Significance to humans
has been practised since at least 30,000 years ago, when Palaeolithic people in Europe made tools and ornaments out of mammoth tusk. Ivory is hard, fine-grained, and has an elasticity that makes it excellent for carving: skilled craftspeople can produce objects of great beauty. Countless functional objects have been made throughout history: piano keys and billiard balls were one of the main uses in the West, and in recent decades, the ornamental ‘signature seal’ of Japan has become a major end-product.
The earliest evidence of elephant domestication is in the third millennium BC in the Indus Valley of India. The initial domestication was probably for purposes of traction, tree-felling and porterage; this usage continues today in parts of southeast Asia, although it is declining. Elephants were formerly captured from the wild, either singly in pits or as family units in stockades; now they are bred and trained from calves. An elephant can recognise and respond to 30 or more commands issued by its mahout, or driver.
Soon after their domestication, elephants were pressed into military service. In 326 BC, the Indian king Porus, with 200 elephants in his army, was famously defeated by Alexander. A typical battle formation of the Vedas included 45 elephants, which were the first to charge, throwing the enemy into disorder and knocking down stockades. Kings and princes hunted from elephant-back, a practice taken over with enthusiasm by European colonizers. In general, elephants came to embody royalty, largely because of the high price of their capture and maintenance.
The elephant also plays a prominent part in the Hindu pantheon. Airavata was the elephant mount of Lord Brahma, creator of the universe. Two elephants were the massive pillars of the world and bore the earth on their enormous heads. Ganesh, the elephant god, is one of the best-loved of all Hindu deities: as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings, he is invoked at the start of any undertaking. The worship of Lord Ganesh originated in the third or fourth century AD, and created a strong ethos against the killing of elephants. In Buddhist countries, especially in Indochina, the very rare white elephant was revered as an incarnation of the Buddha; when captured, it was ministered to with the utmost care.
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