Ivory and the Elephant – George Frederick Kunz



THE employment of ivory in the production of ornamental objects dates back to the very earliest times. In the cave dwellings of Le Moustier and La Madeleine in the Dordogne, France, and in the lake dwellings of Switzerland, some ivory objects and many of reindeer horn, carved and incised with a remarkable degree of artistic skill, have been discovered.

The ivory used ornamentally at this remote period almost certainly came from dead animals, as does a very considerable part of the African ivory imported to-day. This easier means of obtaining it was undoubtedly then as now a great factor, and while the specimens preserved for us do not offer any special indications as to the reasons governing the choice of this material, we may well suppose that not only its rich-toned, smooth surface, but also the graceful curve of the tusks were determining considerations.

More especially the latter must have appealed to the instinctive appreciation of primitive man for what Hogarth has called the “line of beauty,” and this is manifest in the fondness of most primitive peoples for curved horns of various kinds as objects upon which to bestow their skill, much or little, in ornamental design.

We must always bear in mind, however, that what we are pleased to call “primitive man,” when he had reached the rudimentary civilization of the cave and lake dwellers of France and Switzerland, had advanced, qualitatively, as far above the earliest stage of the human race as the member of the most highly civilized race of to-day stands above him.

Of all relics of the past, none can be said to vie in importance for the history of ivory with the rude outline of a mammoth sketched upon an ivory plaque, over nine inches long, by the hand of a prehistoric inhabitant of the cave dwellings of La Madeleine, in the valley of the Vézère, commune of Tursac (Depart. Dordogne), France.

This unique piece was discovered in May, 1864, by Falconer and Lartet, and is now in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Jardin des Plantes), Paris. It was described and figured in the Reliquiae Aquitanieoe, published by Lartet and Christy, and also in the Revue Archéologique, Vol. II, p. 245.

Some very interesting details have been communicated to the writer by M. Stanislas Meunier, Director of the Museum. He states that the plaque was handed to him personally in 1869, by M. Lartet, and that he well remembers the words in which the fortunate discoverer expressed the surprise and joy he had experienced in finding that some ivory fragments scattered on the floor of the cave fitted into one another, and when properly adjusted, offered the portrait of an elephant with long hairy fur.

From an archaeological point of view the reproduction of the photograph sent by M. Meunier is of considerable importance, as the illustrations heretofore given were derived from a sketch made on the spot by M. Lartet at the time of his discovery, and which was intended to bring out and emphasize the rude scratchings of the primitive artist, as an aid to those who might not have the requisite time to study the original carefully enough to see the design distinctly.

At the Congrès International d’Anthropologie et d’Archéologie Préhistoriques, held at Monaco in 1906, Doctor Capitan showed a most interesting ivory relic of the age of the cave dwellers. This was a large segment of a mammoth tusk bearing two deep and broad grooves.

The piece of ivory measured 40 cm. in length and from 15 cm. to 20 cm. in width, and the grooves, evidently made by a graving tool, marked out a part of it 30 cm. long and from 3 to 4 cm. wide, running to a point at the end. The grooves were so deep, that only a slight shock would have been needed to detach the piece within them and thus secure a fine ivory poignard.

This precious relic of ivory working in the far distant past was found by M. Galou under a loosened rock at the entrance of the Gorge d’Enfer, and Doctor Capitan conjectures that the carver may have been surprised by the avalanche that brought down the rock, and in his  haste to escape, have cast away his nearly completed work.*

It is assigned to the so-called Magdalenian period, that of the cave dwellers of La Madeleine.