Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Elephant Glyphs at Copan

Among the most enigmatic pre-Columbian glyphs in Meso-America are the elephant images on Stela B at Copan. There are two of them carved into the upper corners of the stone and only the heads and trunks are represented. When they were first discovered and copied, over 150 years ago, there was a human figure riding on top of one of the elephants looking very much like an Indian mahout, or elephant driver. This image has subsequently been broken, or perhaps eroded off.

The reason the elephants are so enigmatic is because they are not supposed to have existed in America since their extinction some 10,000 years ago when either human hunters or changing environments are believed to have caused their demise.

These glyphs are not the only representations of elephants that have been found in America (see Totten for examples of elephant figures carved in bone, on a votive tablet, on a pipe, etc.). But they are the only ones that can’t be easily dismissed as forgeries. This doesn’t mean that non-elephant explanations have not been proposed - they have. The images themselves, though, are so evidently elephantine that the question remains unanswered: what do they mean?

Did the Maya, their neighbors, or their descendents have firsthand experience with elephants? The images seem to argue that they might have. In so doing they support either a diffusionist argument (that there were pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and New Worlds) or that elephants existed in the same environments as late pre-Columbian Americans (and validating the reference to elephants in the Book of Mormon: Ether 9: 19), or both. It is little wonder that there have been disagreements on the subject.

The first reproduction of the images was published in 1836 by Frederick Catherwood (see opposite page 156 in John L. Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan – my Figure 1). Many details are missing in this drawing and it isn’t clear that the corner glyphs are of elephants. The representation of the elephant driver is likewise difficult to interpret. Stephen’s, however, in the text, recognizes that the images do look like elephants. He writes: “The two ornaments at the top appear like the trunk of an elephant, an animal unknown in that country” (Stephens, p. 156).

Sometime after Incidents of Travel in Yucatan was published, Alfred Maudslay in his monographic study of Meso-American archaeology reproduced the images in much more detail (Figure 2). These are more visibly representative of elephants. It’s interesting, though, that Maudslay suggests that the images might represent a tapir (an animal phylogenetically related to an elephant but appearing quite different). This is a bit odd and might be an understandable explanation of the Catherwood images; but Maudslay's own drawings make it hard to draw the same conclusion. One is left wondering if the original glyphs are not very well represented in his own work (although this seems unlikely given his accurate renderings of other extant glyphs). Another more likely explanation is that he was aware of the controversy that elephants would pose to his work; and, rather than having to deal with the negative publicity, conveniently side-stepped the issue.

In 1924 Elliott Smith (Chair of Anatomy at the University College London) criticized Maudslay and a handful of others for suggesting that the glyphs could be anything other than elephants. His book, Elephants and Ethnologists, is a careful argument for an Asian influence in Meso-America before Columbus.

Smith’s main evidence includes the distinctly Asian elements in Stela B itself (including the spiral images and the mahouts - assuming that there were, in fact, two of them) and the many other glyphs representing stylized creatures from Hindu mythology - the so-called makara images. These creatures are usually represented as crocodiles or dolphins but also as fish or elephants (see Figure 3). Very often a single image is made up of parts of more than one creature. Deities, such as the goddess Ganga, or other human figures are usually associated with these creatures. Often they are represented inside a creature’s mouth.

Smith argues that, not only are all these elements represented in comparable Mayan glyphs, but the Mayan glyphs also have the same overall sense of the Hindu makara, even down to the scales around the eyes. To argue for an independent development of these figures is, to Smith, nothing more than a veiled bias of preconceived notions.

Since Elephants & Ethnologists was published Smith’s arguments have been mostly ignored. They have not been convincingly disproved. Part of the reason for the academic silence has been that most diffusionist arguments have been out of favor in an increasingly nationalistic world that was eager to recognize contributions of individual cultures (see Mair). Another reason has been the uncertainty about Native American elephants themselves. When Smith made his argument, it was just coming to the attention of anthropologists that ancient humans even lived at the same time as extinct elephants (such as mammoths or mastodons).

Humans and Mammoths

The very idea that some kinds of animals and plants have gone extinct came to the world’s attention through the work of Georges Cuvier and his study of elephants (see Rudwick). Cuvier established that the elephant bones that were being discovered in Europe during the later part of the 18th Century were of different species than either the African or the Indian elephants. This suggested that extinctions had occurred prior to the advent of humans in Europe because there were no known records of a third species living in the northern hemisphere. There were occasional voices arguing that the third elephant might still be living in remote areas. Cuvier’s argument, however, was that there were no human remains or tools associated with any of the elephant remains and that humans had never known the extinct species.

Later, finds of mammoth paintings in caves throughout Europe clearly indicated that Cuvier was wrong. Not only had cave-dwelling humans known of mammoths but, as it turned out, they had hunted them as well. Proof of this was to be found in the Americas where extinct elephant bones were found with arrowheads.

Anthropologists and paleontologists then started asking themselves if humans had been the reason why the large animals had gone extinct, or were other factors, such as environmental changes, the cause of their demise. These questions still remain open. What is normally accepted, however, is that the American elephants went extinct around 10,000 years ago despite claims that it survived into historical times.

This date has been held inviolable by many authors for some time although earlier dates have been published. A comprehensive review of dated North American mega-faunal fossils (see Mead and Meltzer) shows a clear peak in the number of recovered fossils from around 10,000 years ago. But a few fossils do extend after this period. The most recent date for a mammoth was taken from Sandy, Utah and dated at 4,885 years ago. Some of the samples taken for these recent dates are of only average quality but enough extend past the 10,000 year mark to suspect that a major extinction, whatever the cause, did not eliminate all individuals at that time. From a strictly statistical standpoint the distributional peak is clearly around 10,000 years ago, but outlying data points would be expected earlier and later as Mead and Meltzer’s data indicate. The door is still open on this issue. A few surviving populations of mammoths in North and Central America may have survived into recent times.

There are two major groups of elephants known to have occurred in America - the mastodons (belonging to the family Mastodontidae) and the true elephants (belonging to the family Elephantidae). The two groups, though often similar in size and general appearance, are easily separated by their teeth. The chewing teeth of mastodons have conical projections along the grinding surface. True elephants, on the other hand, have a labyrinth of ridges. Other morphological characters undoubtedly occur but it is the teeth that resist decomposition and are more likely to appear in the fossil record. Both the African and the Indian elephants are true elephants as are the various mammoth species that have been discovered.

That said, there have been a number of mastodon species in America. Most of them lived before the periods of Pleistocene glaciation. The long-jawed mastodonts, for instance, lived on the plains as far west as the Rocky Mountains up until Pliocene times. Tetralophodonts and Serridentias, known to have migrated from the Old World, did as well. Other species included the short-jawed mastodons (true mastodons of the genus Mammut), the beak-jawed mastodons, and the notorostrines. The later two species occurred in Central America, although not into the glacial periods.

We only know of one mastodon species (Mammut americanum) that survived through the Pleistocene and lived concurrently with humans in America. It was a forest species and, as a consequence, did not lend itself to fossilization as readily as mammoths did (that seemed to frequent boggy areas more frequently). The first full skeleton of a mastodon was unearthed in 1845 south of New York City by a crew digging for peat. Since then, other remains have been discovered throughout North America and as far south as Honduras (see Polaco). It is unlikely that the American mastodon was the model for the Copan glyphs. It is unlikely to have lived as recently as the period up to or immediately prior to the rise of Central American civilization. Moreover, its low (or flatter) head is quite different than the heads of the elephants depicted in the glyphs.

The other elephants that were known to live concurrently with humans in America were the mammoths. The best known species is the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) that lived in northern regions and is the mammoth species that commonly turns up in frozen burials. A dwarf form of the wooly mammoth survived on Wrangel Island (in the Arctic Ocean) up until 1700 BC.

The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) had a more southerly distribution. It ranged throughout North America and as far south as Nicaragua. It was believed to have gone extinct around 10,000 BC along with many other species, although more recent dates have been reported. The Columbian mammoth is most likely the species represented on Stela B at Copan if, in fact, it represents an American species at all. Its demise is the most recent of all the American elephant species and its head rises above the eyes as depicted in the glyphs. It was a large animal, fully capable of carrying an elephant driver.

Other American mammoth species are less likely candidates. The pygmy mammoth (M. exilis) from the Channel Islands of California was probably too small to support an elephant driver and it seems to have been restricted to the islands. The Jefferson mammoth (M. jeffersonii) and the imperial mammoth (M. imperator) did not occur as far south and may turn out to be the same species as the Columbia mammoth with further taxonomic evidence (the justification for recognizing the different species is primarily the size and shape of the tusks which are known to vary).

Asian Elements in America Before Columbus

Another explanation for the elephant glyphs is that they were made by emigrants from Asia who brought their cultural images (including images of elephants) with them to Central America. The difficulty with this explanation is that Asian peoples were not believed to have had contact with America before Columbus - at least that has been the scholarly consensus. Nonetheless, evidence for pre-Columbian contacts has been put forward from quite early in the history of American exploration.

Alexander von Humboldt, for example, noticed a handful of similarities between the calendars, legends and religious symbols of Asia and Central America as early as 1813. His work had a significant influence on both John Lloyd Stephens and William Prescott (The Conquest of Mexico) whose works were largely responsible for bringing early Central American civilization to the attention of the world (see Helferich).

Other influential arguments for early cultural contacts across the Pacific included Elliott Smith (as noted above), Betty Meggers et al., Joseph Needham, and Stephen Jett. Meggers showed remarkable similarities between the pottery of the Valdivia and Machalilla phases of coastal Ecuador and the pottery of the Jomon period in Japan. Joseph Needham showed several similarities between the two continents. One of his findings included the importance of jade in both places, where pieces (often painted red) that were placed in the mouth of the dead. Other findings included images of rabbits on the moon, sailing craft, etc. Stephen Jett’s work has revealed the sophisticated similarities in blowgun technologies.

These are just a few of the many examples that have come to light over almost two centuries now. John Sorenson’s exhaustive two-volume bibliography of trans-oceanic contacts before Columbus lists hundreds of sources discussing contacts between Asia and the Americas (see Sorenson and Raisch).

It seems that Smith’s arguments, that elephant glyphs at Copan are evidence of a transplanted Asian influence among the Maya, continues to deserve attention. Certainly the presence of mahouts on top of the elephants and the spiral element that is typical of the Hindu makaras suggest a cultural connection. The images of the elephants themselves also resemble Indian elephants.

Smith argued that these images were carved from artifacts that had been carried from Asia, and not that the artisans had carved them from living elephant models. His main argument for this was that there were morphological errors in the carvings. He believed that of the two openings in the mid-section of the head, that the posterior one represented an eye and the anterior one represented a nasal opening. Since elephants don’t have nasal opening in this position, it must be a mistake made by an artist without firsthand knowledge of elephants.

Smith didn’t consider the obvious possibility that the anterior organ represents an eye and the posterior one represents an ear. I say obvious because they are positioned where an eye and an ear should be. The only trouble with this explanation is that it makes the ear quite small - at least compared to the ears of living elephants.

Both living species of elephants have much larger ears. The Indian elephant has smaller ears than the African elephant but even these smaller ears are several times larger than the organ positioned where the ear should be on the Copan glyphs. If these glyphs do represent Indian elephants then Smith is right, they are stylized and were very likely reproduced either as a cultural memory or were copied incorrectly from a model carried from Asia.

Another possibility, however, is that the elephant glyphs do not represent Indian elephants at all but rather American mammoths. A century ago we didn’t know what mammoth ears looked like. We now do and it seems obvious in hindsight that they are small.

Mammoths are from a line of elephants adapted to colder climates where large appendages are maladaptive. This can be seen in living rabbits, for example. Species living in hot southern regions have large ears to dissipate heat more easily. Arctic species have much smaller ears. The same seems to have been the case for other mammals including mammoths.

In recent years, a handful of mammoths have been recovered from permafrost and the size of their ears is now known. They are small. Several images of these freeze-dried animals can be seen on-line, although caution needs to be taken when viewing their ears. Not all of them are in-tact or genuine. The ears of the Brerezovka mammoth, for example (on display in the Russian Academy of Sciences) have been reconstructed because they didn’t survive the excavation. Likewise the right (and most frequently photographed) ear of the baby Lyuba mammoth has been nibbled off.

So where does this leave us regarding the elephant glyphs at Copan? We do have quite a better view of ancient trans-oceanic migrations than we did when Smith wrote Elephants and Ethnologists. We also know a good deal more about American elephants. But the jury is still out. The Asian elements on Stela B make a strong case for an Asian influence. This has not changed since Smith’s writing. But it could very well be a mistake to presume that the Maya didn’t know about American elephants themselves.

Works Cited and Notes

Helferich, G. 2004. Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humbolt and the Latin American journey that changed the way we see the world. Gotham Books, New York.

Jett, Stephen C. 1970. The Development and Distribution of the Blowgun. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 60 (4): 662-688.

Mair, H. Victor. Kinesis versus Stasis, Interaction versus Independent Invention; in, V.H. Mair ed. (2006) Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. University of Hawai’i Press. Honolulu (see page 11).

Maudsley, Alfred. 1900. Biologia Centrali Americana (Archaeology, 1889-1902), Part II. Plates XXXIII to XXXIX. I have not seen this work. Figure 2 is taken from Smith’s monograph.

Mead, J.I and D.J. Meltzer. 1984. North American Late Quaternary extinctions and the radiocarbon record; in, P.S. Martin and R.G. Klein, Quaternary Extinctions, a prehistoric revolution. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson, Arizona.

Meggers, B.J., C. Evans and E. Estrada. 1965. The early formative period of coastal Ecuador; the Valdivia and Machalilla phases. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, No. 1:1-234.

Needhamm, J. and L. Gwei-Djen. 1985. Trans-Pacific echoes and resonances; listening once again. World Scientific, Singapore and Philadelphia.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1925. The Elephants and Mastodonts Arrive in America. Natural History 25(1):3-23.

Polaco, O.J. et al. 2001. The American Mastodon Mammut americanum in Mexico; in, G. Cavarretta et al. The World of Elephants - Proceedings of the 1st International Congress, Rome.

Rudwick. Martin J.S. 1997. Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geologic Catastrophism, New Translations and Interpretations of the Primary Texts. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Grafton Elliott. 1924. Elephants and Ethnologists. E.P. Dutton & Co. New York. 1315 pp. Smith was an Australian anatomist who was drawn into the early diffusionist debate from his work on Egyptian mummification, that he saw influencing cultures throughout the ancient world. During his career he also held a traveling scholarship at Cambridge, served as Chair of the Cairo School of Medicine, as Professor of Anatomy in Manchester, and later served on the British General Medical Council. A biography on Smith can be found under: Smith, Grafton Elliott, in P. Serle, Dictionary of Australian Biography. 1949.

Sorenson, John L. and M.H. Raish. 1996. Pre-Columbian contacts with the Americas across the oceans, an annotated bibliography. Research Press, Provo, Utah.

Totten, Norman. 1981.Precolumbian [SIC] Elephants - From Birds to Invisibility. The Epigraphic Society, Occasional Publications Vol. 9 (no. 215).


  1. Those are macaws, not elephants, in the Copan B headress. What elephant-gazers see as the eye is the nasal opening on the beak. If you look behind that opening you will clearly see the eye with its obvious pupil surrounded by the scales macaws typically have around their eyes. The biggest clue is the inscription which tells us that King 18 Rabbit is in the guise of the "Macaw Mountain Lord." The little men on the macaws are spirit creatures called WAY which were companions to Maya rulers. Such tiny creatures also appear riding snakes in other Maya sculpture.

  2. Thanks for the note. You may be right on the macaws although I prefer elephants for a couple of reasons. The tail feathers of macaws (or for that matter any of the psittacids or other birds) are not recurved. I also think that if the glyphs were to have been found in India, nobody would question the fact that they were elephants.

  3. Great article! Question -- do you remember your source on the Sandy Utah mammoth dating to 4885 years ago?


  4. Hi Scott,

    It's listed in one of the tables of the Mead paper that I cite. Thanks for the comment.


  5. Not a single Mesoamerican macaw has visible nostrils. Stela B is clearly not a macaw.

  6. My inclination would be to review images from that period agreed to be of macaws and see how they compare to stela B. As noted in the article, the antidiffusionist slant which has dominated archeology in the Americas since the advent of the "new archeology" in the 1970's is beginning to have problems as the lynchpin of its justification, the impossibility of long-distance voyaging prior to the 1400's Europeans voyages, (excepting Vikings by 900's or so) is looking increasingly shaky.

  7. I see a stylized macaw, evidenced by the shading along the edge of the beak and the feathers around the eyes. I can also see elephants, but they are less convincing. This page has pictures of rocks carved by nature - I can see elephants in them too : https://www.facebook.com/WildlifeandEnvironmentSocietyofSA/photos/a.205458896150621.57142.203924456304065/770020336361138/?type=1&theater