21 January 2011

Were pygmy mammoths present in ancient Egypt?

Excerpts from an interesting piece at Tetrapod Zoology -
...here's the image, as it appears on the beautifully decorated tomb wall of Rekhmire, 'Governor of the Town' of Thebes, and vizier of Egypt during the reigns of Tuthmose III and Amenhotep II (c. 1479 to 1401 BCE) during the XVIII dynasty...

... drew attention to the small, tusked, hairy elephant in the painting, shown as being waist-high to the accompanying people... Its apparent hairiness, convex back and domed head make it look like a juvenile Asian elephant, but then why it is shown with huge tusks?

Inspired by the then-new discovery that a dwarfed population of Woolly mammoths Mammuthus primigenius were still living as recently as 3700 years ago (albeit on Wrangel Island in the Siberian Arctic: Vartanyan et al. (1993), Guthrie (2004)), Rosen (1994) made the tentative suggestion that the elephant shown in Rekhmire's tomb might actually be a dwarf Woolly mammoth. If true, this would have radical implications. It would mean that the ancient Egyptians had a trading link of sorts with far eastern Siberia, and also that mammoths were captured and then transported alive to Africa!..

... there is then a third possibility: this being that Rekhmire's elephant is neither a Siberian mammoth nor a wrongly-scaled 'symbolic' elephant, but perhaps a depiction of one of the pygmy Mediterranean island-dwelling species. Most of the dwarf Mediterranean elephants were Pleistocene animals that were long gone by the time of the Pharoahs, but Masseti (2001) noted that a population of dwarfed elephants seem to have lingered on in isolation on the Greek island of Tilos (located between Rhodes and Kos)...
More at the link, via BoingBoing.


  1. They look more to me like hyenas.

    Here is a hyena on a leash for comparison.


  2. The one on the right...possibly (I would have guessed bear). But the one on the left has a trunk and tusks.
    In the paper (Masseti, 2001), it's mentioned that ancient Egyptians sometimes scaled figures in art for stylistic purposes. It also says a giraffe in the same procession was drawn larger, but on finding a picture, it's by no means full size (http://wysinger.homestead.com/tombpaintings.html). The bear/hyena/whatever's handler is also holding much larger tusks.
    Without solid evidence of Old World pygmy mammoths surviving into that time period, I'm of a mind to think it's an Asian elephant. If the artist was used to African elephants, this one would have struck him as smaller and fuzzier, so perhaps he exaggerated those (to him) unusual aspects?

  3. I'd have to say it's not a pygmy wooly mammoth, even though the body does look furred, I'd have to say it's just a pygmy elephant, mainly due to the tusks, which on a mammoth would be pointed more downward and curved up, whereas this creature has tusks that are mainly straight.

  4. I always wonder why modern hieroglyph interpreters try to take things very literally when they depicted people with dog heads and bird wings. Seems like they would paint things that were slightly more imaginative and less realistic, especially if they were trying to appease/depict Gods and divine behavior. If I were painting stories of how great I was on the side of my tomb, I would make up a lot of great things too.


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