jump to navigation

Mongol elephants in America? July 22, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

For the second article of Elephant Week Beachcombing thought that he would introduce one of his favourite early nineteenth-century books.

Just let the title wash over you…

John Ranking’s Historical researches on the conquest of Peru, Mexico, Bogota, Natchez, and Talomeco in the thirteenth century by the Mongols, accompanied with elephants: and the local agreement of history and tradition with the remains of elephants and mastodontes found in the New World (London 1827).

And you thought that Asians arrived in America only in the sixteenth century and that there were no elephants in the new world in historical times?

But this book is so much better than even the title suggests. Indeed, there are many wonderful moments including the search for carnivorous North American mammoths (not extinct at time of publication) and the suggestion that an animal on an Iron Age British-Celtic coin is a tapir…

Told quickly Ranking’s central theory goes as follows. In 1274 a Mongol invasion of Japan was repulsed by an enormous storm: this is a matter of record. Ranking though argues that some of these ships (with Mongols and elephants) ended up in the New World. His evidence? The following passage from ‘El Inca’ Garcillasso de la Vega’s  writings.

‘I shall relate,’ says Garcillasso de la Vega [obit 1616, pictured above], ‘what Pedro de Cieza de Leon [obit 1554] told me that he had heard in the province where the giants arrived. They affirm, said he, in all Peru, that certain giants came ashore on this coast, at the Cape, now called St. Helen’s, which is near the town of Puerto Viejo. Those who have preserved this tradition from father to son, say, that these giants came by sea, in a kind of rush boats, made like large barks; that they were so enormously tall, that from the knee downward, they were as high as common men; that they had long hair, which hung loose upon their shoulders; that their eyes were as large as plates, and that other parts of their bodies were big in proportion; that they had no beard, that some went naked, others were covered with the skins of wild beasts and that they had no women with them. After having landed at the Cape, they established themselves at a spot pointed out to them by the inhabitants, and dug very deep wells through the rock, which to this day supply excellent water. These giants lived by rapine, and desolated the whole country; they say, that they were such gluttons, that one would eat as much meat as fifty of the native inhabitants; and that for a part of their nourishment they caught a quantity of fish with nets. They massacred the men of the neighbouring parts without mercy, and killed the women by their brutal violations. The wretched Indians often tried to devise some means to rid themselves of these troublesome visitors, but they never had either sufficient force or courage to attack them.*Secure from all apprehension, these new monsters thus tyrannized for a long while, committing the most infamous enormities. Divine justice sent fire from heaven with a great noise, and an angel armed with a flaming sword, by whom they were destroyed at one blow. To serve as an eternal monument of the vengeance of God, their bones and skulls were not consumed by the fire, but are found at the very place, of an enormous size. I have heard Spaniards say, that they have seen bits of their teeth, by which they judged that a tooth weighed more than half a pound. As for the rest it is not known from what place they came, nor by what route they arrived.  I learned this year [1550, aged 11!], when I was at the Ville des Rois [Lima], that during the viceroyalty of Don Antony Mendoza, in New Spain, bones had been found there of a still greater size than the above mentioned. I also heard that, in the city of Mexico, some had been found in an old sepulchre; and also in another place in the same kingdom. We may infer from this, that these giants have existed, and that what authors have written about them is not fabulous. Another wonderful thing is, that at Cape St Helen’s there are springs of liquid pitch, which are fit for the purposes of ship-building.’

Beachcombing is sure that the reader will have noticed the barely hidden references to Mongols disembarking from their ships on elephants. They certainly did not escape Ranking who wrote in a note (relative to the asterisk in the text): ‘The elephants would, no doubt, be defended by their usual armour on such an extraordinary occasion, and the space for the eyes would appear monstrous. The remark about the beards, &c. (many of the Mongols have no beards…) shows, that the man and the elephant were considered as one person.’

Now, of course, storms do bring sea travellers to places that they would not normally dream of going: the Vikings, for example, went beyond Iceland with the help of such tempests. But Beachcombing has been able to find no proof that there were any elephants in the Mongol invasion ships bound for Japan. Not surprising given the appalling problems that Hannibal had in getting his few elephants across the Rhone: never mind poor Pyrrhus bringing elephants over the Adriatic.

Beachcombing feels bound to note too that legends of invaders coming from the sea are common to many maritime cultures: the sea brings seagulls and death and makes those living beside it itchy with worry. (Beachcombing once spent three terrible months in a Breton seaport and the noise and the smell filled his dreams.) In this light, note how the story Vega reports seems to involve initial cooperation between invaders and the locals, ‘a spot pointed out to them by the inhabitants’, a classic legendary invasion motif.

There was perhaps an attempt here on the part of a pre-Columbian population, taken up enthusiastically by the Spanish, to explain large bone remains that they had found. Fossils often excite legends because they demand explanations: indeed, much of Ranking’s book could be seen as a continuation in that tradition. (For fossils and legends Beachcombing would recommend Peter Dodson and Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times). Then the pitch springs may be the origin of the legend of the angel of death?

Ranking though was already on his jolly up the Mountains of Madness and nothing was going to hold him back. There follow another three hundred and fifty pages of pure, magical delirium.

Beachcombing recommends this book in the highest possible terms not least because Google has actually managed to digitalise it getting almost all the pages right and not smearing the print too much. A rare achievement.

He is also very interested, should any reader be able to help him, in other ‘evidence’ for elephants in pre-Columbian America especially in pre-Columbian objets d’art – note that the reader does not have to believe the ‘evidence’!  drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom

Elephant Week is dedicated to Beachcombing’s dear friend and notable elephant lover Raoul who helped the Beachcombings put up a curtain rail a few days ago.