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Elephant Graveyard

A European Myth ?

Elephant Cemetery

The legend of elephant graveyards comes from European explorers who went hunting for ivory in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the myth, old elephants in the midst of nasty caries and sensing death approaching would instinctively go to a hidden place to give up the ghost. These mythical elephant graveyards would abound in dead pachyderms tusks ivory and became in the nineteenth century an obsession for elephant hunters coming from Europe hoping to make a fortune.


Elephants tusk ivory, a prized stuff

Elephant Tusks Ivory

For a long time, ivory has been a highly sought-after material by human beings, which uses it mainly for sculpture as well as for the production of various goods such as piano keys and billiard balls. Ivory is also in Christian religion a purist emblem associated with the Virgin Mary. Mammoth and elephant tusks are a prime target, but since the prohibition of trade, poachers have been turning more and more to narwhal horns, a species of marine unicorn, as the primary source of ivory. Narwhal horns would have wonderful properties and were used in medieval times to detect food poisoning.

David Livingstone - Africa

A European and African legend

Among stories that feed the myth of secret elephant graveyards are those of David Livingstone, a Scottish-born missionary and cartographer who has been on safari across Africa. Livingstone spent many years studying African relief and his stories are mostly at the origin of the legend of elephant graveyards.

Sub-Saharan beliefs tell that elephants, and especially old sages, would unconsciously be led to a burial place known only to pachyderms. It is on this vast isolated ground that tired elephants would lay in order to die.


Rational explanations

Elephant Tusk and bones

The presence of several carcasses of elephants piled up in one place can be explained in various ways and the existence of authentic graveyards remains highly controversial. Indeed, a pile of bones can be explained by poaching but also by natural disasters and by quicksand. But the most likely explanation for those alleged elephant graveyards is that the teeth of pachyderms wear out with age and form large cavities. Like rhinos, elephants would reach streams of muddy water to soothe the pain. They often die of hunger and given the arid climate of the savannah, many elephants would go to the same swamps, which would explain that sometimes one find piles of bones still containing tusks.

Elephant graveyards in Siberia

By the turn of the 18th century, Siberia would have become extremely popular for its many elephant graveyards dotted with mammoth skeletons. Ivory is so abundant in this region of the world that it has maintained European trade alone for almost a millennium. What is more, in the 1960s around Kiev, whole villages were discovered built from tusks and elephant bones.