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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
Once the foil parcels in the bone lab were unwrapped, Wim sorted the elephant bones by type.
The young elephant's lower jaw can be used to tell his age. The third molar is heavily worn, the fourth one behind it shows slight wear only.
Lozenge-shaped enamel ridges visible at the grinding surface are typical of the African elephant.
Wim measures the teeth to identify their position and rank in the jaw. The measurements are also used to compare the HK6 elephant with modern specimens of known age.
The reconstructed fourth lower molar: only the anterior lamellae are cemented together
Photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition unless otherwise noted. Click on images for larger versions.
by Wim Van Neer

How Big is the Elephant?

My first task upon returning to Hierakonpolis was to unwrap a sea of foil wrapped parcels containing the elephant bones. Although the bones are large, all the sediments were sieved and no bone was missed. Every parcel and every bag was inspected, the bones numbered and then sorted by type: head bones, teeth, toes, etc. This task completed, it was then time to take stock and inventory the finds. Despite the severe disturbance of the burial that had strewn matching bones all over the area, almost the entire animal was present. Of course some parts are more informative than others. Teeth are especially important.

There is a lot that we can learn from the dentition: it tells us what species we are dealing with and how old the animal was at the time of its death. Elephant molars look very different from the tooth types with which we are more familiar. Each molar is composed of a number of plates (lamellae) that are formed inside the jaw. These plates are firmly held together with cementum once the tooth becomes functional. From the shape of the teeth it is clear that our elephant is an African elephant and not an Indian elephant, which at that time still occurred in the Levant. The grinding surfaces of the molars in use show lozenge-shaped enamel ridges that are typical of the African species. In the Asiatic elephant the lamellae are closer together and almost parallel to each other.

The dentition also allows us to establish the age of the elephant. Adult elephants have a series of six molars on each side of the jaw, upper and lower. Peculiar to elephant dentition, however, is that throughout life there is continuous movement of the teeth. A molar that is formed at the posterior end of the jaw gradually moves forward toward the anterior end of the jaw where small fragments break off during use and are lost. The forward movement of a given molar results from the pressure exerted by newly formed lamellae behind the tooth. This continuous movement and replacement of teeth is a phenomenon that can be used to age the elephant. The number of plates and the size of the teeth tell us what molar we are dealing with and this in turn indicates how old the animal was based on tooth replacement studies on modern elephants of known age.

[image] [image]
Belgium's Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren houses large zoological and ethnographic collections assembled over the past century. In the basement of this building is a series of 120 elephant skulls that were brought together during colonial times. This modern elephant skull in the museum is of exactly the same age as the specimen from Hierakonpolis. (Courtesy Wim Van Neer)

The number of plates and the size of the molars from the HK6 elephant reveals an animal that had its third molar in use. The fourth molar was almost completely erupted and about half of the plates were already worn. There is of course a certain individual variation in the eruption dates of the various teeth, but the fourth molar is generally considered to be fully in use in animals of 10-11 years old. At that age young elephants are still associated with their mothers, but they start being socially independent and soon reach puberty. Female teenagers of the same age still live in the maternal herd with their mother, grandmother, aunts, younger brothers, and sisters, but the male sub-adults are expelled from the herd and live in herds of young bulls.

Was our elephant a male or a female? To answer that question, we had to look at the pelvis, which was fortunately well preserved. The contour of the pubic bone clearly shows that our elephant was a male.

The combination of the data on age and sex allows us to formulate a hypothesis on why this particular elephant was captured. Maybe the animal was an unexperienced young male that had walked off too far from the maternal herd with which it was still loosely associated, or maybe the animal had recently been expelled from the group and was on its own looking for a bulls' herd to join. In either case, the people who captured this individual must have been well aware of elephant behavior and group structure. At this age, an elephant can still be trained and this must have been necessary to bring it from its place of capture to Hierakonpolis.

Among the stuffed elephants of the museum Veerle found an elephant similar in size to the one from the elite cemetery. (Courtesy Wim Van Neer) [image]

An elephant of this age is already pretty tall and heavy with a shoulder height of approximately 2.50 meters (8.2 feet) and a weight of about 1,000 kg (2,200 pounds). Such an animal would have needed about 50 kg (110 pounds) of fodder per day. Elephants can feed on a wide variety of forage but tend to concentrate on grasses, herbs, and--in the dry season--on woody plants. However, in order to find out what our elephant was eating, we must enter the microscopic world of our archaeo-botanist Ahmed Gamal Fahmy where the evidence is small in size but the information it contains is almost as big as an elephant.

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