Featured Post: Coming out in the LDS Church


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Elephants in America

Critics of the Book of Mormon often point out the verse, Ether 9:19, which mentions that the Jaredites used Elephants, presumably as beasts of burden, in about 2500 BC. However, Mammoths and Mastadons are thought to have gone extinct 11,000 years ago. Mammoths are said to have died 4,500 years ago, which actually puts them in the right timeframe for the Jaredite civilization, but the remote, distant location of these last populations (Wrangel Island, Russia), exclude them. Wooly Mammoths allegedly died much earlier, about 10,000 years ago. Critics once assured that the “elephant is not a native of America and never was its inhabitant”, but scientists now affirm that mammoths and mastadons inhabited the ancient Americas at one time.

Now, discoveries in the Americas are forcing some scientists to reevaluate the extinction date of the elephant (or an elephantine animal) in America.

Many images of art depicting the elephant have been found all over North and South America. These first two examples come from the Crespi Artifact collection. Father Carlo Crespi, who comes from Milan, has lived in the small town of Cuenca, Ecuador, for more than 50 years. He is a priest of the Church of Maria Auxiliadora. Crespi was accepted by the indians as a real friend. They used to bring him presents from their hiding places. Finally the father had so many precious objects stored in his house and the church that one day he received permission from the Vatican to open a museum. This museum in the Salesian School at Cuenca grew and grew until, in 1960, it was one of the biggest museums in Ecuador, and Crespi was recognized as an archaeological authority.

Elephant engraved on artifact
From Crespi Collection Cuenca Ecuador.

Crespi gold plates with elephants (bottom corners) and Paleo-Hebrew characters. From Crespi Artifact Collection, Ecuador

Yalloch, Guatemala, Late Classic, 600-900 A.D.

Drawing of a mesoamerican sculpture depicting elephants. These are sometimes said to be macaws.

Photograph of the original statue.

Pictures of other macaw statues found in the Americas. Admittedly, there is some resemblance with the one on the top right, but not much.

The mystery of America's Elephant plates
Harris, Neil J.; Science Digest, 69:74-77, March 1971

Oaxaca, Mexico


While these finds are strong evidence for the existence of elephants in America, they do not tell us when those elephants were there. These images could be the result of stories passed down to each generation. Because of the shape of the elephants skulls, I do not believe they could have gotten these images from remains they found, unless these remains still retained some flesh, such as those rare examples in the far north.

It would be much more convincing if some elephant remains had been found that could be dated, since the ideas contained in art could be much older than the artwork. The following are a few example of archeological and historical evidence for the existence of elephants in America much more recently than commonly thought.

Near Concordia, Columbia, a complete skeleton of a mastodon was found in an artificial salt pond, which had been constructed by Indians. The pond, with its bottom of paved stones together with the animal, had been entombed by a sudden landslide (Victoria Institute,1886, 22:151).

Rock carvings of the mastodon was found in Hava Supai Canyon, Arizona, and were believed to date back to 10,000 B.C. In the same location, however, utensils were found made out of live, not fossil, ivory, which could lower the date considerably (Santesson, 1970, p.39).

“From the City of Mexico comes a statement bearing the signature of Dr. Nicholas Leon, archaeologist of the National Museum of Mexico. The signature would justify the belief that proper investigation of the facts related has been made. The one great fact is that an ancient city, which was located near the present town of Paredon, in the state of Coahuila, some 500 miles north of the City of Mexico, was suddenly destroyed in some past age by an overflow of water and mud, and that its remains are still existent on the spot. Many massive walls have been found, but they are covered with a mass of deposited earth, sixty feet in thickness. And mingled in this earth are human skeletons, the tusks of elephants, etc. , are distributed in a way which indicates that the overflow of water and mud was sudden, giving no time for escape...

“According to the estimates of the scientists under whose directions the excavations are now being made, the city in question had a population of least 50, 000. The destruction which was brought by the flood was complete. All the inhabitants of the cities were killed, as well as all the animals. Skeletons of the human inhabitants of the cities and of the animals are strewn all through the debris, from a depth of three feet from the surface to a depth of sixty feet, showing that all the debris was deposited almost at once. Measurements show that the debris is on an average, sixty feet deep where the largest of the cities stood.

“Most remarkable of the minor finds that have been made at Paredon is that of the remains of elephants. Never before in the history of Mexico has it been ascertained positively that elephants were ever in the service of the ancient inhabitants. The remains of the elephants that have been found in Paredon show plainly that the inhabitants of the buried cities made elephants work for them. Elephants were as much in evidence in cities as horses. Upon many of the tusks that have been found were rings of silver. Most of the tusks encountered so far have an average length for grown elephants, of three feet, and an average diameter at the roots of six inches. Judging from the remains of the elephants so far unearthed, the animals were about ten feet in height and sixteen to eighteen feet in length, differing very little from those at present in existence. ( Elephant Remains In Mexico; American Antiquarian, 25:395-397, 1903)

In 1929 the skeleton of a mastodon was found in Ecuador. Evidently killed by Indians, a circle of fires had been built around the body for convenient roasting of the flesh. A landslide covered the site, which also included broken painted pottery and artifacts. This remarkable find was dated at the beginning of the Christian era (Scott, 1962, p.261).

In 1928 a Mayan workshop was uncovered in Central America. The archaeologist concluded that the owner of the shop, dated from the second to the fourth century A.D., must have kept a mastodon, for the bones of the animal were found among smashed bowls and jars (Wendt, 1956, p.524-525).

One paleontologist believed that mammoths still lived in the interior of the American continent at the time of the first Spanish explorers. He supported his belief by the fact that such bones are found under a few inches of peat. Many accurate descriptions of the elephant have been collected from various Indian tribes in America and Canada (Scientific Monthly, 75 [Oct. 1952], 215-221).

Even as late as 1560 “the Italian cartographer Paula de Furlani drew a map, which is preserved in the British Museum, depicting elephants in the region of the Mississippi Valley.... On the way to the New World, Columbus stopped at the Canary Islands and observed: ‘Other Canarieans also inhabit the wild regions extending from Mount Atlas through the sands of Lybia, places covered with black dust and filled with serpents and elephants’” (Cheesman, 1984, 55).


Some scholars have suggested that the elephant (mammoth or mastodon) lived later than hitherto believed. Ludwell Johnson, in an article entitled “Men and Elephants in America” published in Scientific Monthly, wrote that “Discoveries of associations of human and proboscidean remains [Elephantine mammals, including, elephants, mammoths, and mastodons] are by no means uncommon. As of 1950, MacCowan listed no less than twenty-seven” including, as noted by Hugo Gross, a “partly burned mastodon skeleton and numerous potsherds at Alangasi, Ecuador” (Johnson, 1).

Johnson goes on to explain that “There can no longer be any doubt that man and elephant coexisted in America.... Probably it is safe to say that American Proboscidea have been extinct for a minimum of 3000 years” (Johnson, 2). If the elephants had died off at least 3000 years ago, they would still have been well within range of the Jaredite era. And as noted above, some evidence indicates that the elephant may have survived in limited numbers for centuries later.


ridgerunner said...

its interesting that we have all this evidence of elephants in America and the population at large knows nothing about it. Makes one wonder.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Well, assuming that my information is correct (I'm open to the possibility of being mistaken), I think continued ignorance of these facts is due simply to the fact that no one cares. Archeology very rarely sells papers or pulls high TV ratings. This is especially true of information like the possible extinction date of American elephants, which is really of no inherent interest to anybody but Latter-Day Saints and their critics. That's a pretty small demographic, so it's added to the already lengthy list of popular scientific misconceptions.

Chingachgook said...


"... However more recent radiocarbon dates have been found, such as 5200 BC in Seneca, Michigan,[15] 5140 BC in Utah,[16] 4150 BC in Washtenaw, Michigan,[17] 4080 BC in Lapeer, Michigan.[18]"

btw I live in Washtenaw, I'll keep an eye out for newer specimens. :) - yes there were Elephants here!

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Thank you very much, Chingachgook!

Post a Comment

Is there something here you like (or dislike)? Let me know! Your opinion matters!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...