The Story of the Elephant
by George Langford, Sr., Joliet, Illinois, after 1920 and prior to 1947
Edited and Copyrighted by George Langford, III, 2010
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The New World Mammoths

What the Southern Mammoth was to Europe in point of time and size, so was the Imperial Mammoth (Elephas Imperator) to the southwestern part of the United States and, in so far as we know - northern Mexico excepted. - he never went anywhere else.  He appeared there in late Pliocene times and vanished before the mid-Pleistocene.  He was a giant among elephants and taller than the Southern Mammoth of Europe, standing about thirteen feet six inches high at the shoulders.  His tooth plates were few in number and coarse, much like those of the Lozenge-toothed Elephant ( Loxodon) but unlike the latter, his forehead was compressed from front and rear into an extremely high and narrow peak.  His tusks were longer and more twisted than those of the Southern Elephant of Europe and are an example of development carried to a dangerous extreme.  The animal was not a digger, for his tusks were so widely curved and overlapping at their tips as to be absolutely useless.  This was a peculiar failing of American Mammoths and may have hastened their extinction.  The tusk of an adult Imperial Elephant has been found, twenty-two inches in circumference near the base, and thirteen feet in length measured along the curve.  Probably three feet of this length was buried in the upper jaw.

It is not likely that this beast had any experience with human beings, for there is no evidence which points that way; and, furthermore, Man probably did not appear in America until hundreds of thousands of years after this Elephant's time.  His fossil remains are rare so that our knowledge of him is by necessity very incomplete, and this is true of most prehistoric animals.  Very few skeletons become buried before disintegration, and fewer still are preserved, except under the most favorable circumstances.  As a rule they are found quite unexpectedly in the course of ditching, dredging or other digging operations, and only by lucky chance are good specimens ever secured.  However, there is one deposit worthy of mention, not only because it has yielded remains of elephants, but because of their abundance and fine state of preservation and the numerous species of associated animals contained therein.  This deposit lies near Los Angeles, California and is known as the Asphalt Pits of Rancho le Brea.

The latter is an asphaltum oil region, and the sticky liquid oozing up through breaks in the underlying rocks has in time past accumulated upon the surface in a series of pools or pits.    Modern birds and animals have often met their deaths in these sticky traps, but not until 1906 did scientists suspect that prehistoric animals had undergone similar experiences.  Desultory explorations led to systematic excavations beginning in 1913.  The results are now on exhibition in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles - a remarkable portrayal of animal life in southern California during Pleistocene times.

The pits were simply packed with bones of various animals, so mixed up that one skeleton was hardly distinguishable from another.  The Imperial Elephant was conspicious by his absence, except in one pit about thirty-five feet deep and known as No. 9.  Here the remains of seventeen of these animals were found, their huge bones piled up like so much cordwood.  The American Mastodon was even better represented and in more pits than one.

In addition to Elephants and Mastodons are the remains of beasts and birds who preyed upon them.  Bones of the Sabre-toothed Tiger (Smilodon) are extraordinarily abundant. Several hundred individuals have been identified.  One pit contained thirty skulls packed within a space of four cubic yards.

Giant wolves (Canis Dirus) were almost as plentiful as the "Sabre-tooths."  There were smaller wolves too, also coyotes, foxes and bears.  One species of bear was larger than any known Grizzly.  It was a strange assemblage.  Skulls of huge lions, much like the modern African species, lay beside bones of the American Cougar and Wild Cat.  Skeletons of extinct horses and bison were mixed up with those of giant ground-sloths (Mylodon and Megalonyx) and Camels larger than the Bactrian Dromedary of to-day.

Bones of birds are not often met with in fossil deposits, but in the asphalt pits were many of them: vultures, condors, buzzards and eagles among flesh-eaters and others more peaceable, such as pheasants, herons, geese and a peacock who seems strangely out of place here, so far removed from his Asiatic home.

From this varied assemblage it is not difficult to understand that large vegetable-eating beasts, such as the Imperial Elephant, Mastodon, Ground Sloth, Camel, Horse and Bison must have strayed into these made-to-order traps and their cries of distress attracted Sabre-toothed tigers, lions and wolves to the spot.  In their over-eagerness to gorge themselves upon the helpless captives, the Flesh-eaters were in their turn caught fast.  And finally, vultures, condors and buzzards swooping down to clean up the mess, were also made prisoners.  All died and were swallowed up in the pools of death to remain buried in the asphaltum which sealed and preserved their bones until to-day.  A score or more of Pleistocene deposits scattered throughout the United States have yielded good returns of prehistoric animal remains, but none of them have equalled the asphaltum Pools of Rancho le Brea.

The Columbian Mammoth (Elephas Columbi) is known only in the United States.  Although a smaller animal (11 feet, 6 inches) than the Imperial Mammoth, the two were much alike with their high, peaked foreheads, grotesquely curving tusks and coarse molar teeth.

The Columbian Mammoth appeared in the United States in early Pleistocene times and disappeared before the Post-glacial Epoch.  The succession of ice advances and retreats occurred in Canada and the Northern United States, the same as took place in Europe, and there was a like shifting of the various animal groups.  The Columbian Mammoth doubtless survived the Imperial Mammoth, Ground Sloth, Sabre-toothed Tiger, Camel and Lion.  He saw much of the American Tapir and lived to meet newcomers from Asis such as the Moose, Elk, Mountain Goat, Black Bear and certain others whom we think of as native Americans, but who are geologically quite recent acquisitions.  The Musk Ox and Reindeer frequently came and went.  Our modern Bison or "Buffalo" was represented by larger species, now extinct.  Horses, which were very abundant in early Pleistocene times, had disappeared.

No trace of human beings has ever been found associated with any of our American mammoths, which is in marked contrast to the abundant and indisputable evidence of such association in Europe, and it is fair to assume that the so-called "American Indian" - a race of Mongolian origin come out of northeastern Asia - did. not reach America and settle there until comparatively recent times.  By then, the mammoths had disappeared, and the animal life was much as we now know it.

But back in mid-Pleistocene times, the United States must have presented a very different aspect when its various species of contemporaneous elephants overlapped each other's ranges. There was the Imperial Mammoth of the southwest and Mexico, the Columbian Mammoth of the central and southern United States, and the American Mastodon occupying the land over the whole country's length and breadth.  In addition to these great beasts there was a fourth yet to be described, a northerner to whom the eastern and western hemispheres have equal claim. This was the Mammoth-- first so called - (Elephas Primigenius) the Arctic, Northern or Hairy Elephant.
[from the original, typewritten draft with hand-written corrections - GL,III, ed.]