The Legendary Elephant Graveyard: Does It Actually Exist?
While many people associate the elephant with having an extraordinary memory, relatively few know that the idea is actually based on what is commonly termed the “elephant graveyard,” legendary places throughout Africa said to be the final resting places elephants naturally gravitate towards when death approaches.
Some say these places lure dying elephants by a supernatural force, something that can't be explained by natural nor physical laws.
Popularized in films such as Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan and His Mate (1934), and referred to in more recent films like Walt Disney's The Lion King (1994), the general premise surrounding the elephant graveyard involves greedy fortune seekers who attempt to locate the legendary graveyard to abscound with its vast assemblage of priceless ivory waiting there for the taking. But, is there evidence that such a place actually exists?
For decades, most scholars have considered the existence of a mass graveyard where elephants go to die simply an element of African cultural mythology. Although many explorers and adventurers have claimed to have stumbled upon mass burial sites, thus far, none have been able to relocate them to prove their claims. Some claimants have also pointed to the Saudi Arabian desert--not Africa--as its actual location, but those who have searched for it have either returned unsuccessful or have disappeared during their quests.
Among the many beliefs surrounding the elephant graveyard is the idea that such graveyards are frequented by living elephants to mourn their dead. Some legends say that those who have actually found the hidden sites have been kept captive by the "guardians" of the graveyard as punishment for desecrating the sacred spot. There is also the belief that at least one such graveyard houses a book of spells and incantations that bear the solution to global problems.
There are several theories as to the origin of the elephant graveyard. One theory revolves around various explorers who have found groups of elephant remains in single locations or observed old elephants and skeletons in the same habitat. Others suggest that the term and legend may have derived from excavation projects like those conducted at Saxony-Anhalt in Germany where twenty-seven Palaeoloxodon antiquus skeletons were found--the remains of which were actually an extinct species of elephant closely related to the modern-day Asian elephant that inhabited Europe during the Middle and Late Pleistocene periods (781,000–50,000 BP). (In the latter case, the tusks of the skeletons were missing, indicating that hunters either killed a group of elephants in one spot or that opportunistic scavengers removed the tusks after a natural die-off.)
Other theories focus on elephant behavior during lean times which suggests that starving elephants are known to gather in places where food is easier to find--and subsequently die there. Elephant skeletons are also frequently found in groups near permanent sources of water suggesting that elephants suffering from malnutrition instinctively seek out water in hopes of keeping themselves alive. Older elephants whose teeth have worn out (after as many as six sets of teeth) commonly seek out soft plants that grow in and around bodies of water, eventually dying near by as a matter of course.
But no matter the source of such legends, the lives, mysterious abilities, and behavior of elephants has long held great fascination for humans. There seems to be a mystery about these ancient animals that transcends scientific explanation, with a bond between them and humans existing for perhaps thousands of years.
But does that mean that the “elephant graveyard” is purely mythical? Explained away as a melding of oral tradition and mystical fascination? Perhaps not. There now may be proof that this legend is based in fact.
Researchers from the United Kingdom and Kenya have recently learned that elephants are aware of themselves, and show interest and emotion when they come across elephant skulls and tusks, yet do not show similar interest in the bones of other animals. Researchers have witnessed African elephants become emotional and highly agitated when they encounter elephant remains in the wilds, behavior suggesting that they recognize their relatives.
Only humans and a few other animals demonstrate such awareness of the remains of their own kind. Chimpanzees seem to have rituals surrounding their dead and only abandon the bodies of relatives when they begin to decompose, and lions have been known to show emotions to dead family members by sniffing and/or licking the body prior to devouring it.
Although the UK/Kenyan research team concurs that elephants are aware of their relatives, they are not yet prepared to confirm the stories that elephants return to specific locations of dead relatives. However, they do offer that their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range. David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the UK provides this insight: “Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals. The fact they are able to distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising. As death approaches them we can only speculate if they are drawn to an elephant graveyard and where it could possibly be."
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