I don’t do requests on Tet Zoo, but when enough people ask me about the same thing it does get into my head. Ever since the early days of ver 1 people have been asking me about late-surviving sivatheres. What, they ask, is the deal with those various pieces of rock art and that Sumerian figurine – discovered in Iraq – that apparently depict Sivatherium? As most of you will know, Sivatherium was a large, short-necked giraffid, originally described for S. giganteus from the Siwalik Hills of India [shown below in a well-known and oft-used illustration by Michael R. Long*] but later discovered at numerous sites across Africa. The African forms are now generally regarded as representing different species from S. giganteus.
* Some specific, peculiar features of this painting weren’t just invented by the artist, but – I think – based on rock art. More on this later.
One thing that everyone who’s ever heard of Sivatherium seems to know is that one or more of those species may have survived into near-modern times. There are two reasons for thinking this. One is that various pieces of rock art purportedly depict sivatheres. I was planning to cover those pieces of evidence for the purposes of this article but have had to leave them to another time. The second reason is that a Sumerian figurine – discovered at Kish, central Iraq, in 1928 – might also depict a sivathere. This latter case is the one we’re going to focus on here.
This figurine (shown here, and variously illustrated beforehand in Colbert (1936), Spinage (1968), Janis (1987) Reese (1990) and Greenwell (1994)) is a small (18 cm tall) bronze rein-ring, constructed as a decoration for a four-wheeled chariot. Collected in 1928 on a joint Field Museum of Natural History/Oxford University expedition, it dates – according to Reese (1990) – to the late Early Dynastic I period and hence to c. 2800-2750 BC (and not 3500 BC as given by some authors). It very obviously depicts a ‘horned’* artiodactyl with a ring through its nose and a rope connecting the ring to the animal’s right foreleg (the figurine has sometimes been said to be equipped with a halter, but I can’t see any obvious indication that anything other than a large ring is present).
* As we’ll see, the identity favoured for the figurine determines the identity of those ‘horns’ (that is, whether we call them ossicones or antlers). To avoid these identity-dependent terms, I’m going to use the neutral term ‘horns’.
In two brief notes published on the figurine soon after its discovery, Henry Field (1930) and Berthold Laufer (1931) identified the figurine as a Persian fallow deer Dama mesopotamica. The animal’s large ‘horns’ are very obviously broken and – if it really does depict a fallow deer (in which case the structures are not ‘horns’, but antlers) – they must have been longer and more complex when complete.
This fallow deer identification was soon challenged. Edwin Colbert (1936) drew special attention to the two conical supraorbital knobs present on the Kish figurine. No deer possesses such features, but they are characteristic of sivatheres. Colbert also noted that the figurine’s bulky body, posteriorly positioned, branched ‘horns’ and large, heavy snout all recall sivatheres more than fallow deer (Colbert 1936). While he did remain open to the possibility that “the Sumerian artist was giving free play to his imagination, and by chance happened to make an animal that looks strikingly like Sivatherium” (Colbert 1936, p. 607), Colbert regarded the likeness as too detailed to be coincidental; he concluded that the figurine was most likely based on observation of a live sivathere [Colbert's figure - comparing the Kish figurine's head with a reconstructed head of Sivatherium - is shown below].
Colbert became better known in later decades for his work on fossil reptiles, but he continued to favour a sivathere identification for the Kish figurine (Colbert 1978, 1980, Greenwell 1994). Indeed, his conclusions still appear widely accepted today. Virtually every single palaeontological text that mentions Sivatherium refers to the Kish figurine as possible evidence for late survival, as do technical reviews of the giraffid fossil record (Mitchell & Skinner 2003). Colbert didn’t speculate on the species-level identity of the Kish Sivatherium; more recent authors have regarded S. maurusium (classified in the genus Libytherium when Colbert was writing) as the most likely contendor (Mitchell & Skinner 2003).
While the case of the ‘late surviving sivathere’ is reasonably well known, most interested people seem to think that the story stops with Colbert’s work of 1936. It doesn’t, and what you’re about to read is little known outside of the zooarchaeological and cryptozoological literature.
The missing ‘horns’ are not missing anymore
It was always obvious that the figurine was incomplete when described by Colbert: both the tips of the left and right horns were missing, as were the tips of various of the attendant knobs or prongs. If the figurine really depicts a sivathere, it might be assumed that the ‘horns’ weren’t particularly long when complete. Perhaps only their tips were missing.
In fact, these broken-off segments turned up in 1977 when visiting German researcher Michael Müller-Karpe discovered them in “a small box of dried mud in a Field Museum storeroom” (Anon. 1977, Reese 1990). The two branched fragments – resembling “green coral” – were soon realised to be the missing ‘horns’ of the Kish figurine, and very obviously fitted precisely onto its horn bases.
The result – you can see it here (from Reese (1990)) – looks rather different from the shorter-horned animal reconstructed by Colbert (1936) (note that the prong at the base of the right ‘horn’ – present when Colbert discussed the specimen – had become broken off by 1990). The long, multi-pointed ‘horns’ look superficially much like antlers, and Müller-Karpe’s discovery was taken by some as final vindication for the fallow deer identification. Ergo, Colbert’s sivathere identification was a mistake (Anon. 1977, Reese 1990). The idea that Mesopotamian fallow deer were domesticated or semi-domesticated always did seem more likely than the rather more radical notion that sivatheres had both survived into historical times, and been partially domesticated: we know from other lines of evidence from elsewhere in the world that fallow deer can be and have been semi-domesticated.
However, this is far from the end of the argument. The fallow deer identification isn’t perfect, and in 1990 Christine Janis published a counter-argument. She didn’t necessarily conclude by favouring Colbert’s sivathere identification; rather, she argued that it couldn’t be entirely ruled out, despite Müller-Karpe’s discovery.
Like Colbert (1936), Janis noted that, rather than being deer-like in form, the Kish figurine is massive and stocky with a robust neck, a short, broad snout and proportionally short legs. While it’s certainly plausible that this shape might be the result of artistic license or the constraints of the sculptor’s medium, the overall form is, as Janis (1990) argued, superficially sivathere-like, and more sivathere-like than deer-like. Three more detailed aspects of the figurine’s morphology are, suggested Janis (1990), more in line with a sivathere than a fallow deer identification.
Firstly, there’s the fact that the figurine possesses those paired supraorbital hornlets, located in front of the large branching ‘horns’. As Janis (1990, p. 112) said, “It is these little frontal ossicones that stamp this figurine as resembling a sivathere much more than any similarity of the posterior ossicones to the originally illustrated skull of Sivatherium giganteum“. Secondly, Müller-Karpe’s discovery of branched, antler-like ‘horns’ on the figurine by no means invalidates a sivathere identity, since the rather variable ossicones of African Sivatherium specimens could well encompass variation overlapping the sort present in the figurine. Tine-like knobs are sometimes present, and the main spars of the ossicones are often strongly twisted: in some specimens the ossicones “extend outwards and backwards, and then tilt forwards again, with flanges and knobs present on both anterior and lateral surfaces” (Janis 1990, p. 113). Thirdly, the ‘horns’ of the figurine aren’t much like those of Persian fallow deer in detail: according to Janis’s interpretation, the figurine seems to show at least three large, posteriorly projecting knobs and no anteriorly projecting ones – pretty much the total opposite of the fallow deer condition [Janis's figure - shown below - shows how the topology of the Kish figurine's 'horn' is not a good match with a fallow deer].
The late Richard Greenwell published one of the last evaluations of the Kish figurine in 1994. While he didn’t commit to either the sivathere or fallow deer identification, he noted that Reese had recently re-stated the fallow deer case; Reese dismissed the small, un-deer-like frontal ossicones as “more likely the sculptor’s embellishments than depictions of horncores” (Reese, in Greenwell 1994).
Can we bring an end to this little controversy? Well, as with the ‘Egyptian mammoth’ tomb painting I covered back in January (twice)… no, we can’t. We’ll never really know what the person who created the figurine was trying to depict, and the possibility that artistic licence took precedence over anatomical accuracy ranks as likely, especially when the figurine isn’t really a match for a sivathere or a fallow deer. I agree with Colbert and Janis that the paired ‘supraorbital hornlets’/’frontal hornlets’/’frontal ossicones’ make the figurine look sivathere-like, but I don’t think the complex, slender-beamed, branching ‘horns’ much resemble the rather stouter, less complex ossicones of even the most elaborate sivathere [look at the S. giganteum skull shown below; from Nicholson's 1876 text The Ancient Life History of the Earth]. Furthermore, the idea that sivatheres were semi-domesticated or domesticated is radical (given the absence of any additional evidence). As noted earlier, the same issue is not a problem for the fallow deer identification.
My personal take on the figurine’s identity is that – while, as just stated, we can never really be sure – inaccurate, poorly rendered fallow deer is a more likely identification than late-surviving, semi-domesticated sivathere. Note that various other figurines and statuettes have been likened by some authors to sivatheres (Janis 1987, Shuker 1995): they are, however, only very superficially like sivatheres, and are substantially less worthy of consideration than the Kish figurine.
I wanted to say a lot more about sivatheres in general and will aim to do so at another time. And I really want to cover that rock art I mentioned… stay tuned.
For previous articles on sivatheres and other giraffids, see…
- Dammit, and I sooo loved the ‘necks for sex’ hypothesis
- Tet Zoo picture of the day # 6 (on giraffe skulls)
- Giraffe vs plane
- Giraffe-killing lions exploit paved roads
- Yet another bizarre and unfortunate giraffe death
- Sleep behaviour and sleep postures
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 3: Okapi
- Death by lightning for giraffes, elephants, sheep and cows
- Inside Nature’s Giants part IV: the incredible anatomy of the giraffe
- Riding the sivathere
- Testing the flotation dynamics and swimming abilities of giraffes by way of computational analysis
- Lightning kills giraffe, kills five elephants at once, kills flock of 52 geese in 1932
And for more on other artiodactyls, see…
- Welcome…. to the world of sheep
- Return…. to the world of sheep
- Tet Zoo picture of the day # 23 (entelodonts)
- Deer oh deer, this joke gets worse every time I use it (fallow deer)
- Traumatic anal intercourse with a pig
- It’s such a load of bull
- Duiker, rhymes with biker
- Sable antelopes and the miseducation of youth
- Giant killer pigs from hell (more on entelodonts)
- The plasticity of deer
- Over 400 new mammal species have been named since 1993
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 1: Khama
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 2: Eland
- Great Asian cattle
- Dromomerycids: discuss
- A close-up look at a Hairy babirusa (includes links to many other babirusa articles)
- A new angle for hippos (includes links to other hippo articles)
- A ‘consensus cladogram’ for artiodactyls
- Pronghorn, “designed by committee” (pronghorns part I)
- Release the fossil pronghorns!! (pronghorns part II)
- The many magnificent subspecies of Argali
Refs – –
Anonymous 1977. 5,000-year-old Sumerian stag reunited with antlers. Field Museum of Natural History Bulletin 48 (10), 3.
Colbert, E. N. (1936). Was the extinct giraffe (Sivatherium) known to the ancient Sumerians? American Anthropologist, 38, 605-608
– . 1978. The enigma of Sivatherium. Plateau 51, 32-33.
– . 1980. Evolution of the Vertebrates: A History of the Backboned Animals Through Time. John Wiley, New York.
Field, H. 1931. The Field Museum-Oxford University Joint Expedition at Kish. Art and Archaeology 31, 243-252.
Laufer, B. 1930. Tamed deer in ancient times. Field Museum News 1 (3), 1.
Greenwell, J. R. 1994. Early history, late giraffe. BBC Wildlife 12 (12), 48.
Janis, C. 1987. Fossil ungulate mammals depicted on archaeological artifacts. Cryptozoology 6, 8-23.
– . 1990. Sivatherium defended (response to Reese). Cryptozoology 9, 111-115.
Mitchell, G & Skinner, J. D. 2003. On the origin, evolution and phylogeny of giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 58, 51-73.
Reese, D. S. 1990. Paleocryptozoology and archaeology: a sivathere no longer (comment on Janis 1987 and Mayor 1989). Cryptozoology 9, 100-107.
Shuker, K. P. N. 1995. In Search of Prehistoric Survivors. Blandford, London.