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Elephant Trails

Elephant Trails

A History of Animals and Cultures

Why have elephants—and our preconceptions about them—been central to so much of human thought?

From prehistoric cave drawings in Europe and ancient rock art in Africa and India to burning pyres of confiscated tusks, our thoughts about elephants tell a story of human history. In Elephant Trails, Nigel Rothfels argues that, over millennia, we have made elephants into both monsters and miracles as ways to understand them but also as ways to understand ourselves.

Drawing on a broad range of sources, including municipal documents, zoo records, museum collections, and encounters with people who have lived with elephants, Rothfels seeks out the origins of our contemporary ideas about an animal that has been central to so much of human thought. He explains how notions that have been associated with elephants for centuries—that they are exceptionally wise, deeply emotional, and have a special understanding of death; that they never forget, are beloved of the gods, and suffer unusually in captivity; and even that they are afraid of mice—all tell part of the story of these amazing beings.

Rothfels effectively and engagingly puts himself in the story in several places. Exploring the history of a skull in a museum, a photograph of an elephant walking through the American South in the early twentieth century, the debate about the quality of life of a famous elephant in a zoo, and the accounts of elephant hunters, he demonstrates that elephants are not what we think they are—and they never have been. Elephant Trails is a compelling portrait of what the author terms "our elephant."