In 1898, on the central coast of British Columbia, Franz Boas recorded oral beliefs of the Heiltsuk tribe. Their creation stories told of a world made of water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline. The oral history of the Heiltsuk stated that their peoples settled the central coastal area “before the great flood,” which may refer to the rising sea levels as ice sheets further inland melted.
The First People of North America spread up rivers and along the Rocky Mountain foothills, out into the Great Plains and on to the Atlantic seaboard as the glaciers melted. Twelve thousand years ago, a band of humans travelling the steppes of what would become the state of South Dakota, might have witnessed something like this:
To the north are huge, receding remnants of the Pleistocene glaciation. But here it is spring, and the valley below them bursts with sedge, Arctic sagebrush, dwarf willows, buttercups, daisies and new shoots of grass. A braided river born from ice meanders south, glistening under a rising sun.
In the distance immense clouds pile behind a series of small, rolling hills. The clouds groan, rumble and rain fingers the earth. A rainbow arcs, glistens, and fades.
Up and over the nearest hill strides a Columbian mammoth, and then another and another, until the horizon holds thousands of them in parallel lines, headed in a single, purposeful direction. It’s the spring migration, following a route used for generations.
The humans squat, clothed in the skins of llama and deer, rabbit and fox. They watch as the mammoths fill the basin below them. They watch interrelated family units greet each other joyously, trumpeting, bellowing and intertwining trunks. The air shivers as mothers rumble reassurance to their offspring. The circles of kinship within the mammoth families include aunts and grandmothers, uncles and grandfathers, whose experiences carry the entire library of mammoth knowledge.
A young calf with wild eyes and a swinging trunk veers out of the herd and toward the humans, stops, lifts a foot, raises her chin, then rips out a clump of grass and throws it over her back. As a self-appointed guardian for her family, she’s young enough to be uncertain and old enough to be full of herself.
Satisfied with her display, festooned with wisps of grass, she rejoins her family. A sibling tugs at her fur, liberates a stalk of grass and waves it around like a magic wand. Her mother, the matriarch, is constantly alert to the humans, her awareness evident by an uplifted trunk smelling in their direction.
The humans keep an eye on her. They know what she’s capable of if they threaten the herds. They watch and wait, scanning the valley, smelling sweet grass crushed between thousands of massive molars.
On a distant hill a solitary male mammoth flips over shocks of grass, searching for new growth. He’s an oddly dainty monster, with a squashed, flattened face and a tall head dome. The skirt of hair across his flanks and under his belly ripples in the breeze. His fur coat is three feet long, his feet covered with six inches of hair. Around his neck and under his chin, is a dark-colored beard, a feature often depicted by Ice Age artists.
The humans communicate with silent glances at each other, recognizing the woolly mammoth is old and slowed by age. They are not surprised when he is surrounded by a pride of American lions, Panthera leo atrox, a species 25% larger than today’s African lions. Timing and opportunity are gifts to all predators.
The lions surround the mammoth as he stands his ground, whirling in circles, brandishing his tusks. The more agile lions slice in and out of the fray and finally succeed in hamstringing the bull, severing the tendons of both back legs. A long time later, the mammoth goes down. The lions eat their fill and spend most of the afternoon upside-down, napping. The humans settle for a long wait. Often lions will defend prey this size for days on end.
But humans aren’t the only hunters following the herds, waiting for opportunity. Other scavengers are drawn to the kill. Circling in a slow funnel of doom, paratroops of vultures spiral down, down, down and muster on the ground in untidy rows. A group of Condors, slump-shouldered and patient undertakers, perch on a jumble of nearby rocks.
At the first hint of blood on the breeze, Arctodus simus, the Giant Short-faced Bear, stands upright on his two back legs, sniffing for the direction of its source. The biggest bear ever – twice the size of a grizzly – he is 11 feet tall when upright. Like all bears, he is also an opportunistic carnivore. With olfactory organs larger than those of any other bear, he locates the lion kill quickly and strides toward it at a graceful, rapid pace, moving in the same way a horse paces, the legs on a side moving forward together. He does not waddle like modern bears. He charges up the hill, roaring. The lions give way to the largest land predator of the Pleistocene, intimidated by his size. They are unwilling to risk injury from his strong jaws and their ability to crush bones with a single bite.
The humans stay put and let the bear eat. They too are intimidated. Even when standing on all four legs, Arctodus simus is seven feet tall, able to look any man directly in the eye.
Toward dusk, when the bear shows no signs of moving on, the humans concoct a plan. They gather stones, large stones, and ferry them within throwing range. The bear stands erect each time the humans edge closer, but is glutted, lethargic, and does not charge them. The humans spread into a half-circle, each one next to a pile of stones, and with a single nod, begin to throw as fast as they can. Surprised, furious, the bear charges in one direction, only to be hit from another. Before their piles of stones diminish, the humans have routed him. They are many and he is just one.
They build a ring of low, smoky sagebrush fires around the mammoth. They cut out his tongue and eat it raw. Fortified, they work through the night, scattering coyotes with well-timed stones. They carry a small arsenal of bone-tipped spears and arrows, but these are precious and not used unless it is absolutely necessary. Wolves, howl at a distance, pack-hunting under a full moon.
More than half the mammoth, the down side, is still left. One of the men separates an exposed shoulder blade from the rest of the skeleton and sharpens it by flaking away pieces of bone. At thirteen pounds, it’s a heavy tool. He uses both of his hands to chop at the carcass. He hacks at a lower leg, frees it, and and drags it to one side.
A woman uses a splintered tibia as a knife, shaves layers of fat from a disarticulated foot. She eats as she shaves, wipes blood and fat from her face with the palm of her hand, and pushes her hair from her eyes. It clumps in crests like greasy, matted feathers. She swats at the mosquitoes swarming around her, then rises and throws dried mammoth dung on the nearest fire. It smokes, repelling the small, persistent predators, a species so adaptable it will live on long after both mammoths and humans vanish from the earth.
Under the cold, unblinking animal eyes of the night sky, in a world lit only by a small circle of fires, the humans eat and butcher and sometimes sleep.
Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.
Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo. Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti. Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.
But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.
Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.
Near a small, bog-rich pond, a pussy willow rattles pearl-gray catkins in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge, frozen red berries clinging to their stems. Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall. Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.
The temperature drops and the sky clears. When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds. Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red. Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.
A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow. The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth. The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection shimmering on the pond’s surface. The ripples pass through a black, four-legged silhouette in the middle of the pond. Looming over his own night shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.
All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes. He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, each footstep making a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.
All day long on the tall-grass prairie, through blowing clouds of sunshine and snow, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind. He saw a shaggy outline sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks. Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.
Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before. She is a mammoth and not of his low-browed kind.
At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt. A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock. His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground. An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.
Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.
Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems. The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky. Cattails chatter in the wind.
He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud – rich, black, and carnivorous. He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds. Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.
Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out. They build a fire and settle to their work.
Fourteen thousand years later, in the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim in Washington State, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in his front yard. His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs. His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University. The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.
In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon. The left side of the skeleton was intact, all the bones in their correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond and the mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains. Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.
But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.
The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.
Originally researchers thought the spear point was made of elk bone, but later analysis confirmed it was fashioned from another mastodon. It was sturdy enough to penetrate thick hide, ten inches of muscle, and three-fourths of an inch into the rib. The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.
Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were unearthed near the pond, evidence of the oldest human occupation yet found in the Americas. During a later phase of the excavation, twelve separate layers of human habitation were discovered, ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 years ago.
The site was occupied again and again by people hunting and butchering other large mammals, such as bison, that gathered at the ancient pond. The partial remains of two more mastodons were excavated. Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered. In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were found near the site. The two elephant species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.
Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous. They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds, gave tours and turned their barn into a theater for audio slide shows. And to the skeptics at the time who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short, curt reply. “What, did an elk explode?”
After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. The site officially became part of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. “Manny” Manis died in 2000; Clare Manis Hatler eventually remarried. In 2002, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.
Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm. Some of the mastodon’s bones remain there, caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering. A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle. On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.” It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so. And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine.
I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.
Tanzania has lost 60% of its elephant population in five years. All because of this, an elephant’s incisor, which looks far more beautiful on an elephant than carved into trinkets.
Ivory was the plastic of the Victorian Age:
From the 1860s to the 1880s, an estimated 100,000 elephants per year were slaughtered for their ivory, a total of two million elephants in twenty years. Their tusks were made into:
Fish hooks, spoons, arrowheads, buttons, bagpipe joints, fans, buckles, brush handles,
letter openers, rosary beads, bookends, tiny elephant statuettes, pistol grips,
bracelets, hairbrushes, fans, chess pieces, crucifixes, necklaces, perfume
bottles, furniture inlays, tankards, umbrella stands, champagne
buckets, vases, waste-paper baskets, chessboards, dice,
dominoes, rolling pins, rings, salt shakers, engraved
boxes, door knobs, shoehorns, paper clips,
broaches, pool cues, pens, guitar
pegs, cribbage boards,
butter knives, cuff
key chains, needles, flutes, hairpins, coins, salt cellars, reliquary panels, communion
boxes, hunting horns, cups, plumb bobs, knitting needles, fiddle pegs, thimbles,
whistles, stash bottles, opium pipes, book covers, napkin rings, spatulas,
foot-scrapers, snuff boxes, tiddlywinks, sword hilts, nit-picking
combs, cricket cages, riding whips, telegraph keypads,
teapot handles, backscratchers, chopsticks,
toothpicks, stools, toys, corkscrews,
cigarette holders . . . .
Victorian gentry wore perforated ivory cylinders around their necks, each cylinder baited with blood – flea traps. Women with high Marie Antoinette wigs had long ivory sticks for scratching their scalps. Renoir’s favorite formulation for black paint included burnt ivory, which was also used to tint gray hair. Peter the Great spent long hours turning out ivory candlesticks and goblets on his lathe. It was fashionable for gentry to have such hobbies. Newton had his portrait painted in watercolor on an ivory medallion, another fashionable thing to do.
Ivory was used in making billiard balls and piano keys – fixtures of Victorian gentility. Industrialized plants in Ivoryton, Connecticut produced 350,000 pianos; each and every key made of ivory. Ivory shavings were boiled with water into jelly and hawked for medicinal purposes. Ivory dust was sold as fertilizer.
Billiard balls required the use of small, straight female tusks, which could yield five or less rough-cut balls, with the central nerve channel in the precise middle of each ball. They were highly valued because such balls rolled in true lines. The density of each ball was matched with similar balls to produce a complete set. A complete set of fifteen billiard balls required the tusks from three elephants.
Most billiard players were unaware that the click of one ball hitting another was the same sound elephants produce in the wild as they greet each other by gently tapping their tusks together.
Ivory billiard balls changed according to weather and the temperature of the room. Queen Victoria kept her billiard table heated. Shipping labels on sets of balls warned that they would split if used when cold. Eventually, over time, ivory billiard balls developed an egg shape and needed to be replaced. As a hedge against fluctuating supply (tusks) and demand (replacement sets) manufacturers stocked as many as twenty thousand balls in vaults with stable temperatures.
When cheaper resin replaced ivory for billiard balls and plastic replaced ivory piano keys, elephants were given a reprieve.
A hundred years later, that reprieve would end.
An Ivory Timeline: from Mammoths to Pharaohs
Around 40,000 years ago, someone took a fragment of a mammoth’s tusk and carved a small mammoth from it – one of the earliest known pieces of art made from ivory. Roughly an inch high and one-and-a-half inches in length, it’s unmistakably a mammoth, complete with trunk, tail and a high domed head. Twelve thousand years after the carving was discarded in a cave in Germany, a band of Paleolithic people dug three shallow graves into permafrost near present-day Moscow. Thousands of tiny ivory beads adorned each skeleton, each bead laboriously made with stone tools.
The earliest carved portrait of a human face dates from around 23,000 years ago. Discovered in a cave in France, it too was crafted from mammoth ivory. Named the Venus of Brassempouy for the village near where it was found, the small ivory figurine has a forehead, eyes, brows, nose, but no mouth. The top and sides of her head depict braided hair. It was unearthed in 1894 with numerous other figurines made of stone. Other late Stone Age “Venus” figures, with their bulging torsos and small heads devoid of detail were found in sites that range from the Pyrenees to Siberia. Ongoing excavations and reconstructions of ivory carvings from the “Stone Age” include ivory birds, lions, horses, and several lion-headed humans, all made by stone tools.
At first, there was quite enough ivory simply lying around on the ground to satisfy the needs of man. Ice Age huts discovered in the Ukraine used mammoth skulls as foundations and shoulder blades as walls. Tusks held down hides draped over the rooflines. One hut had 35 such weights. The age of individual bones used in the construction of these huts spanned more than 10,000 years, an indication of the amount of ivory to be found at hand. When new sites are found, they are collapsed inward upon themselves; shelters reduced to reliquaries of bone.
Early Egyptian pyramids had already been built before the last of the mammoths died. As pharaohs consolidated their kingdoms, elephant ivory (the material closest to hand) was one of the valued items of tribute sent down the Nile by conquered states. Not only did Tutankhamen have an ivory headrest in his tomb, he also had ivory statuettes of concubines to accompany him in his afterlife. Game boards were entombed in his royal suite, to also allay boredom in eternity. Made of solid ivory, the boards were fitted with carved-out drawers to hold gaming pieces.
Egyptians carved ivory into veneers, reliefs, statuary, jewelry, arrow points, small furniture, combs, spoons, the handles of weapons, scarabs, amulets, coffin lids, and used as inlays on toilet caskets (cosmetic boxes) containing such items as eye shadow pots, mirrors and perfume jars, some also made of ivory. Cleopatra, who presided over the last of the Pharaonic dynasties, quite possibly participated in banquets while lying on a bronze couch inlaid with glass and ivory described as being in her palace in Alexandria. The palace was also described as having ivory-paneled entrance halls. Re-discovered in 2012 beneath the Mediterranean Sea, the royal quarters are relatively intact, having slid under water during cataclysmic earthquakes and tsunamis in the fourth and eighth centuries. Excavations have just begun of its treasures.
To Egypt’s north, no one society dominated the eastern Mediterranean trade. However, around 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians, in what is now modern-day Lebanon and Syria, had an efficient maritime network that supplied King Solomon with the ivory he needed to build his ivory throne in his temple at Jerusalem. Described in 1 Kings 10 of the Bible, it was “a great throne of ivory,” covered with the finest gold. The throne also included rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to the Egyptian city of Elephantine, located at the first cataract of the Nile, and reported that elephants could still be hunted to the west, in Libya. Also in the fifth century BC, Greeks saw the construction of two immense ivory-covered statues, one of Athena at the Parthenon and the other of Zeus, at Olympia. Erected around 432 BC, both were made of “chryselephantine:” clothes and scepters of gold, faces, bare arms, shoulders, and torsos covered in ivory. Zeus, sitting on his throne, was thirty-nine feet tall, the height of a four-story building. Because ivory dries out once it is separated from the creature who bore it, Zeus and Athena were constantly anointed with olive oil, which collected into a gleaming surrounding pool.
The statue of Zeus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Carried off to Constantinople in 394 AD, it was destroyed by fire in 462 AD. By the Middle Ages all chryselephantine statues had been stripped of their valuable materials and demolished. Only the hole remains at the Parthenon that held Athena’s central wooden support.
By the third century BC, Rome replaced Greece as the center of the ancient world. Romans used more ivory than any other civilization until the 1880s. For their marble statues they inserted ivory into chiseled, empty eyes. Birdcages, scroll holders, currency, cameos, candleholders, dolls, boxes, and statuettes of gladiators were all made of ivory. Caligula built an ivory manger for his horse. Immense consular diptychs (two ivory panels joined by a hinge) carved with the image of the governing consul served as the sign of his office.
The Roman demand for ivory caused North Africa’s last wild elephants to vanish around the 2nd century AD, about the time that the last Mediterranean cedars and oaks were felled.
Land that once supported elephants now barely supports goats.
Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible. King Solomon had one, covered with gold. Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow. Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles. Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.
In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves. By the 1980s, more than 300 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory, nearly 100,000 per year.
In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.
Year after year tuskless elephants are born.
Both male and female African elephants grow tusks – the largest upper incisors on this planet. Tusks are defined as long teeth protruding beyond the mouth growing usually, but not always, in pairs. Most tusks are enlarged canines, such as those of warthogs, wild boars, hippopotamus and walruses. Enlarged canines in the myriad species of cats and dogs are called fangs.
Elephants and narwhal whales have incisor tusks. The narwhal’s single tusk is a left front incisor that grows in a straight spiral. Found mostly in males, narwhal tusks are believed to be the origin of unicorn legends. Oddly enough, narwhals with two tusks are usually female.
By the time Jabu is sixty, his tusks could theoretically reach a length of 18 to 20 feet. But in reality – if he does reach sixty – they will be much shorter, due to the wear and tear of everyday use.
Tusks on bull elephants can weigh seven times that of those on cows. The biggest pair of tusks on record weighed 460 pounds, taken from an old bull killed in 1897 near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.
The longest tusks ever found came from an elephant shot in the Congo in 1907. Its right tusk was 11.4 feet long; it’s left tusk 11 feet.
Such extraordinarily enormous tusks are a genetic trait, much the same as red hair is a genetic trait. Over the centuries poachers and hunters have always targeted male elephants with the largest tusks. As a result, the trait has disappeared from most elephant populations.
The same outcome would occur if redheads were systematically eliminated within family groups. As their genes died out, the redheads among us would become extinct.
If it were possible
To sleep standing up
To taste the many flavors of water
To tell each part of the day by its scent
To wear nothing but our own skins
To walk always barefoot in the grass
To watch the nightly migration of stars
To smell the stories brought by the wind
To be surrounded by family
To hear the symphony of their heartbeats
To trumpet to the skies and rumble to the ground
Could you then live the life you were given?
“Look,” my friend says, “it’s an elephant.” I turn around. We’re walking along a path above the tide pools at Salt Creek, on the Straits of Juan de Fuca. It’s a cold, foggy morning, summer slipping into fall. She points to a western red cedar on a curve of the path. “I see an elephant,” she says.
She’s right. But where she sees a generic elephant I see a mammoth, a young Columbian mammoth, with a shaggy curl of moss on its domed forehead and layered fur all the way down its trunk. Its small ear flaps forward and a rounded burl eye stares sightlessly out over the straits. His trunk (by now I’ve already decided his gender) reaches down into salal and young firs, as if he is browsing while standing on the edge of a cliff where land meets sea.
I reach out and touch this frozen young giant – about seven feet tall to the top of his dome. He’ll be ten feet tall when fully grown. Of course he’s impassive, wooden to my touch, but the swirl of his bark/fur makes him seem as if he just stopped as we rounded his corner, hoping to blend in before deciding on our intent.
I retrace my steps to the other side of the tree and discover that my gender assignment is completely wrong. On the exact opposite side of the mammoth’s head is its unmistakably female rear end, two legs solidly planted on the ground, a hanging vulva in between them. Even though shaggy fur covers her rump, anus and legs, her triangular shaped vulva can clearly be seen. Male elephants have internal scrotum and their small hanging folds are tucked up and under. This mammoth is definitely female.
The western red cedar grows straight and tall from the middle of her back. I assume she grew around a nurse log, forming her shape during a hundred years or more. Cedars like this one will grow to 180 feet and live for a thousand years. Mammoths disappeared ten thousand years ago. But I wonder if giants remember giants and try to resurrect them however they can.