The Elephants In The Room, On The Planet

When I watched National Geographic’s ‘The Secret Lives of Elephants‘, it fired my imagination. They’re landscape architects, making paths through whatever gets in their way, allowing others to follow through the clearings. They also end up in places humans migrated to, and that didn’t seem like a mistake.

Humans share a complicated relatively modern history with elephants. The Human Institute of Ethnobiology has a bit to say about it:

“…Currently, the documentation of Indigenous knowledge about elephants is inadequate, despite Indigenous peoples being highlighted as making the some of the best mahouts with long and ancient traditions (Lair 1997, Kurt 2006). Traditional territories of Indigenous peoples continue to be the homes of some of the healthiest populations of wild elephants. The range of information that cultures with strong connections with elephants accumulate needs to be brought to the centre of elephant studies…”

Of Humans and Elephants“, Kierin McKenzie and Dr. Piers Locke, Human Institute of Ethnobiology.

Well, of course we don’t have much documentation of indigenous knowledge about elephants. While there are people who are very interested in such things, most people know little about indigenous people to begin with, and elephants are beings that most of global society doesn’t have to interact with other than going to visit some form of zoo or on television. So, at least in my case, the National Geographic series worked.

How far back does our connection go with them?

“…Looking at more recent data, the researchers also suggest that our relationship with elephants was the source of food taboos and meat taboos. They describe how, as the “humanization of elephants” progressed, there was a move away from consuming elephant meat. In some places, the killing of an elephant would require “a mourning period of seven days, the same as the mourning period for a member of the tribe,” while in other places elephant hunting was considered in the same way that people viewed human warfare. The authors point to countless references found in archeology that show the importance of elephants in human cosmology and provide evidence of these interspecies bonds. For elephant advocates, this is data that could be useful in telling a story about the history of elephants for advocacy purposes…”

The Intertwined History Of Elephants And People” (abstract), Karol Orzechowski, February 20, 2016

So now we’re into archaeology. Digging deeper, we find that elephants are a new model in understanding human evolution as well. There is a lot of deep history, going back as far back as written history.

Given that present theories suggest that humanity wandered off from the South African region of the world to propagate across the planet, it seems possible that elephants and humans had some form of relationship, be it with the elephants as path creators or a more close relationship, perhaps with humans using the elephants to these ends. It’s hard to say, because elephants are much more intelligent than we thought, with complex communication systems including seismic communication.

They exhibit empathy, social behavior and have more than once shown their intelligence in thwarting humanity where they decide they’ll make a stand.

We’re only now beginning to truly understand who they are. They didn’t become intelligent overnight. They’ve been intelligent for quite some time – thousands of years, as far as we know, and we’re only really beginning to figure that out.

And elephants are only one species like this. There are many others on the planet who we see in media portrayed as being intelligent, and everyone acts as if it’s new. It’s likely not.

It’s possible we’ve only recently gotten intelligent enough ourselves to identify intelligence in other creatures.

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