Tetrapod Zoology

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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.

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* 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.

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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].

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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.

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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.

Sivatherium defended

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].

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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.

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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…

And for more on other artiodactyls, see…

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.

Comments

  1. #1 J. S. Lopes
    April 25, 2011

    Sivatherium giganteum could be the origin of the Biblical Re’em,a giant animal usually depicted as a giant ox or horned animal, later turned into an unicorn or an oryx.

  2. #2 Zach Miller
    April 25, 2011

    Ah, back to our regularly-scheduled non-bat articles. Now that I know more about vesper bats than I ever intended to learn, it’s good to get back to other animals…and cryptozoology (even better)!

  3. #3 DMA
    April 25, 2011

    This is an excellent start-up after your bat articles. An excellent mixture of prehistoric mammals and cryptozoology. OH, new season of Doctor Who!

  4. #4 Vladimir Dinets
    April 25, 2011

    I wonder how far it was from Sumer to the nearest Cervus elaphus population. There are some in Turkey and Iran.
    Also, it is strange to talk about variability in Sivatherium, but not in deer.
    Of course, a rope through the nose doesn’t necessarily imply even partial domestication…

  5. #5 Sari Everna
    April 25, 2011

    I’m curious, why the assumption of domestication? It’s entirely possible this was a depiction of a wild animal, despite that nose ring. And while it wouldn’t really support either identification, it would explain why none of the details quite fit anybody, since the artist would have had to work from memory.

    I thought this was pretty cool, though. Fun stuff!

  6. #6 Marcus Good
    April 25, 2011

    I think everyone has completely overlooked the obvious here:

    Gorgonopsian.

  7. #7 Barbara
    April 25, 2011

    The fact that the points on the antlers are backwards compared to real fallow deer hardly rules out fallow deer as the identification. Several years ago the Iowa Department of Transportation found itself in an unexpected controversy. Someone had designed the leaping deer of its deer crossing signs with the antlers on backwards. Oops.

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    April 26, 2011

    I may have missed it, but what is the latest date of a known physical specimen of a sivathere? A few thousand years would not pose any kind of a problem given taphonomic vagaries, and a relict population would be quite likely based on knowledge of other relicts.

  9. #9 Angelo Ventura
    April 26, 2011

    Guess we’ll never know for sure. Moreover, human artists’s imagination had depicted unicorns, dragons, sphynxes and chimerae, and that human imagination came close to the resemblance of a real extinct animal is hardly surprising. Compare it with the many cavern depictions of mammoths and wooly rinoceros over which there’s no doubt.

  10. #10 Darren Naish
    April 26, 2011

    Thanks for comment so far. Like previous authors, I suppose I had assumed that the presence of a nose ring and rope was indeed suggestive of domestication or semi-domestication. I can agree that, on principle, this doesn’t necessarily follow but (honest question) are wild animals ever shown with similar paraphernalia? Aren’t they just shown as ‘naked’?

    Variation in antlers (comment 4): this isn’t in dispute (I think we’re very familiar with this) and wasn’t the issue being considered. Rather, the issue is whether a sivathere identity would still be consistent with the complex, branched ‘horns’ now known to be present on the Kish figurine.

    Regarding the youngest sivatheres represented by skeletal remains (comment 8): so far as I can tell, the youngest sivatheres (including Sivatherium giganteum in India and S. maurusium in eastern Africa) are from the Middle Pleistocene, not the Late Pleistocene or Holocene. All the evidence for possible late survival comes from rock art and artifacts. Does anyone know otherwise?

  11. #11 DMA
    April 26, 2011

    According to wikipedia, sivatherium may have lived until 8,000 years ago, but this seems based on the rock paintings rather than sivatherium remains. Other than that, I can’t find anything else.

  12. #12 anthonym
    April 26, 2011

    I think that this is a very interesting subject. I believe that old species live today more than people believe that they do. For instance I think they elephant is more related to the mammoth than we think it is. It is the same with many other animals thanks for the post maybe one day we will really understand what is going on.

  13. #13 Jerzy
    April 26, 2011

    Definitely Fallow Deer. Look at the style of the sculpture. Animal is very distorted/stylized, perhaps due to the difficult medium, as Darren pointed. Rope, nasal ring and legs are almost equally wide. Talking about general proportions of the animal makes no sense here. Shape of deer antlers is detail which is very commonly distorted by artists, even in modern art. “Additional pair of horns” is apparently an attempt to render A1 branch of antlers.

    BTW – Fallow Deer is one of easiest and the most often tamed wild mammals, what perfectly fits sculpture.

    @1. Re-em is Aurochs Bos primigenius, as evidences by a passage in which God is praised for making this giant, wild beast become tame and work for humans.

    Waiting for these rock art!

  14. #14 heteromeles
    April 26, 2011

    I’d agree that expecting perfect shapes on a functional piece is a bit much. That said, is that a nose-ring, a functional piece (perhaps the other part of the “rope” is gone), or a magical piece?

    The “reins” could easily have been used to hold a line out of the way of something else, and given that it’s a chariot, someone may have been playing with a little symbolic magic, such as harnessing a deer to his vehicle to make it go faster.

  15. #15 William D. Robertson
    April 26, 2011

    Another factor to consider is whether there are any other animal figurines known from the same time and place. That would provide some information on how accurately artists in the culture were able to depict animals in general. I imagine that it would be difficult to sculpt a slender-limbed animal like a deer using only primitive technology; that might account for the figurine’s overall stockiness. If, on the other hand, that culture produced highly realistic sculptures of known animals like horses or cattle, then perhaps this figurine is a realistic depiction as well.

  16. #16 Cale
    April 26, 2011

    I’m trying to find images of this sivatherium rock art through google and having a bit of trouble.

    http://www.worldlatestnews.com/lifestyle/rock-paintings-reveal-species-that-once-roamed-india-97271

    This seems to be the only good photo of it that I can find using good old google images, and the animal depicted is so stylized that it could be anything from an antelope to a deer. One thing it does not resemble to me is any kind of sivatherium I’ve seen.

    Is this the image everyone’s talking about or did google lead me astray?

  17. #17 metridia
    April 26, 2011

    @Zach Miller- I, for one, welcome our new bat overlords.

    What are some well-known excavations of early Holocene/end-Pleistocene middens in the Middle East or Africa? A google search turned up nada.

  18. #18 Dartian
    April 27, 2011

    William:

    I imagine that it would be difficult to sculpt a slender-limbed animal like a deer using only primitive technology; that might account for the figurine’s overall stockiness.

    Good point. Pragmatic aspects of that kind might well have compromised the overall realism.

  19. #19 Moro
    April 27, 2011

    As an artist, I find it hilarious that anyone assumes any weird-looking ancient sculpture must have some analogue in nature. Because, as we all know, the Sumerians were always perfectly accurate and never made anything up.
    (It would be cool if some of them got to see a Sivatherium, though.)

  20. #20 Sordes
    April 27, 2011

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

    William:

    “I imagine that it would be difficult to sculpt a slender-limbed animal like a deer using only primitive technology; that might account for the figurine’s overall stockiness.”

    This techniques are really not primitive, and the technology is still today more or less the same than during the early dawn of metallurgy. I have already worked myself for many times with this technique. You have to sculpt a model from wax, coat it with some kind of fireproof compound, warm it to get rid of the wax, and cast hot gold, silver or bronze in the hollow pattern. Of course in reality it´s more difficult. It is possible to make extremely fine details with this technique. One limit is of course the artistic talent of the sculptor, and the amount of time which is used for a model.

  21. #21 Kelfeth
    April 27, 2011

    Is it at all possible the artist might have seen a fossil skull? There’s that dragon statue that’s based on the skull of a fossil rhino in Austria; if this was intended to depict a real Sivatherium, there’s no reason to assume it was a LIVE one.

  22. #22 DDeden
    April 27, 2011

    I prefer seeing it as a long-legged Sumerian Jackalope, but I guess some might see it as a fallow deer or giraffid.

  23. #23 Allen Hazen
    April 27, 2011

    The projecting points on the … cranial appendages … do, I’m afraid, look a lot more like the tines on the fallow deer antler than anything I’ve seen on a sivathere: just backwards! So, maybe the artist was working from memory (“You! Sculptor-slave! Remember that wild animal with the cranial appendages that was led in the procession at the spring festival? The king wants a sceptre with a model of it decorating the top. By next Astarte-day.”) and got them backwards.

    Colbert, b.t.w., wrote a very engaging autobiography, with chapters headed with drawings by his wife, the paleo-artist Margaret Matthews (sp? she was the daughter of paleontologist W.D. Mathews) Colbert. The short chapter telling of his one article in an ARCHEological journal is headed by a lovely reconstruction of a Sivathere which looks at least as much like a reindeer as the Christmas decorations at most department stores!

    Pity. I’d ***LIKE*** to be able to believe in late-surviving Sivatheres.

  24. #24 Abbie C
    April 27, 2011

    Is it possible the artist might have seen a fossil skull? There’s the dragon statue that’s based on the skull of a fossil rhino in Austria. If it was intended to portray a real Sivatherium, there’s no reason to assume it was a live one.

  25. #25 Darren Naish
    April 27, 2011

    Allen (comment 23): Margaret’s sivathere drawing (from Colbert’s 1936 paper) is shown above. Or, one of them, anyway.

  26. #26 Allen Hazen
    April 27, 2011

    (Should have said before)
    I’m a Christine Janis fan,and have long been curious as to what she had to say about this question. My university library, though, never got “Cryptozoology,” so I’ve never been able to read this article: THANK YOU for summarizing her argument and conclusion!!! MUCH appreciated.

  27. #27 Darren Naish
    April 27, 2011

    No problemo. Christine sometimes visits and leaves comments here, so do keep checking.

    PS – you’ll like the next article.

  28. #28 Tamara Henson
    April 27, 2011

    In the late 1980s I found a book (similar in format to ‘Mermaids & Mastodons’ and ‘In the Track of Unknown Animals’ but neither of these publications)that proposed that the surviving (or perhaps fossil skulls, I can’t remember which) inspired the Oriental dragon. I remember that it showed a Chinese dragon horse and Indian dragon engraving with very sivathere-like ‘antlers’. I have been trying to remember the title and author of this book ever since. The library that housed it no longer has the book in question, does anyone know what it was titled and/or the author?

  29. #29 Cale
    April 27, 2011

    Do we actually know of any species of sivatherium with tall branching deer-like horns? I admit my sources aren’t the greatest but every reconstruction of various sivathere species I can find just has those short flat broad dealies.

    It definitely seems a stretch to me. A stylized deer just seems like a more likely answer.

  30. #30 Wilbert Friesen
    April 28, 2011

    The whole phylogeny of the giraffids in general is quite a mess. So I’m looking forward to new stuff on the many genera of Sivatherids

  31. #31 Laurence Crossen
    April 28, 2011

    Great discussion of prehistoric survivor type cryptozoology! Would it be possible that it was an exotic gift to the king and not really domesticated? Of course, short-necked giraffids do still exist in Africa- the okapis. Could that person looking for the book be thinking of an Adrienne Mayor book? Ancient artists probably had a different approach than modern ones. While they could be creative, they may have been more restrained along traditional lines. Their fantastic creatures would more likely be traditional mythological ones. These mythical ones could be based on fossils or survivors.

  32. #32 Tamara Henson
    April 28, 2011

    I don’t think the author was Adrienne Mayor. It was defiantly an older book, published sometimes before 1986 (when I first found it)while Mayors stuff all seems to be much more recent. As for the figurine, I would say a deer, possibly a follow deer but I suppose it could also be an Atlas deer (a subspecies of red deer from north Africa), hard to tell as it is so stylized.

  33. #33 Dartian
    April 29, 2011

    Tamara:

    I suppose it could also be an Atlas deer (a subspecies of red deer from north Africa)

    That possibility is rather far-fetched, I’d say. Ancient Sumer, lest we forget, was situated in modern-day Iraq – and AFAIK, the Early Dynastic period Sumerians had neither trade nor any other connections with north-western Africa. The Sumerians were most likely familiar with red deer though, as they are/were present in nearby regions; as mentioned in comment #4, red deer are still found today in both Turkey and Iran, and within historical times they were also found in modern-day Syria and Jordan. (Red deer were also present in modern-day Iraq during the Pleistocene, although I don’t know when precisely they went extinct there.)

    Having said this, I do nevertheless tend to agree with those who think that the figurine most likely represents a Persian fallow deer.

  34. #34 heteromeles
    April 29, 2011

    [from Darren: sorry, delayed by spam filter]

    @28, 32:”…proposed that the surviving (or perhaps fossil skulls, I can’t remember which) inspired the Oriental dragon.”

    Score one for Laurence, and possibly one for Tamara:

    Adrienne Mayor (2000), First Fossil Hunters, (p.39): “The British paleontologist Kenneth Oakley has shown that certain features of the traditional Chinese dragon, such as the distinctive antlers resembling those of fossil deer, replicated the lineaments of Pliocene and Pleistocene prehistoric mammals of northern China and Mongolia.”

    ref: Oakley, K. (1975).Decorative and Symbolic Uses of Vertebrate Fossils. Occasional Papers on Technology 12. Oxyford: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

    This all goes back, of course, to the “dragon bones” used in Chinese traditional medicine, which are, of course, ground up fossils.

  35. #35 Martin R
    April 30, 2011

    What archaeologists would normally do here is to bring together a sample of similar sculpture from the area and era to learn what artistic conventions were like at the time. I find the Kish figurine to be extremely weak evidence either for the presence of sivatheres or fallow deer in the region. Until there are radiocarbon dates on species-determined bones with good archaeological contexts, the whole discussion is meaningless.

  36. #36 Allen Hazen
    April 30, 2011

    Re Darren (#25):
    Noticed the M.M.C. drawing from E.C.’s paper after posting about the autobiography (and erealized that I COULD have checked the spelling of “Matthew” by looking at its caption!). The chapter-frontispiece in the autobiography is not a drawing from the paper but one of a series of less-detailed, stylistically “freer” drawings done specially for the book.

  37. #37 Dartian
    May 2, 2011

    Martin:

    I find the Kish figurine to be extremely weak evidence either for the presence of sivatheres or fallow deer in the region.

    FYI: the former presence of Dama mesopotamica in the geographical area today known as Iraq is not in doubt. Both Pleistocene and Holocene skeletal remains of this species are known, and it did persist in Iraq until the 19th century (and stragglers – presumably from Iran – have been observed there as late as in the 1950ies).

    the whole discussion is meaningless

    Thank you for this valuable insight.

  38. #38 Darren Naish
    May 2, 2011

    Martin R (comment 25): I’m acutely aware that my approach is perhaps naive from an archaeologist’s point of view – I think this is inevitable, given that I and others with similar interests approach such subjects from a zoologically biased (viz, ‘literal morphologist’) point of view. However, I don’t understand what you’re saying in your comment: are you implying that we need to determine the presence of sivatheres and/or fallow deer in ancient Kish prior to considering this further? If this is what you’re saying – it’s well established that Mesopotamian fallow deer were present in the region at the right time, and also beforehand and afterwards. The species is well represented in the Near and Middle eastern archaeological record from about 250,000 yrs ago: its heavy exploitation at such sites as Mount Carmel is extremely well documented.

  39. #39 Martin R
    May 3, 2011

    I mean that if you want to know whether this or that animal species was around, then never mind the sculpture. And if you want to know what this particular sculpture depicts, then check out more than one piece of sculpture — and check what species are attested as bones when looking for candidate animals.

    What really is the main question here? Surely no serious zoologist will see that clumsy figurine as important evidence either way?

  40. #40 Darren Naish
    May 3, 2011

    Oh, come on. This whole article is a discussion of the literature on the Kish figurine. That’s all.

  41. #41 Martin R
    May 4, 2011

    I seem to have expressed myself clumsily, coming across as more aggressive than I intended. I meant no criticism of Darren, whose blog I always read with great interest. I am just surprised that the palaeontologists involved in the debate would take the issue seriously.

    A few years ago, a Viking Period dress pin was found in Sweden. It’s topped by an animal head with big round ears (typical of the 9th century). And it looks a lot like Mickey Mouse. To my mind, the sivathere & Kish figurine debate is a Mickey Mouse debate.

    http://kvp.expressen.se/nyheter/1.715298/har-ar-musse-pigg-fran-vikingatiden

  42. #42 Darren Naish
    May 4, 2011

    Ok, understood, thanks. I had misinterpreted your comment(s) as one of those “Why did you even bother?” pieces of negativity that often get attached to my articles on mysterious creatures.

    As I hope I expressed in my article, we’re never going to know what the figurine was really meant to depict and, as noted in many of the comments, it’s naive to assume that it’s meant to be an accurate depiction of anything (though fallow deer is more likely than sivathere, for reasons discussed above). However… rightly or wrongly, a lot of ink has been spilt on the subject of the figurine’s identity, and it was this debate – especially the post-1936 component – that I wanted to bring to attention. As for Mickey Mouse, I always knew he was real and lived in Viking-age Sweden.

  43. #43 Christine Janis
    May 4, 2011

    Hey, Darren, stuff the sivathere, what about the giant hyraxes?!

  44. #44 abadidea
    May 4, 2011

    From the side, it looks like the rope is wrapped around the outside of the snout, which is probably why someone would describe it as being haltered.

  45. #45 DDeden
    May 5, 2011

    Rudolf, the red nosed sivathere! (Note skis at base, sled-pulling harness) PIE droga/traga to wagon/tobaggon/truck, from Siberia to between Black and Caspian seas through caucasus to Seas of Armenia and down Tigris to Sumeria with amber/flint etc. trade, bringing the wheeled sled and tackable freight ship…

  46. #46 DDeden
    May 10, 2011

    Mural (plausible nose ring?) may indicate reindeer domestication at Catal Hoyuk, Anatolia Turkey, perhaps near end of ice age. Wheeled carts (in Summer/Sumer) are likely derived from reindeer-pulled sleighs with leather-strapped poles (pole-axles aka log wheel, (as in Lithuanian kids’ push-wheel toys instead of hoop & stick toys)
    http://www.smm.org/catal/artifacts/murals/

  47. #47 David Marjanović
    May 11, 2011

    Çatalhöyük (…why didn’t you simply cut & paste the name from the site you linked to?) is much too far south for reindeers, even 10,000 years ago. I don’t see evidence for domestication, just a deer standing around.

  48. #48 Allen Hazen
    May 11, 2011

    David (re: #47)–
    Do you have any opinion about the species of deer depicted? Two of the deer images (the one at the top of the page DDeden’s link (#46) takes you to and the one at the top right of the page you get by clicking “figurative”) have a single forwardly-directed brow tine. If I didn’t know where the murals were from and was asked if there was anything about the images that suggested a specific kind of deer, I’d point to this as suggesting Rangifer…
    (Disclaimer: I’m not a deer expert, and know my non-North American deer even less well than I do the North American types.)

  49. #49 DDeden
    May 13, 2011

    DM, re. Çatalhöyük, there are north-south mountain ranges on both ‘bridges’ between Med. & Black and Black & Caspian, with no doubt plenty of lichen, even today. The trade trails may have been along the cool high altitudes. Note the similarity of Sumer/Sumer and summer beam, and trade, travel and travoix. Dogs (similar to “troga”) may have been the reindeer herders, rather than sled pullers there?

  50. #50 DDeden
    May 13, 2011

    Interesting that the Sumerian figurine sivathere/reindeer seems to be standing on a upended sled on horizontal skiis, while this Çatalhöyük mural sled is almost identical but side-ended atop a bird on skis. http://www.smm.org/catal/mysteries/murals/figurative/Mural_13/transcription/

  51. #51 DDeden
    May 16, 2011

    Artiodactyles love salt, I don’t know about reindeer (or sivatheres) specifically, but see the goat picture for an example:
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/11/great-migrations/sartore-photography
    The mural showing the deer’s extended tongue may be displaying domestication via salt baiting. The rope from the nose ring to the leg may be a hobble that allowed feeding but not wandering.

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