Elephants' graveyard

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An elephants' graveyard (also written elephant graveyard or elephant's graveyard) is a place where, according to legend, older elephants instinctively direct themselves when they reach a certain age. They then die there alone, far from the group.


Several theories are given about the myth's origin. One theory involves people finding groups of elephant skeletons together, or observing old elephants and skeletons in the same habitat.[1] Others suggest the term may spring from group die-offs, such as one excavated in Saxony-Anhalt, which had 27 Palaeoloxodon antiquus skeletons.[2] In that particular case, the tusks of the skeletons were missing, which indicated either hunters killed a group of elephants in one spot, or else opportunistic scavengers removed the tusks from a natural die-off.

Other theories focus on elephant behavior during lean times, suggesting starving elephants gather in places where finding food is easier, and subsequently die there.[3]

The myth was popularised in films such as Trader Horn and MGM's Tarzan movies, in which groups of greedy explorers attempt to locate the elephants' graveyard, on the fictional Mutia Escarpment, in search of its riches of ivory.[4] Osamu Tezuka's Kimba the White Lion episode "A Friend in Deed" centered around it.

More recently, the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King; as well as the Broadway/West End musical adaptation; referred to the motif. In "Fearful Symmetry," an episode from The X-Files which revolves around a mysterious invisible elephant, a character refers to the mythical concept as fact.

Prolific elephant hunter Walter "Karamojo" Bell discounted the idea of the elephant's graveyard, stating that bones and "tusks were still lying about in the bush where they had lain for years".[5]

Derivative meanings[edit]

In geology, "elephants' graveyard" is an informal term for a hypothetical accumulation of "large blocks of country rock stoped from the roofs of batholiths".[6] In military settings, it is sometimes used as a slang term to describe postings or assignments for senior officers for which there is no potential for further promotion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Armitage, Kenneth B.; Buss, Irven O. (March 1992). "The Great Beast — Elephant Life: Fifteen Years of High Population Density". BioScience (BioScience, Vol. 42, No. 3) 42 (3): 196–197. doi:10.2307/1311827. JSTOR 1311827. 
  2. ^ Brühl, Enrico; Mania, Dietrich (22–25 September 2003). "Neumark-Nord: a middle Pleistocene lake shore with synchronous sites of different functional character". Données récentes sur les modalités de peuplement en Europe au Paléolithique inférieur et moyen. Rennes: Université de Rennes. 
  3. ^ Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Richard Barnes, Hezy Shoshani, A. Christy Williams, A. J. T. Johnsingh, Robin Beck, Katy Payne "Elephants" The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Ed. David W. Macdonald. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.28 August 2007 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t227.e47>
  4. ^ Earnhart, Brady (1 July 2007). "A Colony of the Imagination: Vicarious Spectatorship in MGM's Early Tarzan Talkies". Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24 (4): 341–352. doi:10.1080/10509200500526778. 
  5. ^ Bell, Walter (1949). Karamojo Safari. Harcourt, Brace. p. 26. ISBN 1-57157-358-5. 
  6. ^ Clarke, D. Barrie; Henry, Andrew S.; White, Mary Anne (10 September 1998). "Exploding xenoliths and the absence of 'elephants' graveyards' in granite batholiths". Journal of Structural Geology 20 (9–10): 1325–1343. doi:10.1016/S0191-8141(98)00082-0. 

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