Sunday, 31 March 2013

Ege University's "Syrian elephant"

Syrian elephant, Ege University Natural History Museum, used with permission

This is the "Syrian elephant" from the Natural History Museum of Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, the image is produced with their permission. (Thanks to Prof Dr Tanju Kaya, and to my Turkophone translator, who ticked the "no publicity" box.)

It shows the skeleton of a "Syrian elephant" from Karamanmarash in "Southeastern Turkey" (the majority Kurdish region of the country), and seems to be a reconstruction based on a partial skeleton (the dark bits) with the remainder of the bones (lighter) worked out from the extant remains. As my translator is a much better linguist than he is a zoologist, I'm having a very slow conversation with Prof Dr Kaya about how old the elephant was at the time of death, how tall the skeleton is, and what age the skeleton is in hundreds or thousands of years. Updates will be provided when I get answers to these. (The museum's website says the skeleton is 4m high, which would make it equivalent to a large adult male Indian elephant, up there with some of the bigger Sri Lankan males.)

The Syrian elephant, which was an Asian elephant variety that lived in what's now Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, was the war elephant of choice for the Egyptians, the successor states of Alexander the Great's empire and for the Romans. Capturing Syrian elephants for war meant not having to go all the way to India for very expensive imported war elephants and even more expensive mahouts. I've seen the Syrian elephant described as a sub-species, Elephas maximus asuras (Ege University goes with this designation) although this seems as far as I could find out, unofficial and a little dodgy. I've heard various timelines for "E. maximus asurus", ranging from three million years ago to 2,000 years ago to as recently as 200BCE.

Some sources describe the Syrian elephant as slightly smaller than the mainstream Indian E. maximus, which would make it easier to handle as a war animal. Some depictions in ancient art show the Syrian elephant as having slender, curving tusks, as in the Ege University skeleton, although I've yet to learn whether the tusks in this reconstruction are the original tusks found with the skeleton or conjectural.

Some, including Darren Naish in his Tetrapod Zoology blog have pointed out the similarity between the possibly slim-tusked Syrian elephant and the small elephant being led by Syrian emissaries in the tomb of Rekh-mi-re in ancient Egypt (my drawing of the elephant from photos of the tomb below. See also here for a recent photograph, although the frescoes have faded in recent years). Naish suggests that this doesn't show a pygmy elephant (or a baby elephant, as I suggest in the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book,) but is an attempt to draw an out-of-scale Syrian elephant.

More detail to follow.

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