Elephants in ancient China

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A replica of a Shang dynasty bronze pitcher depicting an elephant as a statue in the North Park Blocks of Portland, Oregon

The existence of elephants in ancient China is attested both by archaeological evidence and by depictions in Chinese artwork. Long thought to belong to an extinct subspecies of Asian elephants, named Elephas maximus rubridens, they lived in Central and Southern China before the 14th century BC. They once occurred as far north as Anyang, Henan in northern China.[1]

In December 2012, a study by a team of scientists from China reported that the elephant living in China in ancient times (Shang and Zhou dynasties) could not have been a subspecies of the Asian elephant, as previously thought, but probably belonged to the Palaeoloxodon genus.[2] P. namadicus were distributed among Asia, but it is unclear if the mysterious elephants of northern China were remnants of P. namadicus or a unique species of their own. This conclusion was reached after studying remains of Chinese elephant molars and tusks from the Holocene epoch, as well as examining ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, which all depicted elephants with two 'fingers' on the tip of their trunk (whereas the Indian elephant only has one 'finger').[3] Fossil elephant experts Victoria Herridge and Adrian Lister disagree with the assignment, stating that the claimed diagnostic dental features are actually contrast artifacts, created due to the low resolution of the figures in the scientific paper, and are not evident in better quality photographs.[4]

Elephants still survived in the southwestern provinces of China after the extinction of the Chinese elephant, but they are of a different subspecies, the Indian elephant, Elephas maximus indicus. A native population of these remains in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brown, R. (2011). Blood Ivory: The Massacre of the African Elephant. Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780752475301. 
  2. ^ Li, J.; Hou, Y.; Li, Y.; Zhang, J. (2012). "The latest straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon)? "Wild elephants" lived 3000 years ago in North China". Quaternary International. 281: 84. Bibcode:2012QuInt.281...84L. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.10.039. 
  3. ^ Warwicker, Michelle (19 December 2012). "Extinct elephant 'survived late' in North China". BBC Nature. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Switek, B. (2012-12-27). "Bronze art sparks debate over the extinction of the straight-tusked elephant". National Geographic. Retrieved 2013-03-16. 

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