Monday, March 4, 2024

Elephants in the Time of Abraham

Alice C. Linsley

The oldest known elephant fossil was found in Kenya and dates to c. 4 million years. The cranium was recovered from a site on the northeast side of Lake Turkana and is about 85% intact. Known by its museum number, KNM-ER 63642, the 2-ton cranium belonged to a massive adult male of the species Loxodonta adaurora, an extinct relative of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

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 used Asian elephants to build his cities in Mesopotamia, 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 Paddan 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. 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 the tomb of Rekhmire.

A priest of On (Heliopolis) named Rekhmire (1471-1448) may have kept elephants in his menagerie. 
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. A life-sized model of E. tiliensis is on display at the Paleontology Museum of Athens. 

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

Elephants are social creatures and some herds have been observed to bury their calves ritually. According to researchers Parveen Kaswan and Akashdeep Roy, "Asian elephants loudly mourn and bury their dead calves, according to a study by Indian scientists that details animal behaviour reminiscent of human funeral rites."

Elephants in Noah's time

Noah lived approximately 4000-3800 BC in the region of Lake Chad when the Sahara experienced a wet period. Elephants in the Lake Chad Basin once occupied all habitats except the driest Sahelian grasslands. This was a time when central Africa, Arabia, Canaan, and Mesopotamia were ruled by local chiefs. 

Not long after Noah's time the elephant was taken as a royal symbol. At Qustul a local ruler was referred to as "Elephant". He ruled during the early Naqada III epoch (3200 to 3000 BC).

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. i always appreciate reading your work, alice. thank you for continuing to learn, write, connect, and share.



Your comments are welcome. Please stay on topic and provide examples to support your point.