What Elephants Teach Us About Consumption and Extinction
n a way, our modern understanding of extinction starts with the elephant.
It was while studying fossilized teeth of two different elephant ancestors, the mammoth and the mastodon, that scientists first became aware of the fact that species could die out and become forever extinct. In 1796, French naturalist George Cuvier compared mastodon and mammoth tooth fossils to the teeth of modern African and Asian elephants, positing that the teeth belonged to species that were “lost” in the past. This was a bold, new revelation—one that stood in stark contrast to attitudes of the time. The massive consumption of ivory in the 1800s was unprecedented; with delicate fans, billiard balls, hair combs and ivory veneer piano keys being made of the tusks elephants use as tools for eating, drinking and breathing.
In a Connecticut newspaper, published the same year as Cuvier’s hypothesis, one observer wrote:
The Elephant is the largest, the strongest, the most sagacious, and the longest-lived of all brute creation. The species is numerous, does not decrease, and is dispersed over all of the southern parts of Asia and Africa.