or caracal

    Highly unlikely. The ears are rounded and waaay too small for a lynx, never mind a caracal. Remember that the ancient Egyptians did worship cats as gods; thus, not only may we assume that they were very familiar with cat anatomy but also that they would probably take extra care when depicting felines of any kind. It seems unlikely to me that ancient Egyptian artists would want – or dare – to be sloppy and unattentive to detail when illustrating their gods (or their god’s relatives).

    As for that animal’s indentity, I find it most likely to be a bear (specifically, a Syrian brown bear Ursus arctos syriacus).

  45. #45 valerio
    February 1, 2011

    I’m agree.
    Ursus arctos syriacus and Elephans maximus asurus.
    Both from Syria.

    The Caracal also lived in Egypt, and was know. Caracal caracal algira (west desert) Caracal caracal nubica (nubia, south egypt), Caracal caracal schmitzi (est desert, Siani, Syria). Olso know Serval (Leptailurus serval constantina) from west desert, it’s possible that Serval is southern italian and sicilian Gattopardo.

    The Caracal was possibly domesticated by the Egyptians.
    Is pictured in some paintings in Beni Hasan and Tell el Amarna.

  46. #46 Darren Naish
    February 1, 2011

    I agree with Dartian and Valerio: I’m surprised by people who don’t realise that it’s a bear. It does not look like a cat!

  47. #47 johannes
    February 1, 2011

    So the Minoans and Mycenaeans (in addition to Anatolian) who went to Egypt made him a free man to do business, not as subjects carrying charges.
    Of course they could also donate a dwarf elephant (if still there), but as a free gift.

    It wasn’t uncommon for ancient empires to designate foreign traders as “tribute bearers” for propagandistic reasons – the Chinese did so well into the 19th century.

  48. #48 farandfew
    February 1, 2011

    Dartian

    Incorrect. Available evidence suggests that the Syrian elephants survived for several centuries longer than the last of the Mediterranean island pygmy elephants, until ca 2800 years before present (give or take a century or two). See comments #19 and #27 in this thread.

    Whoops. Fair point. However I stand by my comment – from what *Darren* says there’s no evidence etc :-). I also missed your Zygomaturus question in the other thread which I’ll reply to there as best I’m able.

    Still I am not sure that I am convinced Syrian elephant (inaccurate or mutant baby or symbolically small) is inherently any more likely than Mediterranean dwarf. I suppose the best additional evidence would be a review of how often symbolically small animals appear in Egyptian art and a probabilistic study of likely date of extinction of the last Mediterranean dwarf elephant.

  49. #49 Darren Naish
    February 1, 2011

    I’m a bit confused. I thought that the youngest ‘Middle Eastern’ Asian elephants were still living around the Euphrates until 700 BCE: about 3300 years ago. The last Tilos elephants might have been alive as recently as 3500 years ago. So, what have I missed?

  50. #50 Dartian
    February 2, 2011

    700 BCE: about 3300 years ago

    Er, no; 700 BCE = about 2700 years ago.

  51. #51 Darren Naish
    February 2, 2011

    Ah. Stupid numbers.

  52. #52 valerio
    February 2, 2011

    I think Elephas tilensis wos extincted a bit before.
    Nothing in geological terms, but many centuries in human history.

    From what I understand is unlikely to Tilos has survived since 2000 BC (4000 BP), but not impossible.
    However, one year of hunting could be sufficient to E. tiliensis extinction.

    In short, in 1400 BC E. tilensis were probability extinct as the Dodo.
    Rekhmire according to some chronological hypotheses, was born around 1480 BC or slightly earlier, other anticipate the eighteenth dynasty of nearly a century (3500 BP).
    In any case, in his time the presence of elephants in Syria is clear and well documented, in Tilos is hypothetical.
    It could be the last of his species?

  53. #53 farandfew
    February 2, 2011

    in his time the presence of elephants in Syria is clear and well documented, in Tilos is hypothetical.

    Well yes but the presence of *little tiny* elephants in Syria is not well documented. And the ‘symbolic painting’, ‘baby with added tusks’ and ‘mutant’ hypotheses are also hypothetical. Not hugely implausible (except maybe the last one) but hypothetical. The alternative hypothesis seems likewise hypothetical but not implausible (see how I changed the words around there?). Not that I don’t think Valerio’s argument is valid; but I don’t think it’s conclusive. Is there a good reason to believe that Tilos is really the last Mediterranean island where dwarf proboscideans survived?

  54. #54 valerio
    February 2, 2011

    Good point farandfew.

    “Is there a good reason to believe that Tilos is really the last Mediterranean island where dwarf proboscideans survived?”

    Probably not, not all of the megafauna became extinct in prehistoric times and dates of extinction vary from island to island.
    In some islands, then, paleontologists have never gone looking for them.

    But the weakness of your hypothesis is the iconography.
    The size of objects and animals in Egyptian art are notoriously variable and unrealistic (symbolic is a euphemism).
    The elephant could be an Elephans maximus asurus, designed as small.
    This hypothesis, I think, is more parsimonious, does not mean it is right.

    The hypothesis “dwarf elephant” would make sense if:
    1) We discover traces of dwarf elephants in Tilos or elsewhere as unequivocally dating to 1500 BC or later (obviously “elsewhere” means in the Mediterranean and the surrounding area)
    2) We find other representations, not Egyptian, of dwarf elephants. Many other people were more rigorous in making the proportions, if there was a dwarf elephant in any Minoic or Hittita paiting would be the first proponents of “dwarf elephant hypothesis”.

    P.S.
    There’s also the possibility that some giants turtles are surviving in the Mediterranean until the early Iron Age.

  55. #55 farandfew
    February 3, 2011

    Why do you need to prove unambiguously that there were elephants in the Mediterranean at the time of the painting before the hypothesis makes sense?

  56. #56 Jerzy
    February 3, 2011

    @valerio
    As I pointed before: stylistic distortion on any one object of art is consistent. All animal species on this painting are correct size and biologically very accurate. It is unlikely that only elephant was shrunk to calf size; elephant is actually most prominent of all gift animals, so least likely to be shrunk. Nor there is sense to draw elephant with more shaggy fur than a bear next to it.

    BTW, elephant calf that size is a suckling baby dependent from its mother. It would die during transport or soon after it, and Syrians would know it. Not a way to make a good impression before the king!

    Indeed, as I remarked and M.Masseti guessed before: fossil record of dwarf elephants in Mediterranean is abundant and not well studied, especially by detailed radiochronology. It is highly likely that dwarf elephants survived on other islands and longer.

    BTW, the paper from several years ago on estimating the actual extinction date of a species (post record of last specimen) comes to mind. Anybody could estimate the age of death of E.tilensis from it?

  57. #57 valerio
    February 3, 2011

    @Jerzy

    Looks at the giraffe.
    It is’nt painted in the correct scale, is smaller.
    The bear in the picture is small compared to a real bear, or not?
    The cows seem a bit smaller than normal, or not?
    Perhaps only the dogs and horses are life-size. Or maybe not, the horses of the bronze age were mostly very small, but not always.

    If that was a dwarf elephant, there would be 3 life-size animals and 3 animals painted without regard to the proportions, otherwise 2 to 4.
    There was space on the wall to paint a giant elephant?
    Was certainly the most prominent gift?
    Even bears were very rare in Egypt.

    The Syrian elephant may have had “shaggy fur”. The winter is cold in Syria.
    Syrian’s Elephants belong to a extinct subspecies, do not know them very well, but were not necessarily the same as Indian’s elephants.

    “Indeed, as I remarked and M.Masseti guessed before: fossil record of dwarf elephants in Mediterranean is abundant and not well studied, especially by detailed radiochronology.”
    Correct
    “It is highly likely that dwarf elephants survived on other islands and longer.”
    Hypotetic

    Usually the Pleistocene megafauna were wiped out in the paleolithic, or in the start of neolitich.
    When men were few, had little capacity to store food and did not practice the trade over long distances.
    In the Bronze Age there were cities, trade routes and the methods of food preservation were approximately the same as in the eighteenth century.
    Is a miracle that dwarf elephants have survived so long on Tilos.

    Sorry if my English is not perfect

  58. #58 Dartian
    February 4, 2011

    Jerzy:

    stylistic distortion on any one object of art is consistent

    Not true. In ancient Egyptian art, sometimes it was consistent and sometimes it wasn’t. Look at this picture from the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqarah, Egypt (which is from ca. 2300 BCE), and compare the sizes of the humans and the hippos. Then observe the size of the locusts.

    Now, is someone going to seriously argue that the illustrations on that relief should be taken as face value evidence that there were pygmy hippos and giant locusts living somewhere in ancient Egypt?

  59. #59 Dartian
    February 4, 2011

    Incidentally, in Mereruka’s tomb there is also an illustration where a hippo pwns a crocodile; I’m sure that Darren, at least, should find that image to be of some interest…

  60. #60 farandfew
    February 4, 2011

    @valerio

    Usually the Pleistocene megafauna were wiped out in the paleolithic, or in the start of neolitich.

    Except the Syrian elephant?

    Looking at the size comparisons in the Egyptian art is a tricky business. Art obviously creating an impression. If you ask if the giraffe or the hippos are too small or the locusts too big, of course they are. However the difference is, with that elephant, the first thing I think when seeing it is: “that’s a really tiny elephant.” Which, for me, is not an impression created by the others. I think the elephant oversteps the bounds of artistic license. In my opinion. But then, it’s only my opinion…

  61. #61 valerio
    February 4, 2011

    The complex Saqquara is one of the most beautiful things I saw when I was in Egypt.
    There are a lot of strange animals in these bas-reliefs.

    Those graves are of the II and the III Dynasty (2900-2600 BC), the grave of Rekhmire is of the XVIII (1500-1200 BC).
    Egyptian history is very long.

    In all honesty, I must say that the art style changed over time.
    However, in the tombs of Saqquara I saw dogs as tall as buildings, hyena-like animals that were slaughtered (and domesticated?), and strange animals like otters.
    BTW the bounds of artistic license don’t exist, An artist can paint an object does not exist, like God, spirit, phantom, mytological animal ecc.
    I dont’ think this is the case of Rekhmire tomb.

    I said that most of the megafauna became extinct by the Neolithic.
    Most not all.

    The survival of the Syrian’s elephant is certain because it is not only artistically or paleontological documented, but historically, with plenty of written sources.

    However, in my opinion, all the large animals that live in Europe now (deer, bisont, mouflon, roes ecc.) live there because the man decided it, otherwise they would become extinct.
    Already in the past there were many laws to protect wildlife, for a rational hunt, or privilege of the nobility.

    If the elephants of Tilos has survived for so long, probably, was a human choice (my assumption, I admit), but when the men changed their minds, his fate was sealed.

    This post is becoming like a drug, better get back to studying.

  62. #62 David Marjanović
    February 4, 2011

    Incidentally, in Mereruka’s tomb there is also an illustration where a hippo pwns a crocodile

    Awesome!

  63. #63 Dartian
    February 4, 2011

    Valerio:

    Those graves are of the II and the III Dynasty (2900-2600 BC)

    Mereruka was a contemporary of pharaoh Teti (of the VI dynasty), wasn’t he? Teti ruled from 2345-2333 BCE.

  64. #64 valerio
    February 4, 2011

    Dartian You’re right,

    It is of the VI dynasty.
    Most of the tombs are Saqquara of the Third Dynasty, I thought that there were not graves of the fourth dynasty, because the pharaohs of this dynasty were made bury elsewhere (but some retour to saqquara, as Ibi).
    Instead Saqquara has remained a popular place for the tombs of the nobility, until the collapse of the old kingdom with the eighth dynasty (2180 BC), or since the end of VI dinasty.

  65. #65 farandfew
    February 4, 2011

    This post is becoming like a drug, better get back to studying.

    tell me about it.

    I’m having a real go at you here, Valerio; for which I apologise. Just for the record, I’m not saying I know what kind of elephant it is. Just wondering if the hypotheses are being treated equally.

    Of course an artist can paint all sorts of things that don’t exist but (at least in this case) he probably wants his audience to recognise them. Seeing the man with the too-small giraffe I think: ‘there’s a man leading a giraffe.’ Seeing the guy with the tiny little hairy elephant I don’t think ‘there’s a guy leading an elephant.’ I think ‘whoa that’s a really tiny little elephant’ and if I were to meet the artist I’d ask him: “Hey, how come you did the elephant so small?” But then I’m not an ancient Egyptian. Maybe it would just have looked like a guy with an elephant to them. Maybe.

    It seems a little unlikely to me. Survival for dwarf elephants until such a late date also seems a little unlikely. But, to be honest, I can’t really see that it’s any more unlikely.

    My point is that I think people apply different evidentiary standards. Valerio says that you’d need umambiguous evidence of dwarf elephants from 1500bc or later before the hypothesis makes sense. This seems strangely artificial. What if you found unambiguous evidence from 1600bc? Or 1700? At what point do you change your mind? Even if there were dwarf elephants in the Mediterranean until last Thursday, the animal on the tomb could still be a drawn-too-small, mutant or mistakenly-tusked baby Syrian. Given Rekhmire’s inexplicable reticence to having his elephant buried with him, unambiguous isn’t going to happen.

  66. #66 Jerzy
    February 4, 2011

    @valerio
    Sorry, your alternative propositions (eg. that there was subspecies of Asian elephant in Syria as furry as a mammoth) are less plausible than surviving dwarf elephant.

    You casually or purposefully don’t understand rules of art – which other readers understand intentionally. On the Mereuka tomb you see that proportions of MANY objects are not kept. Thence useless. On Rekhmire tomb, proportions are kept or just slightly distorted (the giraffe is still very much taller than a man – as much as painting area allows).

    BTW, hyenas were indeed kept and fattened for slaughter in ancient Egypt (not a dish I would enjoy). Domestication in ancient Egypt is another fascinating subject (praying and water-carrying baboons, fattened hyenas and herds of tame antelope come to mind).

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