Yesterday I posted a new section of my Library dedicated to articles about the connection between fossil discoveries and the myths and legends they inspired. One of the articles I posted is a true rarity, the complete text of W. B. Scott’s “American Elephant Myths,” an influential and much-cited 1887 article from Scribner’s that attempted to trace the influence of fossil mastodon and mammoth bones on the myths and iconography of Native Americans.
While Scott’s article is, in the main, correct about the influence of mammoth bones, he was wildly wrong about the alleged influence of living mammoths on the Maya. Scott relied on the work of Jean-Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck (1766-1875), an early explorer of Mexico who promoted wildly romantic ideas about the Maya. Notably, he altered illustrations of Maya ruins to make them more closely resemble what he considered their Old World analogs, particularly Egypt. He also carefully drew stylized “reconstructions” of Maya pyramids to make them appear much like eighteenth century drawings of Egypt’s pyramids. Later explorers failed to find the “Egyptian” statues he drew. When asked about the “Egyptian” statues, Waldeck replied that he had “buried” them to prevent looting and refused to say where. It would eventually come out that he had never visited some of the sites he claimed to have seen (particularly Copan) and instead simply redrew, embellished, and altered Catherwood’s famous drawings.
Moreover, Waldeck was insistent that the Maya knew the elephant because he found fossilized bones near Maya sites in an age when the chronology of the New World was still uncertain. He saw elephants everywhere, especially in stylized Maya faces with long noses in the glyphs of Palenque and in depictions of the god Chac, with his elongated nose. That none of these “elephants” featured tusks of other pachyderm identifiers was no trouble; he simply altered the drawings to fit his imaginary elephants more closely. This conformed well with the then-popular notion (born of the study of Indo-European languages) that Sanskrit, being older than either Greek or Latin, must represent the oldest human civilization. (Later studies would show that Indo-European languages branched from a common source, so Sanskrit was not the parent of Latin.) While Waldeck himself favored Egypt as the source for Maya civilization, others claimed that the Mexicans must have learned civilization from the Hindus of India, who brought their elephants with them.
Despite the fact that the “elephants” of Mexico were largely imaginary projections onto stylized and ambiguous art, they had a long afterlife. After Scott, the anatomist G. Elliott Smith advocated Waldeck’s views in Elephants and Ethnologists (1924). He was particularly enthusiastic that Stela B at Copan had elephant trunks in its headdress. Smith was a diffusionist, believing humanity arose in the Mediterranean basin, developed civilization in Egypt, and spread it to all corners of the world from there. His acceptance of the elephant claims of Waldeck proved a boon to alternative theorizers, who for nearly a century have cited his work as “proof” of trans-Pacific contact in prehistory (bringing elephants) or (assuming the carvings to be mammoths) that America’s ruins predate the Ice Age.
But even in his own day Smith’s views failed to win over scholars. One critic, Alfred Maudslay, pointed out that Smith relied on Waldeck without bothering to check the source. “I have no doubt,” he said, that his readers “will be convinced of Waldeck’s inaccuracy and the worthlessness of his drawings in support of Professor Elliott Smith’s views” if they would merely compare Waldeck’s drawings to actual photographs of the same sites. In Nature, Herbert Spinden wrote in answer to Smith that “The identification of the details on Stela B at Copan as elephants is neither new nor unanswered, and the same may be said of the extension of this identification to the conventional faces with outward curving noses that decorate the buildings of northern Yucatan.” He suggested that tapirs were the inspiration, but that stylization and artistic convention could equally well explain the “elephantine” resemblance. And this was a decade before Smith’s book!
Information from this post was drawn from Ian Graham, Alfred Maudslay and the Maya: A Biography (2002) and R. Tripp Evans, Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915 (2004).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.