Thinking with elephants

John Parkington

About halfway downstream along the course of what is now known as the Olifants River in the fynbos landscape of the Western Cape, some 20 metres upslope from its right bank, an enigmatic image is painted in red on the wall of a small rock shelter.

It is now quite faint to the eye, painted on a surface that has exfoliated both before and after the painting. Although there are tens of thousands of images painted along the streams and rivers that make up the Olifants River drainage, this one appears particularly evocative and strangely informative. 

It depicts six clothed figures of different sizes but similar form ‘striding’ to the right, in step and carrying similar gear; a procession of sorts and likely painted in one ‘sitting’. The rock shelter offers very little shade, except in the early morning, and appears rarely to have been occupied for domestic purposes to judge by the near absence of any stone artefacts, food waste or signs of fire-making or bedding construction in or in front of the overhang. There are, though, other painted images a few metres away toward the southernmost edge of the shelter – no less interesting, but for a different reason.

As an archaeologist with an interest in the lives of stone tool-using, hunting-and-gathering painters of this valley, I have regularly pondered the significance of this set of striding figures as intended by the painter(s) and as understood by contemporary viewers. What has fascinated me is the clearly depicted ‘elephant headed-ness’ of these clothed and equipped bipedal figures, as well as the fact that they are given elephant rather than human feet. We have always referred to them as ‘elephant-headed men’, and, indeed, there are grounds for believing them to be male, as I explain later. In the early days of my engagement with them, I was happy to use the word ‘ambiguous’ in describing them, as they appeared to conflate human and elephant parts into what I ‘knew’ to be an impossible hybrid being. More recently I have altered this perspective toward one that understands the apparent hybridity from the mindset of the painter, for whom they may not have been ambiguous at all.

Where to start in understanding the views of landscape and elephants among Cape hunter-gatherer people, the last of whom were referred to as Soaqua by the colonial expeditions that met them in the 1660s within a few kilometres of this painted site? How do we get into the mind of this long gone Soaqua painter and understand his or her intentions? Surely, I have thought, by immersing myself in the lives, practices and world views of people closer in thinking to the painter than any living Mancunian [me] could be? This reminded me of the realisations of many fellow archaeologists, ethnographers, anthropologists and historians studying the colonial histories of the Americas and Australia, who have written on, for example, The American Indian and the problem of history (Martin 1987).

Calvin Martin’s edited volume exposes the dramatic and usually tragic implication of failing to understand or even recognise the existence of ‘another way of seeing the world’ than that of a scholar who has inherited the ‘Aristotelian, Augustinian, Calvinist, Baconian, Cartesian, Newtonian, Darwinian, Marxist and many others or combinations’ (Martin 1987: 12) traditional ‘Western’ view of history and its constitutive events, along with science and its emergent explanations. The painter of the ‘elephant-headed men’ may not have been painting elephant-headed men but rather elephants that behaved like people.

Here, I present three sets of potentially useful evidence to approach an insider’s view of the enigmatic painting and the thousands more that may not seem as enigmatic. First, I look at the recorded perceptions of landscape and other species of animals by hunting and gathering societies from continents subsequently colonised and dominated by Europeans. I am searching for an appropriate ontological perspective, a clue to the possible thinking about human-elephant relations and the landscape understanding of the painter, now sadly not locally available. My focus, understandably, is on the San of southern Africa. Secondly, I summarise the behaviours of elephants as witnessed by wildlife biologists. These observers, some of them with decades-long experience documenting generations of elephant communities, would seem to be the nearest ‘Western’ equivalents to the Soaqua, who grew up with and amongst elephants and who, surely, knew them as well as – if not better than – any biologist. Thirdly, I look at the local painted record of elephants to understand what aspects of elephant biology and behaviour were selected for inclusion in the set of images we have been documenting. In the overlaps and entangled details, I look for Soaqua meaning.

Through the eyes of the other

James Deetz, one of those dangerously charismatic colleagues we all have, once told me [although I cannot find this written anywhere and may be making it up] that our job as archaeologists was ‘getting into dead folks’ minds’, meaning we had to learn to see things from the perspective of others. This is consistent with the view of the mid-20th century historian RG Collingwood, whose father was an archaeologist and who argued (Collingwood 1946) that the only way to know the past was by ‘re-enactment’. Obviously, he noted, we were not there in the past to see the events unfold or the painting painted, nor should we believe the words, if there are any, of someone who was there at the time, as their view may be biased, mistaken or deliberately falsified. Our only recourse, thought Collingwood (echoed by Deetz), is to try to re-enact the behaviours and, more significantly, the thought processes of past people, in this case past painters. All history, asserted Collingwood, is the history of thought. I have accepted the challenge of re-enacting the painting of six striding figures, apparently people, but with elephant heads and feet.

Perhaps the most helpful starting point would be the stoep or the garden in Mowbray, Cape Town in July 1879, during a conversation between Lucy Lloyd, an English philologist, and |han≠kass’o, a |xam-speaking ‘Bushman’ former prisoner whom she was probing about his view of the world.

He had just told her that ‘all things (that is living creatures) were formerly people’ (L.V111.30, 8629a, quoted in Parkington and de Prada-Samper 2021: 233).

Here is an example that I am sure Lucy Lloyd knew to be evidence that her companion did not see the world the way she did, and that translation was far more difficult than a mere replacement of words. World views, not word meanings, were her chief challenge. A few months earlier, |han≠kass’o had told Lucy Lloyd the story of !gwa!nuntu, the child and the elephants, a story he had heard from his mother before his arrest in the arid Karoo, only two hundred kilometres or so east of the Olifants River valley. !gwa!nuntu was looking after his granddaughter, somewhat negligently, when she was stolen by some passing elephants and replaced with a young girl elephant. After realising of the theft, and after much pursuit and the retrieval of the (human) girl, playing with elephant children among the houses of the elephants, the granddaughter was reunited by him with her mother. Sensing ‘ambiguity’ in the human-like behaviour of the elephant mother and her community, Lucy Lloyd asked about the identities of the participants, to be told that the events took place ‘when the elephants were people’ (L.V111.5:6338v).

Confirming that these views were widespread among the San communities of southern Africa, Megan Biesele (2009) has relayed ‘That elephant first found water’ and ‘The beautiful elephant girl’ among her Ju/’huan folktales: transcriptions and English translations from the Central Kalahari. In the former verbatim story:

The elephant was the one who first found water. He hid it from people and drank it alone. But the mud from the water stuck to his ankles and his wife, the Beautiful Aardvark Girl, asked the others how he could have found water and could be drinking it without sharing.

(Biesele 2009: 11)

The tale does not end well: her brothers ‘stabbed him so that spears met this way and that inside his body and he died’ (Biesele 2009: 11). The latter story appears to be about in-law relations, as ‘the elephant girl’s husband’s younger brother was still in his mother’s stomach when his older brother married the elephant girl’ (Biesele 2009: 69). Later, ‘the younger brother had killed and skinned his older brother’s wife, the elephant girl, and had roasted her and was cutting up and eating her fat’ (Biesele 2009: 70). Both tales relate episodes of violence and vengeance, implicating people who were elephants in dangerous and competitive relations over marriage and access to water. Biesele’s and Lloyd’s informants were referring to a time when species boundaries were far from watertight. Elephants might steal a daughter, prevent access to water and prove to be vindictive and unwelcome relatives.

Do these stories allow us into the mind of a painter who depicted striding ‘people’ with elephant heads? In my view, they are much more profitable insights than any reading of the Bible, Shakespeare’s sonnets or the adventures of Harry Potter could ever generate: to ignore them would be to re-enact riskily. The notion of ontological mutability and the acceptance of almost endless transitions between categories, what anthropologist Mathias Guenther once called ‘a tolerance of ambiguity’, may have been a very widespread property of groups who had not passed through the ‘Aristotelian, Augustinian, Calvinist….’ filters.

Robin Ridington, one of the most articulate contributors to Calvin Martin’s The American Indian and the problem of history (note that the problem is with history and not with Native Americans), elegantly narrates a personal and professional transformation that has struck me as relevant to my own shift in interpretative preference. Having set out into ‘the field’ as a young anthropologist armed with ‘sensible’ questions provided by his academic supervisor, Ridington was eventually transformed by his informant Japasa and reported:

When I heard old man Japasa speak in 1964 about his medicine animals, I knew with absolute certainty this man was neither lying nor deluding himself. It was I who indulged in self-delusion when I persisted in asking for data in a form that could not accommodate Beaver Indian reality. In his last days on earth, the old man gave me his vision of that reality. I hope that the trust he placed in me has been justified in some small measure by the work I have chosen to do in my life.

(Ridington 1987: 135)

Nor did Soaqua people need this illustrious trio to help them realise that elephants behave like people, are very unpredictable and are dangerous neighbours and jealous guardians of diminishing water supplies. ‘No one disputes that rationality [of Native Americans or Soaqua]; the problem is they are being assigned someone else’s rationality’ (Martin 1987: 20).

For a perspective on San thinking about landscape and identity, what he calls an attitude of ‘ontological mutability’, previously a ‘tolerance of ambiguity’, we can explore the ideas of Mathias Guenther, arguably best and most appropriately expressed in his ‘therefore their parts resemble humans, for they feel that they are people’ (Guenther 2015). For Guenther (2020), transformation, the porosity of boundaries and the mutability between categories is at the heart of a San world view, detectable and visibly consistent in mythic stories, ritual life history performances and day to day behaviours such as hunting. The Soaqua painter was not an outside observer of ecological or environmental events and relationships but rather a participant insider acting out a timeless ‘play’ with a cast of differently but equally active fellow beings. Agency, potency and mutability were everywhere.

Elephants from the viewpoint of a wildlife biologist

Our understanding of African elephant sociality and communication took a massive turn for the better with Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s late 1960s Oxford dissertation fieldwork (Douglas-Hamilton 1972) at Lake Manyara and his subsequent championing of the long-term continuous and ongoing monitoring of the Lake Amboseli herds by Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, Phyllis Lee, Katy Payne and others (Moss, Croze  & Lee 2011). Douglas-Hamilton ‘was among the first of a generation of ethologists and behavioural ecologists to focus on individual life histories in understanding complex social relationships’ (Mitman 2005: 178). Eschewing the statistical habits of population ecologists, where ‘patterns of numbers mattered most’ (Mitman 2005: 180), Douglas-Hamilton argued that the ‘sum total of individuals in [his] study resulted in an elephant society not a population’ (Mitman 2005: 185), and he ‘foregrounded personality and emotion in his analysis of elephant social life’ (Mitman 2005: 185). Although he initially allocated numbers to each elephant, he soon realised that giving names rather than numbers was the best mnemonic device for understanding and monitoring relationships between hundreds of individuals. This strategy became the one used in the extended Amboseli study that followed thousands of individual elephants over decades.

Drawing on these results, Joyce Poole, a leading figure in the Amboseli research, and her colleague Petter Granli offer the following generalised comments on the characteristics of elephant lives on their website elephantvoices.org:

Elephants are slow-growing, long-lived mammals, surviving up to 70 years in the wild. A population of elephants can be defined as a community of individuals linked by genetic and social relationships of mating and parenthood.

Elephants are well-known for their intelligence, close family ties and social complexity, and they remember other individuals and places for years. They live in a fluid fission-fusion society, with relationships radiating out from the mother-offspring bond through families, bond groups, clans, independent males and beyond to strangers.

The fission and fusion of groups is correlated with seasonality. In the dry season, social groups tend to be less cohesive and smaller; families are often divided into small subgroups, and they rarely fuse with other families to form larger aggregations. In contrast, during the wet season, families often travel in intact groups, whole families often fuse with other families, and hundreds of animals can sometimes be found together in one continuous aggregation. This relationship between seasonality and sociality is probably driven by resource availability; in the dry season, food is scarce, and groups fission to reduce the costs of resource competition. In the wet season, food is more abundant, and individuals are able to live in larger groups.

Female elephants remain closely bonded to their close relatives for life, and caring for another relative’s offspring is common and important for the survival of calves. Moreover, elephants possess complex visual/tactile, acoustic and olfactory communication systems.

Empathetic behaviours are commonly observed among elephants, including: the formation of coalitions to assist others in need of help; offering protection to young or injured elephants (or even to other species); providing comfort to distressed individuals; babysitting calves separated from their mothers; retrieving calves separated from their natal family; assisting individuals who have fallen, require physical assistance or are immobilised; and removing foreign objects from another elephant. Elephants have even been observed feeding another elephant incapable of feeding itself.

Female elephants meet and recognise a large number of other individuals on a daily basis, presumably keeping a mental record of their relative ages, status, sexual condition, personality and changing location. The social complexity of elephants stems in part from this ability, which promotes the development of multiple and many-layered social relationships.

Elephants have remarkable memories. They accumulate and retain social and ecological knowledge, and they remember the scents and voices of other individuals’ migratory routes, special places and learned skills for decades.

Clearly, elephants resemble and rival humans in the range of their emotional capacities, the depth, breadth and scale of their interpersonal relations, the persistence of emotional feelings after the death of a relative, the length and reliability of their memories, the fission and fusion nature of their ecological adaptations, and the variety and sophistication of their communication systems. Some of their skills far exceed those of their human neighbours. The elephant’s ability to detect rain at a distance must have been an enviable skill in organising movement and resource exploitation strategies. Like people, elephants require daily access to water and adapt the size and composition of the group to the seasonal variations of water and essential food items. No other large social mammal operates a fission-fusion system that so frequently obliges groups to fragment and re-congregate in organised fashion. In addition, being too thick-skinned to become regular prey targets for hunters with tiny poison-tipped arrows, elephants probably co-existed with people without the tensions of hunter-prey antagonism.

This raises the issue of ‘anthropomorphism’, ‘the belief that [some?] animals are essentially like humans’ (Daston & Mitman 2005), a form of ‘thinking with animals’ that might bridge the conceptual frameworks of hunter gatherers and scientists. Despite his strict scientific training at Oxford ‘not to give human interpretations to animal behaviour, it was impossible [for Douglas-Hamilton, Cynthia Moss and the rest of the Amboseli research team] not to anthropomorphise’ (Mitman 2005: 185). Known as ‘the man who lived with elephants’, it is difficult to distinguish whether ‘elephants had become human or [he had] become elephant’ (Mitman 2005: 185). Further, Mitman (2005: 188) argues of the Manyara and Amboseli studies that ‘the lives of these researchers have in fact become so enmeshed with those of the elephants that it is sometimes difficult to discern the boundaries between the two’. This provides a good opportunity to shift to a consideration of the Soaqua view of elephant lives.

Elephants from the painter’s perspective

The Soaqua, like the San of the Kalahari, lived among elephants without, arguably, the will or the technology to regularly hunt them. Megan Biesele’s (1993) investigation of Kalahari Ju/’hoansi attitudes to elephants, and particularly elephant meat, are especially helpful in offering a potential viewing of elephants by Soaqua hunters and gatherers of the Olifants River. Quoting her informants, she notes that: ‘When it’s dead, an elephant smells bad, like a dead person’ (1993: 149). Of elephant meat: ‘You don’t eat it because it’s like a person’ (1993: 150). Elephants resemble people because ‘the female has two breasts and they are on her chest like a woman’s. When she’s young they stick out and when she gets old they fall. Also, her crotch is like a woman’s with long labia’ (1993: 150). Of males: ‘they have an arse like a person’s arse’ (1993: 150). ‘When they run, elephants really get into the swing of it and begin to dance, just like people’ (1993: 150). There seems little doubt that, in the Kalahari at least, elephants reminded people of themselves.

Somewhat nearer to the Olifants River, stories of the karoo |xam San make it clear that they too enjoyed conflating people and animals into narratives where it is not clear which category, if either, was implied in a character. Is |kaggen a mantis or a hunter, is his wife a hyrax (dassie) or a woman; are these stories not set in times when such distinctions were as yet undrawn? These are tales of a ‘cannot distinguish’ family of beings. The choice of which species to cast in particular roles in stories leaves no doubt that similarities between animal and human behaviours are implicated. The greedy sisters of a woman whose husband sees his kill rapidly consumed by in-laws have to be vultures, no other transformation is quite as appropriate. The behavioural characteristics of hyraxes and mantises earmark these species as natural models for home-loving, plant-gathering rock-shelter dweller and particularly successful ambush hunter respectively. I extend this here to elephants.

Elephants are, after eland, the most frequently painted animal species in the Olifants River, Cederberg and surrounding areas. We have argued (Parkington & Paterson 2017; Paterson 2007, 2018) that juxtaposed paintings of elephants depict realistic social compositions and not simply unrelated individuals. The most basic and least ambiguous of these observed – and, we argue, painted – relationships is that of mother and calf. There are many such paintings, proportionally many more than is the case among other painted animal species, and the interpretation of the larger image as female and the smaller as calf seems justified by the positioning of large and small individuals. The calf is often placed under the belly of the mother (Leipoldt’s Grave and Tanqua), under the carefully arched protection of the trunk of the mother (Droogerivier and Grootberg) or immediately behind her (Keurbos).

These are realistic reflections of the common observation that mother and baby are rarely separated by more than a few metres in the first four years of an elephant’s life (Moss 1988) and are easily matched with wildlife imagery. The painters not only knew this close and crucial maternal bond, they chose to use it as a compositional theme. An alternative view, one that sees the smaller elephants as simply further away or chooses to see relative image size as definitively unreliable (both of which we have heard expressed), is untenable given the matches between painted and photographed or eye-witnessed mother-calf juxtapositions. 

Elephant imagery is not only very common, however, but is also imaginatively used in ways that are not found among eland or other animal images. Elephants appear ‘in boxes’ (at Klipfonteinrand, Monte Cristo and Floreat (Maggs & Sealy 1983; Parkington & Paterson 2017)), on the heads of dancing humans (Sevilla, Uitsig and Bushmanskloof (Parkington 2021; Parkington & Paterson 2021)) and, as addressed here, as ‘elephant-headed people’ (Groot Hexrivier and Monte Cristo (Parkington & de Prada-Samper 2021)).

These deliberate references to human-elephant connectivities parallel the anthropomorphisms of biologists and the ontologies of hunter-gatherer world views briefly recounted earlier. The centrality of transformations, as suggested by Guenther (2015, 2020), is surely involved in Soaqua fynbos landscape imagery.

I suggest that the Groot Hexrivier beings are elephants that were behaving as people do, and hence are painted with human-like features, rather than people transforming into or accessing the power of elephants. These images were not ambiguous at all but were actors in events that were as rooted in mythic beliefs as they were in ecological ‘realities’. Elephants dominated not just the ecological landscape of the eponymous Olifants River, but also the mental landscape of local Soaqua hunters and gatherers, communicating and participating in events of mythical, ritual and quotidian domains. Japasa would have understood this perfectly as, after all, it is this liminality that made a landscape what it was.

Online from: 29 Nov 2021