Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pre-Columbian Myths and Traditions of the Elephant

The Book of Ether references "Elephants" among the animals known to the early Jaredites during the reign of King Emer, where they are said to have been "useful" but not numerous (Ether 9:19).It is generally assumed that large elephant-like mammals such as the mammoth and the mastodon became extinct by the end of the Ice Age (circa 9,000 B.C.). Some native American myths and traditions suggest Pre-Columbian knowledge of species of mammoth or mastodon and may be considered evidence that small groups of these animals survived in certain regions until recent historical times.

It is possible that some of these traditions are rooted in native American discoveries of the bones of extinct fauna, while other myths seem to be founded on actual encounters with living species who had notable elephantine-like long noses which could sometimes trample and uproot trees (John R. Swanton, Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Washington: Government printing Office, 1911, 355).  One Abenaki account tells of a great “elk” that could easily walk through more than eight feet of snow, whose skin was tough and had “a kind of arm which grows out of his shoulder, which he makes use of as we do ours” (Pierre-Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, A Voyage to North America . . . Dublin: J. Exshaw and J. Potts, 1766, 1:88). Naskapi tradition tells of a large monster that once trampled them and left deep round tracks in the snow, had large ears and a long nose with which he hit people. Another story tells of Snowy Owl, a Penobscot culture hero who, while searching for a wife and traveling to a far valley encountered what appeared at first to be hills without vegetation moving slowly about. Upon closer inspection he found these were the backs of huge animals with long teeth who drank water for half a day at a time and when they laid down could not get up. The hero was able to trap the large beasts by making them fall on sharpened stakes where he was able to shoot them (W. D. Strong, “North American Indian traditions suggesting a knowledge of the mammoth,” American Anthropologist 36 1934: 81-88). Similar traditions have been documented for native American groups from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico persuading some scholars that they are based upon a core memory of actual historical encounters with elephant-like beasts who may have survived in the region perhaps as late as 3,000 years ago (Ludwell H. Johnson, “Men and Elephants in America,” Scientific American 75 1952: 220-21).

    Pre-Columbian Mexican traditions also speak of ogre-like giant peoples who inhabited central Mexico and were killed off after the arrival of Aztec ancestors. These tales attribute seemingly human characteristics to some of these legendary giants. Accounts say that some had long tapering arms and could tear up trees as if they were lettuce (Juan de Torquemada, Monarchia Indiana (Mexico: 1943), 1:38; Acosta, Natural And Moral History of the Indies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002, 384). These legends, notes Adrienne Mayor, say “that the giants destroyed by the ancestors pulled down trees and ate grass, elephant-like behavior” and suggests that these stories may reflect “a vague memory of prehensile trunks, something like the `extra arm’ of the Giant Elk in Abenaki and Iroquios myth.” While it cannot be proven, she thinks it possible that “localized mammoth species (and other large Pleistocene animals and birds) may have survived to later dates in the Valley of Mexico and the Southwestern United States” and also that at least “some aspects of the legendary giant-ogres may have originated in ancestral memories of Columbian mammoths and may have been later confirmed by discoveries of fossils” (Adrienne Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005, 97, 77).

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