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The “Elephant Pipes” of the Mounds: An Intriguing Historical Controversy

A rather unusual item appeared within the pages of American Antiquarian in 1903. The story alleged the discovery of a ancient city complex near the Mexican town of Paredon, in the state of Coahuila, and according to the account given, the site’s destruction at some point in the past had been of a variety most familiar amidst claims of ancient “lost” cities, relics, and cultures: it involved a vast and sudden flood which had long ago wiped out its inhabitants.

“The destruction which was brought by the flood was complete. All the inhabitants of the cities were killed, as well as all the animals,” the anonymous report read. “Skeletons of the human inhabitants of the cities and of the animals are strewn all through the debris, from a depth of three feet from the surface to a depth of sixty feet, showing that all the debris was deposited almost at once. Measurements show that the debris is on an average, sixty feet deep where the largest of the cities stood.”

However, in this instance the recurrence of the “ancient flood” motif isn’t the most unusual feature. Indeed, a most remarkable (if not wholly implausible) discovery at the alleged site involved animal remains, some of which belonged to a particularly large variety of fauna whose presence would have been strangely out of place, to say the least:

“Most remarkable of the minor finds that have been made at Paredon is that of the remains of elephants. Never before in the history of Mexico has it been ascertained positively that elephants were ever in the service of the ancient inhabitants. The remains of the elephants that have been found. Paredon show plainly that the inhabitants of the buried cities made elephants work for them. Elephants were as much in evidence in the cities as horses. Upon many of the tusks that have been found were rings of silver. Most of the tusks encountered so far have an average length, for grown elephants of three feet, and an average diameter at the roots of six inches. Judging from the remains of the elephants so far unearthed, the animals were about ten feet in height and sixteen to eighteen feet in length, differing very little from those at present in existence.”

The account related here, while entertaining, gives us little in the way of reliable facts or details. In likelihood, it had been a purely sensational piece, perhaps something conjured up by one of the numerous “liar’s clubs” that operated around the turn of the last century. However, to count it as the only allegation linking elephants or, at very least, knowledge of them in the New World to pre-Columbian times, would be inaccurate.

A more perplexing item involving unusual elephantine affairs in the Americas comes to us from 1872, when a farmer in Iowa named Peter Mare came upon a most unusual looking carved smoking pipe. Odd, but not unrecognizable, for the identity of the carved animal on the pipe could hardly have been anything but an elephant! The weird little discovery, likely unearthed from a nearby Indian burial mound, was passed along to Mare’s brother-in-law, and it remained in his possession until a Reverend Jacob Gass, a collector and amateur archaeologist with Iowa’s Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences, learned of the piece and attempted to purchase it. While he was unable to obtain the piece from Mare’s brother-in-law, Gass was at least allowed to examine the pipe, and even make castings and photographs of it, which were subsequently shared with the Davenport Academy.

The obvious question here is why this pipe, if made by the inhabitants of North America in ancient times, would have depicted an elephant? There are only two varieties of modern elephants: the African Elephant, which resides in Central and West Africa, and the Asian Elephant, found in Nepal, India, and parts of Southeast Asia. With their geographic limitations, the fact that ancient North American Indians would have known about these creatures would indeed be puzzling, unless the object, or at least knowledge of the creature, had indeed come from elsewhere.

Another theory about the curious elephant pipe had been that rather than a modern elephant, it might depict a mammoth. While most mammoths had already become extinct by around 10,000 years ago, a small group of survivors did persist off the northern coast of eastern Siberia until as recently as 3,600 years ago, on a small area of land called Wrangel Island. The “mastodon theory” in relation to Mare’s curious pipe was proposed by R.J. Farquharson in an 1879 issue of American Antiquarian, where he asserted that,

“Elephant-pipes and carvings should not be condemned, merely because of an impression still prevalent that the mastodon was a creature of an earlier geological epoch than the recent. This is but half the truth: he also shared the forests of the present with the fauna of historic times.”

A subsequent report was published by William Pratt, then President of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences, which appeared in American Naturalist. The Davenport Academy were, at the time, one of the premier organizations in the United States dealing with antiquities during the transitional period between amateur and professional stages of archaeology in America (and, at times, also a source for dubious materials, as we will see a bit later). Pratt’s report further details the elephant pipes as follows:

“They were a people entirely distinct from the North American Indian. The pipes are often elaborately and beautifully carved of a great variety of stones, generally of rather a soft character, and were apparently held in very high estimation, perhaps almost sacred. In the Upper Mississippi Valley they are of the same general type, having the flat curved base, which is perforated to serve as a stem. They represent a variety of forms, among them two said to distinctly represent the elephant.”

Indeed, the pipe retrieved from Mare’s property in Iowa back in 1872 apparently wasn’t the only such “elephant pipe” claimed to exist. Before long, the Smithsonian Institution had begun to weigh in on the subject, including a modest passage on the curious “elephant pipes” in an 1899 publication titled “Pipes and Smoking Customs of the American Aborigines, Based on Material in the U.S. National Museum.” Authored by Joseph D. McGuire, the report offers further commentary on the pair of pipes discussed by Pratt in his Davenport Academy report:

“The Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences has two pipes said to have been found in a mound in Muscatine County, Iowa, by some Germans, one of which represents a bear and the other an elephant. Both are said to be out of proportion, as one is too tall and the other too slender. There is a second elephant pipe possessed by the Davenport Academy, from Louisa County, which was found in a mound in 1888.”

The following image of one of the pipes accompanies the entry:

In the opinion of McGuire, the pipes were likely of European provenance, rather than being truly Native American:

The tool marks on objects and technology generally of the mound builders appears to have been little considered; the finding of worked silver in mound No. 8, and a silver cross either in this mound or in one near it, as recorded by Squier and Davis, and the finding so commonly in remains of the mound period objects of European manufacture, all raise the suspicion, almost amounting to conviction, that the pipes were contemporaneous with the early whites, probably the French. The two elephants suggest, of course, an acquaintance with the animal, and unless the Indian can be shown to have known the beast before the European invasion, which with our present evidence seems improbable, the natural inference would be that this knowledge came from the whites, who we do know were well acquainted with the elephant, and as a consequence that the pipes were made after the European invasion of the country.

As this statement illustrates, this was not to say that the pipes had come from someplace in Europe–France or otherwise–in pre-Columbian times, but rather, that the pipes were from much later times… and hence, could not be linked directly to the mound builders themselves.

To put things into context a bit, underlying this debate had been, at the time, something of a rivalry between the institutions: the existing Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Smithsonian Institute, who were effectively still “new kids on the block,” though leading the study of archaeology in a much more scientific direction than its rivals had been doing. Ultimately, the Smithsonian camp would win out the broader argument over the antiquity of the mounds, as well as speculations that raged at that time over who their builders were. While Smithsonian scientists favored a Native American origin, the Davenport Academy had argued far more colorful theories (for more on this, see Robert Silverberg’s book, The Mound Builders). Since the Davenport Academy had been those in possession of the questionable artifacts, it was only natural that the Smithsonian would raise questions about them (which they had every right to do, considering their unusual nature).

It should also be noted, however, that while many of the ideas and actions of the Davenport Academy’s members bordered on the misguided (or in some cases stepped well over that line), some of the more forward-thinking members of the organization did advocate such things as the presence of Ice Age man in the Americas, an idea that wouldn’t be proven until much later with the discoveries of in situ artifacts alongside extinct megafaunal bison at Folsom, New Mexico. Nonetheless, many suspected “artifacts” produced by the group and its members were of dubious origin, as it had seemingly been the intention of their “discoverers” to create a narrative in which the identity of the mound builders could be linked to pre-Columbian Europeans, rather than Native Americans.

Hence, various “artifacts” purportedly indicative of such Old World heritage became highly suspect. Chief among these had been the famous “Davenport Tablets,” which according to University of Iowa Professor Marshall McKusick, were in likelihood modified roofing tiles that were surreptitiously placed in a mound, possibly by envious colleagues of Reverend Gass (that’s right, the same man who “discovered” the first of the alleged elephant pipes). Whether Gass had been in on the “joke” or not remains in question, although McKusick asserts that foul play seems likely, as outlined in his books The Davenport Conspiracy and its sequel, The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited, in which the author tends to favor the “envious colleagues” theory.

As for the elephant pipes, there seems to be little further question regarding their likely dubiousness, although what it would entail if they were ever authenticated is interesting to speculate about. As noted by Brian Switek in a 2009 article over at Science Blogs, “The elephant pipes were surely hoaxes, but they make me wonder what Native Americans would have created if they had seen the lumbering behemoths in life.” While many over the years have clung to the “mastodon” theory of their appearance, admittedly the characteristics of the animals depicted on the pipes more closely resembles modern elephants than extinct megafaunal varieties. Thus, if these items ever were proven, the very most they might suggest would be evidence of pre-Columbian exchanges and travel between the Old and New Worlds, for which there is already some evidence appearing in other areas of modern archaeology. It does not, however, imply that the original builders of the mounds had been European themselves, as the Davenport Academy and some of its members had once hoped to prove; this was an idea that was based in the racism, and nationalist sentiments so prevalent during the period.

As a final note, I still can’t help thinking of the elephant as an outlier here; by this, I mean that for 19th century antiquarians hoping to prove that the mounds were built by Europeans, why in the world would they be carving elephant pipes to hide at the sites they tampered with, rather than indisputably European-looking artifacts like crucifixes, hand mirrors, armor, etc (all of which were actually retrieved from mounds during the period… which to me, shows that some of these early hoaxers probably were doing this!). Hence, logically speaking, maybe writing off the elephant pipes is a bit unwarranted… however, we must recognize the dubious circumstances under which they were found.

The history of human migrations, diffusion, and settlements in ancient times is, in likelihood, far more complex and detailed than we are yet fully aware. Whether or not the curious “elephant pipes” of the 1800s are any further evidence of that is unlikely at best; and hence, for now they remain among the many curiosities (and controversies) that appear in the footnotes of American history.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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