Yes, We Have No Elephants Today

The third year English textbook has a “chapter” titled Faithful Elephants, which is a highly abridged (abridged too far?) translation of the book Pitiful Elephants (Kawaisona Zo), a tale of the suffering of Ueno Zoo’s wartime elephants and the means by which they were “euthanized”.

Like most Japanese textbook accounts of the war, some important details are missing…


Someday I might write up a critique, but for now I’d like to look at Japan’s other elephants.

“Huh?” I hear you say.  “Elephants aren’t native to Japan.”

And you’d be right.  But not between several million and about 15000 years ago…


Note:  many of the fossil elephants that were endemic to Japan lack English common names, and I want to avoid using some of the awful word-for-word translations that are out there (“dawn elephant”?).  I’ll also abandon my usual practice of giving the Japanese name as these are often common or scientific names rendered into Japanese (e.g. steppe mammoth becomes “suteppu manmosu”) and make for a result not unlike the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show.


Artist’s impression of a woolly mammoth.

Fossils of woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) and steppe mammoths (M. trogontherii) have been found in Hokkaido (plus one set of fossils dragged up from the sea bed in a fishing net around Shimane!)  Japanese taxonomists recognise Mammuthus protomammonteus as a distinct species and as an ancestor of the woolly mammoth.

While the common image of the woolly mammoth is of a gargantuan beast, they were typically the same size or slightly smaller than the African elephant – although that is no small feat in itself!


In addition to the mammoths, there were a number of stegodonts in Japan too.  One of these, the Stegodon orientalis, was distributed around China and Japan, but two others seem to have been endemic to the Japanese archipelago.  One of these, the largest mammal known to have lived on these islands, was discovered in Mie Prefecture and goes by the name Stegodon miensis.  The other is a smaller elephant, Stegodon aurorae.  This one was a mere 1.8 metres tall, less than half the height of S. miensis.

A skull of Stegodon aurorae at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. Picture taken from Wikipedia.


Finally, there was another species of elephant.  Believed to be descended from individuals that crossed over from the Asian mainland, Palaeoloxodon naumanni is also thought to be closely related to modern Asiatic elephants.  This elephant is the subject of taxonomical wars, some asserting that it is in fact a subspecies of Elephas namadicus, (E. namadicus naumannni).

The Japan Times (9 July, 2014) labelled this specimen from the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Natural History as Elephas namadicus. Photo taken from the Japan Times.

While mammoths were restricted to Hokkaido, and the stegodonts seem to have not extended their range to that island, Palaeoloxodon naumanni seems to have been distributed across the Japanese mainland.

The jawbone of Palaeoloxodon naumanni, excavated from the site of Meiji Jingu Mae Station! Photo taken from Wikipedia.

It was slightly smaller than its modern relatives and was built to deal with a colder environment – thick hair and a layer of fat.  Like the mammoths and stegadonts, both sexes of these elephants were tusked.  While fossils of this elephant have turned up in construction sites – including railway stations and banks – some of the best known samples come from Lake Nojiri in Nagano.  Some of these have been fashioned into tools, indicating that the elephants were probably hunted by Palaeolithic humans.

Unfortunately, the Lake Nojiri Nauman Elephant Museum’s homepage has almost no English language content. 

Diorama at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archaeology depicting the hunting of Palaeoloxodon naumanni. Photo taken from Wikipedia.

These elephants became extinct some 15000 years ago, and apart from the odd fossil turning up in the field of Chinese medicine, they were almost completely unknown in Japan until the modern era.

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2 Responses to Yes, We Have No Elephants Today

  1. njmagas says:

    One of the first exhibits in the history museum in Sapporo is the skeleton of a wooly mammoth and a size comparison to a modern day elephant. It was really impressive to see it first off when entering the building.

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