Elephant Images in Guatemala

In this Forum we are looking at various cultural traits, such as weaving, medicinal practices, religious practices, etc., that were transfered across the tropical oceans before 1492.

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Elephant Images in Guatemala

Postby carlj » Fri Feb 04, 2011 1:03 pm

Carl L. Johannessen, Professor Emeritus Biogeography, Univ. Oregon

Lecture given at CLAG (Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers) Annual Meeting in Bogota, Columbia and the AAG (Association of American Geographers) 2010 Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.

The trunk of the elephant is found as parts of faces on the fronts of many Mayan sculptured-stone structures in eastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. The most illustrative image of two elephants is found on the top front and sides of Stela B at Copan, Honduras. The recognition of the elephant images in America has caused much consternation to archaeologists because to accept the knowledge meant that a model of an Indian elephant had reached America for sculptors to copy. Mariners had to have sailed to and from America to India during the time of the Olmec and early Maya in Mesoamerica. The elephant image (Long Nosed God) and the idea that the elephant (God) should be worshipped in order to bring rain, among other things, must have been brought from the Sub-Continent India. The Olmec and Maya were surely carefully taught that the elephant was the harbinger of essential rain to their agricultural and forest world in the Americas.

If there is one animal that we think of as associated with exotic, old world lands, it is the elephant. We think of them as huge beasts and carriers of huge burdens in Asia and with a different species of elephant in Africa. Elephants in Southeast and South Asia were used for moving logs, transporting maharajahs, etc. Placing their images mentally in Central America and Mexico takes a bit of modification of ideas perhaps. But prehistoric Mayan artists were making sculptures of the elephants within their religious sites. The Olmec & Maya, among others, were worshipping the idea of the elephant, although the elephant was not supposed to have been in America.
Sculptures of elephant heads, especially their trunks, and bodies are present in Middle America from Olmec & Mayan times. We have had evidence in academia of this image since at least 1924, when G. Elliot Smith published his book Elephants and Ethnologists: Asiatic Origins of the Maya Ruins. The book is about the symbolism of the Elephant in America. At the time it was published, the book was made fun of, ignored or dismissed. But it’s been 83 years and we can re-examine this evidence without harming the careers of his detractors because Smith was ultimately correct.
The faces on the sculptures having the giant trunks have generally been interpreted as macaw bills, but this explanation has been an unsatisfying compromise by archaeologists and zoologists. This giant parrot’s bill does not regularly fit all the shapes of elephant trunks shown in the Mayan sculptures; the lower bill of the macaw is never present. (Figure 1) It’s a bit like drawing a mustache on an old picture to convince yourself that it’s really your uncle.
Given the evidence from both the Old World (South and Southeast Asia primarily) and the Americas, it is evident that there was regular and sustained transoceanic trade between these cultures of the tropical world long before Columbus’s voyages (Sorenson and Johannessen 2009 World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492). The sculptural evidence of the images of the elephant being present in the Olmec (1400 B.C.E. – 400 B.C.E.) and Mayan (2000 B.C.E. – 1500 C.E.) cultures, long before European contact with these peoples, also strengthen this position. The presence of bas-reliefs of numerous plants of American origin in the temples of Southern Indian Hoysala Dynasty (950 C.E. - 1268 C.E.) further bolsters the evidence of regular and sustained interaction between the people of the hemispheres. It is important to note that we are here discussing the images and concepts of the elephant and not elephants themselves being present in America, though they could have been.
The Indian subcontinent and the Americas as well as the maize ear in an area of easy access (west coast of India) to maize from the Amazon Basin, America. The name for maize in India, Maka, is similar to the Arawak Indian name, Makanadzi, Maaka, Maka. We should point out that this geographic region in the Indian Peninsula is a particularly fruitful location for my research on plants. There is an abundance of temple art containing maize and other sculptured American crops such as sunflower, annona, cherimoya, pineapple, cashew, even chili pepper. (Johannessen and Parker, 1989; Sorenson and Johannessen, 2009; and Gupta, 1996).
We believe that there was likely contact between the Huastecans of Mexico and the Hindu in India, since there are about 50 species of plants from America that had been taken to India before 1,492 C.E. (Sorenson and Johannessen, 2009). The contact may have occurred many times with India in the distant past between the two regions long before Columbus or Cortez arrived in America or Cabral in India.
Sub-continent Indian sculptures of women holding maize are arranged in somewhat similar manner to Central America, but with single ears of maize, in a hundred 11th to 13th century temples of Hoysala Dynasty age in Karnataka Pradesh, India. In India they used a chloritic schist rock that allowed extremely fine textures representations of the human and the vegetal material present for inclusion in Indian temples.

Aside from corn, the other crops from pre-Columbian America that are shown in India in these temples back to the 5th century are: sweet potato, lagenaria gourd, ceiba or silkcotton tree, peanut, beans, squashes, chili peppers, sunflower, annonas or custard apples, among others. In the case of maize the names are strikingly similar across the Atlantic in the Amazon Valley and across the Pacific to South China and Vietnam. (Maps) The western Indian terms for Maize (maka or makka or makai) and for peanut (mani) are the same as those used in the lower Amazon Basin among the Arawak, Tupi or Guarani tribes in the distant past. Also, the transfer of the chicken from its Southeast Asian origin to America, even the black-boned, black–meated chicken (BB-BMC), is called a Karnatak by Hindus in India and the Arawaks of the lower Amazon according to George Carter.
Perhaps this is enough background; let us return to the search for the idea of the elephant.

Uxmal, in Mexico’s Yucatan state, is a ruin of a Mayan City. The Mexican government, mindful of tourist dollars, is trying to top that, and they have constructed two hotels and a museum there. Some of the decaying architecture has been restored. And it is possible to look at a slice of Mayan life throughout the ancient site.
The Mayan rain god, Chac, or the Aztec rain God, Tloloc, is illustrated by an elephant-shaped God-Head in the east wall of what is now called, the Nunnery at Uxmal. The similar Chacs are found on the front of the Governor’s Palace and elsewhere. “At Uxmal, the image of Chac, with its curved nasal appendage – which the … European visitors took to be the trunk of elephant – is treated in a schematic way.” (Stierlin, 2001 140-141, 172, 175, 200). This location is just north of the largest Pyramid, called the Magician, at Uxmal. The defining features of these smaller sculptures are the elephantine noses. The giant faces of Tloloc/Chac with their long, recurving trunks, their broad face and deep set eyes illustrate the elephant. Essentially, the nose of the elephant is proposed as the indication of the image representing the “long-nosed” rain-god, as it is labeled by the anthropologists/archaeologists. Examples of the Chac’s nose curve up as if the elephant had raised its trunk to near verticality. In other examples, the trunk hangs down and then curves up as if begging for fruit. Essentially, the same set of elephantine faces are found at all the major Mayan archaeological sites at Chichen Itza (Figures 7 & 8), Labna, Uxmal, (Figure 9), etc. in the Yucatan or Xunantunich in Belize, and other locations. The Rain-Gods of the Maya all have recurving and, potentially, water-giving trunks (as if the elephant has just filled his nose with water). It may curve up and then down or down and then up with the tip sometimes curling under at the end of the trunk. No macaw’s bills have all those shapes, without the macaws lower bill, though some archaeologists have, for their own reasons, assigned that giant parrot’s head and its beak to these sculptural interpretations. I see these noses as elephant’s trunks and sometimes they also have a point or coil of the elephant’s tusks represented.
If there were any doubt about the fixation of the Maya on the Long Nosed Rain God you can see it in their temple architecture in the Yucatan area. Henri Stierlin, Mayan specialist, said that you can see it “on the façade of the Place of Masks, or ‘Codz Poop of Kabah’ (Yucatan), the stylized masks of the rain god has an obsessive quality. Its protruding eyes, long shaped nose and rigorous frontal symmetry cover the whole building” all indicate elephant (Stierlin, 2002:31). Most of the trunks begin by descending toward the ground. (Unfortunately, most of the trunks have been broken so that only stubs frequently remain, now.)
The elephant was not considered to be the model of these giant sculptures because that elephant would have illustrated contact with South Asia (or Africa), and the Spaniards would not have wanted ever to accept this pre-Columbian contact across the oceans.
The general public is not as firmly indoctrinated as academics are (who tend to be in charge of even the modern tour groups). In our experience, the random tourist identifies the facial shapes as elephantoid instead of being similar to the macaws of the academicians. I know this; I asked them nothing more than, “What does this image look like?” They would invariably respond, “Elephants” even when they were looking at the disfigured Huasteca Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of India.
The “Long-nosed God” is more easily accepted as the homologue representing the elephant than some of the social scientists claim. Giant curves of the elephant trunks are found at the front of Temple 21 of the Copan Ruins, just above the ball court. These elephant trunks of the front of the temple are the largest that I have seen in America.

The most certain feature of the elephant images in Middle America are on the two upper front corners of Stela B at the Ruins of Copan, Honduras (Figure 10). Remember, G. Elliot Smith in his 1924 book caught the wrath of archaeologists over 86 years ago by pointing out this similarity to elephants. Not only was there an elephant on the two front corners at the top of Stela B (Figure 11), but on top of the elephant necks were the two turban-wearing mahouts. (The mahout images have since been smashed off. Maybe harvested is the better verb.) The mahouts were the kind of evidence that was just too much for certain people, who could not stand for such beautiful examples of diffusion to exist in their native state (See Figure 10b). If you personally see them in someone’s den, help British Museum, recover them via the authorities. When you see the photo taken in the 1890s then there is much less doubt about elephant. Harry Persaud, Curator, Library Collections, The British Museum, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, kindly scanned and sent me these photos from available glass negatives in their collection.
The thieves had not counted upon the fact that plaster casts had been made of the originals by Maudslay and those casts had been shipped back to the British Museum, London at the times of their discoveries. When I checked on the plaster cast ten years ago, they had been lost, but may be found; we can hope so. We need a deeper and more complete search.
The late Anthropologist/Librarian, Dr. John Barr Tompkins, at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley studied at the British Museum in London in the late 1930s and was assigned office space where he could look at these plaster casts of Stela B. I was a graduate student and had a desk at Bancroft Library in the 1950s and had long talks with Tompkins. He had seen the Indian mahouts, on these plaster casts. The mahouts had ear-plugs, pendants, bracelets, anklets, etc. as do the mahouts in India. The returning British military officers, who had served the Raj in India, could even identify the exact source location of the mahouts on basis of the turbans and garb worn by the mahouts. It was easy for them to recognize the significance from the imagery of Stela B.
Author, architect, and gifted amateur archaeologist Graeme R. Kearsley has described the arrangement of the elephant heads on Stela B as very similar in shape and attitude to the elephants in the calendrical iconography at the Great Stupa at Sanchi in North Central India. He further notes that during the 19th Century Stela B was commonly referred to as the Elephant-stela. Note that the last Maudsley photo including the mahout was taken in 1890 and by a 1902 photo the mahout had been broken off. Although the mahouts have been broken off by thieves, treasure hunters, or vandals and the plaster castings have been apparently lost in the archives of the British Museum, it is clear that the top section of the Stela shows elephants; a creature that the Maya had not seen and therefore were carving from statuary arriving with mariners or traders from India and Asia or descriptions of the elephant by people who had seen the elephant or the Indian and Buddhist statuary.
The fact that two riders on the middle of the elephants above the “Indian Ruler” are seated in a side saddle position (Figures 12 & 10b); the mounted humans give a scale to the elephant part of the sculpture was pointed out to me by the Guatemalan artist, Lucy Drimany. The humans are small by comparison to the elephant, which is itself small (and totally out of scale) in relation to the “Indian Ruler” below, with his turban. The elephant’s trunks are properly scaled by these little men, each headed in the opposite direction.
It should also be pointed out that the two corn (maize) plants that rise along side of our “Indian Ruler,” reach to the height of the elephants “finger” at the bottom end of the elephant’s trunk on both sides of the front of the Stela and both elephants “can” touch their own maize leaf. Under the two human passengers there is a typical rectangular saddle blanket under their saddle.
The central figure, the large human who dominates the center of the Stela, appears to have Asian or sub-continent Indian features and the turban the figure in the center is wearing is typical of “Sikh turbans” in India even today. There are nine (once ten) smaller human figures around the perimeter of the Stela, on the first sketches (and photographs) of the Stela B, blue in the illustration. Four of these individuals are wearing similar turbans are likely mahouts or elephant guides; two on either side of the Stela. The two passengers with their legs bent up are in the saddle are dressed with similar headdress – turbans as the four mahouts on the side of the Stela B, who have turbans and three have elephant goads or rods for directing the animals.
The main mahout on the Stela B’s south or right-hand top corner was removed by thieves or vandals soon after the 1890s photographs were taken by Maudslay. This south mahout, with his elongated turban-like headdress [or just wrapped hair decoration] on top of his Asian baby face with giant ears, was elaborately arranged. The headdress is distinctively organized and almost looks as if it had been used as a model for the design of some pottery vases available in markets in Mexico in recent times. These vases look similar to the turbans of the mahouts on the Stela. Note that there are four more mahouts on the front of the Stela.
Starting with the central figure we will look at each of the important figures, both human and animal, to see the evidence of the idea of the elephant as it is represented on this Stela. The central figure has a turban that is typical of Sikh turbans in India even today. There are nine (once ten) smaller human figures around the perimeter of the Stela, blue in the illustration. Four are wearing similar turbans and three have elephant goads; two on either side. Below the figures on the top of the Stela we can see (in pink in the illustration) two elephant heads and the elephant’s saddle.
There is a head carved onto the maize stalk under the right elephant that represents the Mayan Corn God. Other carvings of the Corn God, also present in Copan, depict the deity with the same headdress as the one carved on the maize stem (Fig.??) (British Museum Guide to the Maudslay Collection of Mayan Sculptures (casts and originals) From Central America, 1928, Fig. 19, p. 71.)
Stela M, another sculptural work at Copan, has apparently had its entire, long elephantine-nose broken off. It might simply have been broken by a souvenir hunter, but the thief left the two giant elephant ears in place along with the two tusks that were carved as a curl beside the stump of the trunk on the elephant face (Patrick Ferryn, 1977:33-44, NEARA). Patrick Ferryn, a photographer, author, editor of the journal (Kadath, Croniques des civilizations disparues), among others, studied this and wrote a piece for New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA). His article further validates the hypothesis that the idea of the elephant as a religious symbol was known in America and put in place in Copan.

Decorations of elephants were sculpted on the ends of the roof tiles in Mexico in the best of tradition have been found by Neil Steede, a Latin Americanist Archaeologist but I have not seen them.
Decorative impressions, bas relief/etchings, on the ceramic platter in Ecuador suggest evidence for the diffusionary activity between people who knew of the “long nosed god” by the early priesthood of Ecuador. There was surely enough trade and other modes of contact between Maya population and the mainland of South America that this kind of sailing contact was likely with the Ecuador region’s people and can be entertained without having to sharpen Occam’s razor excessively. However, my co-author John L. Sorenson in our book: World Trade and Biological Exchanges before 1492, feels that the dating of the platter may not be sufficiently valid as pre-Columbian.
Once one starts to look critically at cultural traits of the Amerinds in Mexico and Central America and the Andes, in comparison to those of the Old World, one is motivated to consider many more traits than just elephants. We humbly submit that university students can gain a great enthusiasm for their studies of ethnology if they are allowed to be scientific and look at alternative hypotheses such as transoceanic sailing and trade to explain the presence of these hundreds of other cultural traits.
If we look at Smith’s (1916) list of traits in America, we get some marvelously stimulating research topics. All of the ancient, pre-Colombian behavior and rituals listed below have been found in the New and the Old Worlds: mummification as a cult, megalithic monuments, worship of the sun, circumcision, tattooing, massage, piercing and distending of the earlobes, skull deformation, trepanning, dental mutilation, the use of ocean shellfish as a source for the purple dye for thread and cloth dying, conch-shell trumpets, pearl worship, most metallurgical techniques, phallic worship, agricultural terracing, the boomerang, divine origin of God-king and incestuous union of the kings and their sisters for reproduction of children in succession to kingship, and Ikat tie dyeing and weaving. The weight of the concept of coincidence of these esoteric traits require less necessity for anguish when we have shown that the plants taken by sail to Asia could not have been transported without sailing contact across the ocean and with highly complex traits. When these items are not necessary for subsistence, the odds on the spread of traits by contact diffusion increase. The actual transfer may not have come from the farthest cultural existence, but the odds are very high that the ideas were exchanged with intermediaries along the routes of the sailors to and from their home ports once these were established. We should stimulate research by students, and citizens in general, that will expand our horizons of knowledge and provide the fun of discovery to more people. We may then spread credit to the tropical sailors of the ancient world, Arabs and Africans, as well as Asians, who traveled, discovered, traded, and even missionized the entire tropical world long before the Europeans began to colonize.
One can argue that sailors carried many and all kinds of traits for the ultimate civilizing of the world’s peoples, starting as long ago as 50,000 years. If this sounds crazy, remember that scientists have proven that Homo sapiens traveled to Australia from Indonesia and New Guinea before that. At least that is the maritime lore. They knew the art of sailing, early. Humans on the water between islands in the ocean are not normally able to paddle across the open sea between the islands because, according to maritime experts such as Prof. Ed Doran and Dr. Mike Doran, the currents are too strong in many locations.
There is hard evidence for contact over 7,000 years in South America by sailors who had had contact with Southeast Asia and had been parasitized by the whipworm and two species of hookworm. They left their disease in Peru where it was found in the dated Peruvian mummies. This discovery included the eggs and their tiny worm-bodies in the intestines in Peruvian mummies and coprolites of the more general population of the Furtada Caves in interior Brazil, dated at 5350 B.C.E. It is likely that the Ascaris round worm was present at 8,000 years ago at the Furtada Caves. (Sorenson and Johannessen 2009).
Sailors traveled to these locations very early, apparently, the parasites cannot swim or travel by other animals and they were not present in North America at the time of contact with the Spaniards. They were and are still in South American people who live in close contact with the soil because an integral part of the life cycle of the worm is in the warm, moist soil. In those same soils the whipworm and the Ascaris sp. parasites infected those ancient Brazilians 7 – 8,000 years ago.

The idea of the giant elephant is certainly represented in the Stela B and Stela M and in the archaeological sites of Copan ruins, Honduras, where you get to view the two passengers on the side of the two elephants on their saddle blankets. The representation of the Mahouts used in India for guiding the elephants (used to be present before they were broken off of both heads of the elephants) had turbans, earrings, rings on their fingers and bracelets on their wrists. The turbans, especially, allowed knowledgeable observers on the customs in India to know from where the mahouts had come in India, even though I do not personally know that exact quotation. The story was told by J.B. Tompkins, Librarian at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, to me. This means that the net evidence indicates that the idea of the elephant had been introduced into the Mayan culture centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards, who came after 1492 C.E.
This is a cultural phenomenon instead of our usual efforts to document living plants and animals on the other side of the oceans, even when their evidences were proven by archaeological and double examples of evidence in the receptor country of the new biota. The case of the image of the elephant has the significant evidence of many sculptures and cultural artifacts and religious utility of the long nosed God that brings rain to crops if treated with Indian religious beliefs. We find no doubt that knowledge of elephants had been introduced. In my view elephant should exist as another animal in our estimation of animals “transported” (likely in an example of a “model only” with this species) across the oceans in the lists of our book.
Cultural use of the rain-god by the Aztecs (Tlaloc), and Mayan’s (Chac), which is translated by the Archaeological/Anthropological community as Long-nosed God of the Aztecs and Maya. The rain-god looks much like the long nosed Elephant Rain-God of India, Egypt and Carthage. It, therefore, becomes difficult to imagine that the two images are not related as a diffused, religious, cultural trait.
The Amerinds had to be very carefully taught that this figure of an elephant would supply rain if they but prayed to it as they had not seen the elephant in the flesh and chance to see the spraying of water from its trunk. This appearance of elephants factors into the sculptural mix of evidence of elephant shapes of Nauatl and Maya speaking Indians, it becomes most likely influence from India.
Given the abundance of statue and bas-relief evidence as well as the religious symbolism of the elephant to the natives of Southern Americas we must conclude that the Olmec and Mayan specifically had at least the idea of the existence of elephants. Since the religious significance of these creatures in the South Asia region and in the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec cultures are nearly identical, it is difficult to continue to deny that there was regular contact between the tropical cultures on both hemispheres, likely through transoceanic voyaging as these images do not appear in the northern American region with nearly as much frequency. Further, with the numerous bas-reliefs of plants of American origin plants in the temples of the Hoysala Dynasty in Southern India (950 C.E. – 1268 C.E.) we must conclude that there was regular and sustained interaction between these regions long before Columbus sailed from Europe.

Amrhein, Laura M. 2003. An Iconographic and Historic Analysis of Terminal Classic Maya Phallic Imagery. http://www.famsi.org/reports/20001/
British Museum, Library Collection. 1890’s. Plate 35.jpg. Stela B at Copan, Honduras (3/4 right angle front view) A.P. Maudslay.
British Museum, Library Collection. 1890’s. Cd119 lge.jpg. Stela B at Copan, Honduras (front view) A.P. Maudslay.
British Museum, Library Collection. 1890’s Cd110.jpg. Stela B at Copan, Honduras (3/4 left angle front view) A.P. Maudslay.
British Museum, Library Collection. Plate34.jpg. Stela B at Copan, Honduras (side view sketches of Stela B).
British Museum, Library Collection. Plate37.jpg. Stela B at Copan, Honduras (front view sketch of Stela B).
de la Fuentes, Beatriz, et al. 1996. Olmec art of Ancient Mexico, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.
Errazuriz, Jaime. 2002. Pacific Basin: 4,000 years of cultural contacts. New World Editions,
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Ferryn, Patrick. 1977. “Enquete sur les contacts transpacifiques (2eme partie)” Kadath. Chroniques des Civilizations Disaparues, 25, Nov. - Dec.:33-44.
Gupta, Shakti. 1996. Plants in Indian Temple Art. M.B.R. Publishing Corporation (A division of D.K. Publishers Distribution Ltd. Delhi
Johannessen, Carl L. and Anne Parker. 1989. “American crop plants in Asia prior to European contact.” CLAG 1989
Johannessen, Carl L. 1981. Folk Medicine Uses of Melanotic Asiatic Chickens as Evidence of Early Diffusion in the New World. Social Science and Medicine, 15D(4):427-34.
Johannessen, Carl L. 1982. Melanotic Chicken Use and Chinese Traits in Guatemala. Revista de Historia de America 93:73-89.
Kearsley, Graeme R. 2003. “The Imperative of Migration by Land and Sea by Modern Humans from East Africa to the Pacific and to the Americas.” http://www.world-mysteries.com/gw_kearsley/html.
Smith, G. Elliot. 1924. Elephants and Ethnologists: Asiatic Origin of the Maya Ruins
Sorenson, John and Carl L. Johannessen. 2006. “Biological Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages.” In Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. ed. Victor H. Mair. University of Hawaii Press. 238 - 297.
Sorenson, John L. and Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse, Bloomington, IN.
Stierlin, Henri. 2001. The Maya, Palaces and Pyramids of the Rainforest, Taschen GmbH, Hohenzoliernring, Cologne.
Teeter, Wendy G. 2004. “Animal utilization in a growing city: vertebrate exploitation at Caracol, Belize.” Maya zooarchaeology: new directions in method and theory. Monograph 51. Ed. Kitty F. Emery, Los Angeles, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles. pp. 177-191.

I would like to acknowledge the great help I received from Professor John L. Sorenson, Dr. Betty Meggers, Dr. Luis Ferraté, and the many other people in Mexico and Central America who helped me compile my data, led me to various ruins, and willingly debated the subject with me. I would also like to thank Dr. Harry Persaud of the British Museum for his efforts finding A.P. Maudslay’s photos and several related drawings of Stela B. I thank Jerrid Wolflick for his help in editing, researching, and rewriting the text of this article.
Professor Emeritus Carl L. Johannessen
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