The last American elephant should have died over ten thousand years ago, thus apparent representations of the trumpeting mammals on ancient Native American artifacts pose a distinct theoretical problem. Visions of fortified cities, Homeric battles, dying civilizations, and elephant-cavalry charges came to one writer’s mind as the result of something he found in a Western New York burial mound.
Dr. Frederick Larkin of Randolph, NY, was professor of physiology at the Randolph Eclectic Medical College. His medical degree may have been honorary, but his interest in ancient American cultures was very real. Like many Euroamericans of the middle nineteenth century he set out upon his own freelance excavations. His hard-to-find book "Ancient Man in America" lists his most dramatic find.
While exploring some tumuli (burial mounds) in the Red House Valley near today's Allegany State Park in 1859, Larkin and pals found “a flat piece of native copper, six inches in length by four in width, artistically wrought, with the form of an elephant represented in harness engraved upon it, and a sort of breast collar with tugs on either side, which extended past the hips.”
Hold on. Though impressive, even moving images of humans and Ice Age animals have been executed in pigment and bone, by the time people were at the level implied by Larkin’s plate - fashioning earthworks and crafting copper - the last mastodon should have been long gone. Even more electrifying was the impression that Larkin’s beast had been domesticated, conscripted into transportation, agriculture, and maybe even warfare. To Larkin, this and other reported finds indicated that human beings had “tamed that monster of the forest and made him a willing slave to their intellectual power.” Shades of Dinotopia! Other wags hoping, possibly, to support Mormon takes on the prehistory of the New World, got off on lost legions of Hannibal and Genghis Khan, setting up shop all over North America.
Or Atlantis. But we go too fast. Ranging in size from a Wisconsin earthwork to a tobacco pipe, and in development from a Mayan temple carving to a pecked stone slab, elephant-like images do appear in Native American art. The study of them is a sub-industry in the field of “fringe archaeology,” and a few examples should suffice. Author Graham Hancock saw the image of an elephant (with other extinct animals) on the “Gateway of the Sun” at Tihuanaco on Lake Titicaca. Carl Johannessen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon, notes that the image has been discovered in Olmec regions on the Gulf of Mexico, and also in several Mayan sites at Copan, Uxmal and Kabah. To Johanessen these images are so distinct that they suggest that “elephant sculptures were made under the direction of someone who was familiar with the animals.”
“Are they really elephants?” some ask. A few mammals native to these continents - like the tapir - might seem elephantine through the distortion of ancient art, and we have to be real careful how we interpret it. Erich Von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods), for instance, took the portrait of Mayan king Pacal on his stylized throne to be a UFO-ride. The Wisconsin mound could be meant to represent a bear, and its apparent proboscis came through the incursions of a flooded stream. Other images (like the Mayan carvings) could be representations of the long-nosed rain-god, or simply ornate motifs.
Others are less ambiguous. A famous pictograph from the Moab seems surely some large trunked animal no longer living in the region, and clear elephant-images have been found throughout North America in a variety of inscriptions, like Pennsylvania’s Lenape Stone and Massachusetts’ Hammond Stone. Some of the most convincing sculptures are a clearly elephantine pipe from a mound in Iowa (the main skeptical quibble seeming to be that it lacks tusks), and one of red soapstone (catlinite) in our own Little Valley Museum, where you can see it for yourself. It’s clearly a proboscidean, a trunked animal.
Of these cases the question is authenticity. Hearsay is never evidence, and it’s impossible to date a stone artifact isolated from its site. Skeptics object that they could be errors or modern hoaxes, particularly the inscribed stones. A range of motives offers itself for forging or reporting archaeological curiosities, and the game seems to have been the rage in the nineteenth century.
Not much can be judged about Larkin’s plate from the information we have. A copper artifact might last a long time in the right kind of soil, and it might deteriorate in just a century or so under the wrong conditions. It’s possible that the tradition of the image existed from very ancient times, and that this plate was simply copied from an earlier original, maybe a legacy of them.
Doc Larkin was a phrenologist, deducing from a mere skull the character of its living owner. (“The intellectual and moral regions were exceedingly well developed,” he complimented the late bearer of one doughty specimen.) His imagination was also dramatic, envisioning ancient Homeric American battles and “soldiers driving their flint arrows into the quivering flesh of their victims...” in our own Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, and “the tributary streams of the Conewango pouring down their turbid waters red with human gore.”
Nevertheless, his take on what he and others actually found is pretty pragmatic. He quarrels, for instance, with reports of giant skeletons, and, except for a few apparently pre-Columbian roads about Western New York (which I discuss elsewhere), lists few oddities. He is the more credible as he describes his mastodon platter.
Though Larkin’s elephant may still be preserved in some private collection, Iroquois scholar and archaeologist Arthur Parker (1881-1955) looked for it in vain. We could get our glimpse of its subjects, someday, however, another way, if, as Larkin fancies, the Last Trumpet sounds, and “ Blacksnake, Cornplanter, and all their nameless prehistoric forbears leap forth in their full-fleshed finery.” Will the mastodon rider and his warlike legions lead the Judgment-parade in the Red House Valley? It will have to wait, the mystery of Larkin’s elephant, whose bones “and those of his master are crumbling together in the ground.”