Sunday, September 29, 2013

Elephants in the Time of Abraham

Alice C. Linsley

Fossil evidence indicates that the Asian elephant once roamed Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and southern China. Elephant tooth and bone fragments found in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon indicate that elephants lived in that region in the latter part of the Bronze Age. These appear to have been wild herds.

Elephant fossils found in Mesopotamia dating to the second millennium BC are thought to be the descendants of a smaller Pleistocene variety found throughout the Mediterranean about 2 million years ago. According to R.W. Rogers, “In very early times the elephant wandered at will over the Middle Euphrates country, but it disappeared before the 13th century.” (A History of Babylonia and Assyria, Vol. 1, p. 284) 

However, textual evidence suggests that elephants were being used as service animals after the 13th century B.C. Their remarkable trunks provided a powerful gripping organ for lifting and carrying timber and other heavy materials. Sargon would have used elephants to construct his cities and Abraham would have seen them in the region of Haran. Haran is where his father Terah died and after Terah's death, Abraham's older brother Nahor ruled over the territory in Padan Aram.

The current distribution of elephants is greatly reduced compared to the time of Abraham. Today there remain only two species of elephants: the small-eared Indian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the long eared, long-legged African elephant (Loxodonta africana). The Indian elephant has a bowed upper skull. There is a difference also in the number of toes.

An older elephant species was smaller and hairier. It had very curved, slender tusks and a more rounded head, suggesting a closer relationship to the African elephant. Such a creature appears on the tomb wall of Rekhmire (TT100). Rekhmire was Governor of Thebes during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II. At this time Egypt's empire extended into Syria. A wall painting in Rekhmire's tomb shows Syrians bringing tribute of carts, weapons, horses, a bear, and an elephant.

Elephant painting in tomb of Rekhmire

The Rekhmire tomb elephant likely depicts an extinct dwarf elephant with a shaggy coat. It is believed that some were still alive 4000-3500 years ago (Masseti 2001, 2008, Theodorou et al. 2007). This dwarf species is called Elephas tiliensis. It is shown on Rekhmire's tomb and a life-sized model of E. tiliensis is on display at the Palaeontology Museum of Athens. 

The Rekhmire tomb elephant makes it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with the Syrian elephants known to Abraham in Haran.

Elephants in Noah's time

Noah lived approximately 3500-2800 B.C. in the region of Lake Chad, when the Sahara experienced a wet period (Karl W. Butzer). This corresponds to the pre-dynastic period, a time when central Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia were ruled by local chiefs. This places Noah in relatively recent history, and at a time when the elephant was taken as a royal symbol. At Qustul a local ruler was referred to as "Elephant". Elephant probably ruled during the early Naqada III epoch.

The oldest known zoological collection was found during excavations at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen on the Nile) in 2009. The royal menagerie dates to ca. 3500 BC and included elephants. Proto-Saharan and Nilotic rulers kept ménageries. The animals were kept in pairs so that they would reproduce.

In Noah's time Lake Chad sustained boating and fishing industries. The average fishermen used dugouts, but a ruler such as Noah owned boats constructed of reeds lashed together in bundles and sealed with pitch. Noah probably had a fleet of boats, and elephants probably were used to carry the reed bundles.

At Nekhen the bones of a juvenile savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) were found in Tomb 14. These date to around 3100 B.C. Likely, this elephant was a prized pet of the buried ruler.


  1. Two African elephant species (forest, savannah) and one Asian elephant species.
    Young Asian elephants (at least in Malayan jungles) can be very shaggy, like reddish mammoths, but shed as they grow larger.

    Asian elephant 95% same as mammoth

  3. Dahalo people are remnant of ancient elephant hunting culture

    "Dahalo is an endangered Cushitic language spoken by at most 400 Dahalo people on the coast of Kenya, near the mouth of the Tana River."

    "It is suspected that the Dahalo may have once spoken a Sandawe- or Hadza-like language, and that they retained clicks in some words when they shifted to Cushitic, because many of the words with clicks are basic vocabulary. If so, the clicks represent a substratum. Dahalo is also called Sanye, a name shared with neighboring Waata, also spoken by former hunter-gatherers."

    Dahalo is a remnant of Clicking Khoesan (bushmen-hottentot) in Kenya who were later surrounded by Cushite herders & Bantu agriculturalists.

  4. Unusual war elephants -


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