Elephants are the undisputed giants of Africa. Frequently depicted in mythology and revered as a symbols of power and strength, they’ve also become universally immortalized in beloved pop culture characters such as Dumbo and Horton. So where do these huge truncated, floppy-eared goliaths come from originally?
African elephants and their smaller Asian cousins are descendant of a common ancestor, the extinct woolly mammoth. That’s the most likely answer if you ferret about for an answer based in science. African legend and lore would have it that the elephant’s origin story has various more poetic narratives, depending on which country or region you’re in.
The African elephant and the Kamba tribe of Kenya
One of the more intriguing African elephant origin tales goes something like this. First, in keeping with oral storytelling tradition, you need to imagine yourself sitting at a fire under the stars with the wizened, soulful voice of a narrator lulling you into quiet, concentrated awe as he or she retells how the elephant evolved from man.
A poor man seeking to change his circumstances heard a tale about “Ivonya-Ngia”, “He that feeds the poor”. Intrigued, he decided to seek out Ivonya-Ngia and embarked on a long and treacherous journey. Finally, tired and weary, he summited a hill and realised he’d reached his destination.
As far as the eye could see he there were endless herds of cattle and sheep and a lush expanse of green pastures. In the midst of these pastures he clapped eyes on a large residence. It was the home of Ivonya-Ngia who received the poor man graciously and, in a demonstration of compassion and generosity, ordered his men to bestow on the poor man one hundred sheep and an equal number of cows.
“Thank you, but no”, said the poor man. “I don’t want your charity. I want you to share with me the secret to becoming rich”. Ivonya-Ngia reflected on this for a time and then, handing the poor man a small jar containing some ointment he said, “Rub this on the teeth of your wife’s two pointed teeth of her upper jaw (incisors). Wait until they grow and then sell them”.
The poor man was dubious at first but he believed Ivonya-Ngia to be a man of integrity and undoubtedly great wealth. So, he journeyed home and promising his incredulous but loving wife that they would become rich, she allowed him to carry out the strange instructions. Nothing happened at first but the poor man continued to apply the ointment to his wife’s pointed teeth. After some weeks, her teeth began to grow. Eventually, they grew into tusks as thick and long as the poor man’s arm. He persuaded his wife to allow him to remove the tusks and took them to the market and sold them for a tribe of goats.
Continuing to apply the ointment, the no longer poor man’s wife’s pointed teeth soon grew into tusks that were even longer than the previous pair. This time she refused to let her husband touch them. With time her body became larger and heavier and her skin turned thick and grey. One day, she burst through the front door of their house and lumbered into the forest. There she gave birth to their son. He was an elephant.
From time to time the man visited his wife and son in the forest. Each time he implored her to return and each time she refused. She continued to birth more elephants and her children became the first herd of elephants on earth.
Image courtesy of Jan van Huyssteen