Last updated on February 13th, 2023 at 05:06 am
While it’s virtually impossible to trace the origin of this curious legend, it’s quite evident that famed adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs was instrumental in bringing the “elephant graveyard” to popular culture through this heroic character, Tarzan.
First in his Tarzan adventure novels (beginning in 1912), then through film adaptations (starting in 1918), and finally in the syndicated Sunday Tarzan comics strip—where the elephant graveyard is mentioned or featured prominently as in Tarzan the Ape Man.
But what is less evident is whether Burroughs was referencing places he believed existed or merely utilizing fanciful folklore that made for entertaining storytelling.
An Elephant’s Extraordinary Memory
Although most people know the elephant as an animal said to have an extraordinary memory, comparatively few know that the idea is actually based on the existence of the “elephant graveyard,” legendary places said to exist throughout Africa where elephants naturally gravitate towards as the end approaches.
Some believe these graveyards essentially call (as if telepathically) to dying elephants by something akin to the force that compels Atlantic sturgeon to return to the same river each year to spawn or the swallows to make their annual 6000-mile flight to Capistrano.
Others believe it’s an ancient memory embedded in the deepest recesses of their psyches that drives them to use their last ounce of strength to pass among their own kind.
Most scholars consider the existence of secret places elephants pass away simply a feature of African cultural mythology. Fantastic folklore.
Although many explorers and adventurers have claimed to have stumbled upon one of these mystical cemeteries, thus far, none have succeeded in relocating it to prove it–adding to the mystical element.
Some adventurers insist that the one true “elephant graveyard” is located in the Saudi Arabian desert, not Africa, which may have some merit but would date the graveyard to a mass elephant extinction that took place there some 325,000 years ago.
But while these claims provide elements of intrigue, none provide physical proof. Yet, the legend persists.
A Melding of Truth and Folklore
Whether the legend of the “elephant graveyard” is fact or fiction, a complex melding of truth and folklore continues to keep it alive.
Among the many beliefs surrounding the legendary graveyard is that such graveyards are frequented by living elephants who come to mourn their dead—as if familiarizing themselves with where they plan to die.
Interestingly, numerous wildlife experts have noted that elephants display tremendous curiosity and reverence for their dead and are known to return to spots where they lay, even weeks later. They also routinely attempt to identify the remains of elephants they come across while roaming the bush.
It is also commonly believed that humans who have found the hidden grave sites have sometimes been kept captive by what is referred to as “guardians” of the graveyard as punishment for invading sacred ground.
Interestingly, as one member of a National Geographic crew stated after witnessing what he described as “elephant death rites” in 2013, the elephants “investigate with their trunks, raise their feet, and occasionally bellow towards the sky.”
It’s easy to understand how someone caught amid this dramatic display could interpret this seemingly aggressive behavior as condemnation directed at them for their presence.
A spokesman for the National Elephant Center (formerly located in Fellsmere, Florida) has pointed out that it’s important to note that elephant herds generally do not stop moving during the course of the day as they require 200 to 600 pounds of food per day, per elephant, to produce the enormous amount of energy needed to sustain their massive weight–which takes upwards of 18 hours to consume.
This means that stopping to pay homage to their dead, or returning to a known grave site, constitutes a potentially life-threatening detour demonstrating exactly how important it is for elephants to honor their dead.
Is it so inconceivable that they would choose to die among them?
The persistence of the “elephant graveyard” legend has prompted historians and wildlife experts to speculate about the origin of the myth (if that is indeed what it is).
One theory supposes that the legend may be rooted in early European explorers of Africa who coming upon groups of elephants examining the bones of their deceased (common behavior for elephants discovering the remains of their own kind), misinterpreted what they saw as preparation for death.
A second theory involves elephants being naturally drawn to a regional watering hole during times of drought and subsequently finding water but no food, eventually dying there.
Tied to this theory is the suggestion that elephant skeletons found in groups near permanent water sources may indicate that elephants suffering from malnutrition instinctively seek out water to stay alive.
A third theory involves the common habit of aging elephants gravitating towards locations where softer vegetation grows as their teeth wear down, forming colonies of elderly elephants approaching death.
While these theories do provide reasonable alternative explanations for the origin of the “elephant graveyard” legend, does this mean the legend should be explained away as a merging of human misinterpretation, mystical fascination, and perhaps wishful thinking? Maybe not. Modern research suggests there’s more to consider.
Exceptionally Intelligent Animals
Recent studies conducted by a team of researchers from Kenya and the United Kingdom to gauge the level of elephant intelligence have confirmed that elephants are among a short list of animals (ten in number, including humans) proven to be self-aware.
Accordingly, they display concern and emotion when encountering elephant skulls and tusks in the wild yet show no interest or curiosity in the bones of other animals.
Researchers have witnessed African elephants become emotional and highly agitated when they discover elephant remains, suggesting that they recognize their relatives–even in states of decomposition. Only humans and a few other animals demonstrate this awareness of their own kind.
Although the Kenyan/UK research team is not yet prepared to leap to the conclusion that what they’ve witnessed in elephant behavior is proof of “elephant graveyards,” they do offer that their interest in the ivory and skulls of their own kind means they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range.
David Field, head of animal care for London and Whipsnade Zoos in the UK provides this intriguing insight: “Elephants are highly intelligent and highly tactile animals. The fact they can distinguish between their own skulls and those of other species is not surprising. As death approaches them, we can only speculate if they are drawn to an elephant graveyard and where it could possibly be.”
ERBZine, “Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, ERBzine 0807: ERB Comics Project: Hal Foster 32.08: Elephants’ Graveyard
Wisdom-Advices, “Were There Elephants in Saudi Arabia?” https://wisdom-advices.com/were-there-elephants-in-saudi-arabia/
Slate, “Do Elephant Graveyards Exist?” Elephant graveyards: Do they exist? (slate.com)
New Scientist, “Elephants May Pay Homage to Dead Relatives,” Elephants may pay homage to dead relatives | New Scientist
“Elephants Conduct Death Rites and Visit Their Deceased,” https://www.grunge.com/364763/the-untold-truth-of-animal-funerals-and-death-rituals/
Video Shows Elephants’ Mourning’ Matriarch’sMatriarch’s Death, Rare Video Shows Elephants’ Elephants’ Mourning’ Matriarch’ death (nationalgeographic.com)