Read Caption
A skull and model of Palaeoloxodon antiquus on display at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España. Photo by José-Manuel Benito, image from Wikipedia.

Bronze Art Sparks Debate Over the Extinction of the Straight-Tusked Elephant

Today’s elephants are the ragged threads of what was once a greater blanket of proboscidean diversity. The mammoths, mastodons, and dwarfed island elephants of just a few thousand years ago are all gone, leaving only the African bush elephant, African forest elephant, and Asian elephant. But prehistory’s pachyderms didn’t slip away in lock step. It is not as if all archaic elephants everywhere keeled over at the exact same moment, ushering out the Pleistocene and marking the start of our present Holocene era.

Many of the lost elephants disappeared by about 10,000 years ago, while some of the isolated island mammoths persisted until about 4,000 years ago, spanning the gap between wild prehistory and the modern world. A group of Chinese scientists has even proposed that a kind of archaic, straight-tusked elephant survived until 3,000 years ago in northern China, but their controversial proposal does not convince fossil elephant experts.

Palaeoloxodon, often called the “straight-tusked elephant”, was a widespread behemoth that lived among temperate, wooded habitats from England to Japan just before the sharp cold snap of the last Ice Age. With the exception of dwarfed island descendants in the Mediterranean, the expansion of cold grasslands and the contraction of forests drove Palaeoloxodon to extinction between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago.

But Shaanxi Normal University researcher Ji Li and colleagues have proposed that Palaeoloxodon survived in northern China for much longer. Along with Shaanxi Normal University collaborators Yongjian Hou and Jie Zhang, and Yongxiang Li of Beijing’s Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Li argues that teeth and bronze statues extend the tenure of Palaeoloxodon into the time of China’s Shang and Zhou Dynasties.

Ancient art inspired the investigation. While looking at historic elephant sculptures, Li says he “noticed [an elephant that] had two ‘fingers’ on top of its nose.” Other statues created in northern China during the same era showed the same feature.

This slight quirk didn’t match what archaeologists and zoologists expected of the elephants which once roamed the region. Holocene-age elephant bones found in northern China have traditionally been attributed to Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, which still lives in a swath of forests in southern China. But the Asian elephant only has one prehensile “finger” at the end of its trunk. Chinese scholars had somehow missed this difference, Li says, and the disparity between the bronzes and the living elephants brought up the possibility that a different kind of beast once trod northern China.

Li proposes that the artifacts are accurate, realistic portrayals of the ancient elephants. Furthermore, Li argues, all the bronzes have two-fingered trunks – “not even one ‘one-finger’ type bronze has ever been found” in northern China. “I do not think this phenomenon is just a pure coincidence,” Li says.

According to Li and colleagues, teeth reveal that these mystery elephants were a late-surviving group of Palaeoloxodon. While a pair of molars found at Dingjiabu Reservoir in Yangyuan were previously assigned to Asian elephants, Li and coauthors propose that the grinders have a kind of sinus – a “lozenge-figure” – that are seen on the teeth of Palaeoloxodon and African elephants, but not Elephas.

Not everyone agrees with the new study’s conclusion. Natural History Museum, London paleontologist and fossil elephant expert Victoria Herridge criticized the study on Twitter when the story hit news services, pointing out that the teeth mentioned in the study truly did belong to Asian elephants. Low-resolution photography literally blurred the identity of the teeth.

The black-and-white figures in the paper “are too blurry to be confident of any i.d.” Herridge notes, and seem to have minor features suggestive of  Palaeoloxodon. But when elephant expert Adrian Lister showed Herridge “better pictures of the specimens with better resolution and less contrast… the key Palaeoloxodon features of the occlusal surface are far less apparent.” The archaic elephant characteristics in the paper’s figures appear to be “an artefact of contrast”, not real features.

Based on sharper photos, Herridge says, the Palaeoloxodon identity for the teeth “doesn’t hold up.” The teeth and other remains found in the region are attributable to the Asian elephant rather than the more archaic Palaeoloxodon.

The bronze elephants don’t overturn that conclusion. “I think the cultural evidence needs to be explored in light of the wider cultural exchange and iconography of the region,” Herridge cautions. The two-fingered elephant trunks could be “variation in representational form”, or possibly a case of far-distant African elephants influencing Chinese culture due to trade route connections. “Were the evidence for Palaeoloxodon presence better, then one might be more intrigued,” Herridge says, but lacking such hard evidence, art alone “certainly isn’t enough to show Palaeoloxodon presence in China!”

Art can be suggestive, but, ultimately, the search for late survivors of prehistoric lineages comes down to the bones. Could the small, hairy elephant on an ancient Egyptian tomb be a dwarfed mammoth or other form of extinct elephant? Maybe, but we will probably never know unless such a tiny pachyderm is found at an associated archaeological site. The same goes for the purported Sivatherium statue found in Iraq – a sculpture that may represent a now-extinct form of giraffe, or could be a fallow deer. And a figurine that was thought to represent a late-surviving sabercat actually depicts a prehistoric lion. Enigmatic art may raise the possibility that extinct species lived in places or during times that we didn’t expect, but these faint clues must be backed up by hard evidence from rock and bone.