When Elephants Roamed Asia: The Significance of Proboscideans in Diet, Culture and Cosmology in Paleolithic Asia

  • Ran BarkaiEmail author
Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series book series (PMAES)


Early humans and elephants roamed the Pleistocene landscapes of Asia and shared habitats for hundreds of thousands of years. Many Paleolithic archaeological sites in Asia, and especially in the Middle East and China, contain abundant elephant remains that clearly demonstrate that early humans were capable of obtaining these mega herbivores. The significant role of elephants the Paleolithic is well demonstrated throughout the Old World and the dietary significance of proboscideans has also recently been explored. This chapter argues that, during Paleolithic times, proboscideans, when available, represented a constant and significant source of calories for early humans which were actually dependent on mega herbivores for their successful survival. Moreover, the central role of proboscideans as a food source, coupled with the social, behavioral and even physical resemblance between these animals and humans, were the reasons behind the cosmological conception of elephants by early humans. The archaeological evidence for such speculation lies in the use of elephant bones for the production of tools that resemble the characteristic Lower Paleolithic stone hand axes, as well as the later depictions of mammoths in cave “art” and the production of mammoth “sculptures” and engravings made from mammoth ivory and bone. Ethnographic studies support such a view too. Given that early humans in Asia were repeatedly preoccupied by the procurement, exploitation and appreciation of elephants, this chapter explores the nature of human-elephant relationships based on case studies from China and the Levant.


Elephants Pleistocene Asia China Middle East Proboscideans Mammoths 


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyTel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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