Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

Ivory's Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

by John Frederick Walker


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ISBN-13: 9780802144522
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Frederick Walker is a veteran journalist and conservationist who has been traveling and reporting on Africa since 1986. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Africa Geographic, Wildlife Conservation, and numerous other publications.

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Mammoth Teeth

In 1956 the 28,000-year-old Paleolithic site Sungir was discovered on the outskirts of Vladimir, east of Moscow. It is one of the oldest sites in which ornaments have been found on human skeletons. At least three of the site's inhabitants were buried there, including a sixty-year-old man, a girl of about eight, and a boy of thirteen. Interred in shallow graves dug into the permafrost, they were laid on their backs, hands folded at the hips; the children rested head to head.

Workers who unearthed the three were stunned to find that they were buried with thousands of intricately crafted ivory beads, crisscrossed in strands that might have been sewn to long since disintegrated clothing. The bones of the man's arms were hooped with twenty-five polished mammoth-ivory bracelets. At the boy's throat was an ivory pin that may have once held a cloak; under his shoulder was an ivory sculpture of a mammoth. A massive eight-foot-long ivory lance made from a straightened mammoth tusk lay at his and the girl's side.

The sight of these skeletons showered in tiny bits of ivory must have been startling enough, but the amount of labor necessary to produce the adornment is simply staggering to contemplate, and clear evidence of the deceased's high status. According to paleoanthropologist Randall White, the beads were produced in a methodical, step-by-step fashion; they were, in effect, standardized. There was more.

They were scored across each face so that when strung they would fall into an interlocking, criss-cross pattern. Careful analysis shows that the scoring was done on each blank bead before the hole was drilled, indicating that the creator had the desired aesthetic effect in mind at even the earliest stages of production.

White's experiments later showed that it would have taken more than an hour to make each bead. The old man's beadwork, then, would have taken more than three thousand hours of labor, and each child's more than five thousand hours.

All the themes that run through the history of human fascination with ivory are present, in embryonic form, in this prehistoric site: the lure of the material; its artistic employment, symbolic power, and value; its use as a means of conferring status; the desire and trade required to obtain it; efforts at mass production; consciousness of its source; its embrace in adornment even to the grave — they are all destined to be replayed through millennia to come.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO know the circumstances in which ivory's properties were first revealed. We can imagine a firelit corner of a cave, the bank of a thawing river at midday, or a hundred other scenes, crowded or solitary. We can picture the thin creamy streaks left by scraping a flint very hard across a flake of mammoth tusk, or the shallow holes that could be made by twisting the sharp point of a stone tool into the surface. But we can only speculate about the first attempts to work ivory, how early humans unlocked the allure of this unique organic substance and stirred the urge to use, keep, and treasure it.

We know that humans began carving skillfully in ivory in prehistoric times. Ivory figures dating back roughly 25,000 years have been known for some time, but in 2007 archaeologists from the University of Tübingen, Germany, announced the oldest ivory find yet. It is a tiny exquisite rendering of the very animal from which the carving material itself came: a woolly mammoth. Less than an inch and a half long, the softly rounded form is complete with massive trunk, stumplike legs, pointed tail, and strange details — a half dozen incisions on the head, cross-hatching on the soles of its feet. Radiocarbon analyses push its origins back some 35,000 years. It's one of more than a dozen figurines made from mammoth ivory unearthed at the Vogelherd cave in southwest Germany, a dazzling discovery that joins a clutch of similar small carved ivories discovered four years previously at another Swabian cave, the Hohle Fels, and thought to date to perhaps 33,000 years ago. These groups of powerful and puzzling ivory carvings may constitute the oldest body of figurative art in the world, an array that includes a horse's head raked with lines, a lovely wing-tucked diving duck, and an enigmatic high-shouldered half human–half cat torso. Their mottled surfaces, burnished smooth and sometimes pierced for suspension, suggest they were amulets, kept close; their precise meanings and purposes are not entirely clear but their animal and human themes are familiar from all subsequent prehistoric art. Indeed, these were created at roughly the same time the first great cave paintings began appearing in Europe.

The profusion of ivory carvings that followed emerged in a period that saw an explosion of plastic expression. Those early uses are not merely the first instances; they are the formative ones, and tell us what to look for as we trace ivory's luster through history.

IT'S NOW COMMONLY accepted that modern man — Homo sapiens — arose roughly 150,000 years ago in Africa and eventually set out to colonize the world; 100,000 years later they were supplanting earlier hominids (such as H. erectus and H. neanderthalensis) who began to migrate out of Africa over a million years before. After H. sapiens moved into Europe, Neanderthals, who certainly looked the part of cavemen — their powerful, heavy build was well adapted to the harsh waxing and waning ice age conditions that prevailed throughout this period — disappeared, perhaps in as little as a thousand years in southern France, although they may have overlapped for much longer in northern Europe. Neanderthals had stone tools and possibly a concept of decoration (pierced fox teeth have been found in the Neanderthal site of Grotte du Renne in France), but though that's a sign of more intellectual capability than they are often given credit for, it pales next to the arresting evidence of human consciousness on display on the walls of more than two hundred caves in southwest France and northeast Spain decorated in Paleolithic times.

The art of these anatomically modern humans, still referred to as Cro-Magnons, says more than anything else that those who created it were not so different from us. We sense, intuitively, that it taps into shared imagery. Although the art refers to a world of experience far removed from ours, full of long-gone megafauna — cave bears, huge bison, saber-toothed cats — and shows the pentimenti of various forgotten symbolisms (spots, dots, tridents, handprints), it has a freshness and power that speak directly. Even looking at photographs of the powerfully rendered aurochs painted on the white calcite walls of the Hall of the Bulls in Lascaux, France's most famous prehistoric cave, we feel that our reaction cannot be completely different from that of those who first created them. We see that those painters saw what we would have seen. They traced the bow of a horse's neck, the scooping curve of a tusk, or the spear of a horn the very way we would, using outlines that cut out the animal from its background along the boundary between what it was and what it wasn't: they used drawing, as we do, as an act of definition.

Those little figurines from Germany and all the later ice age carvings that have come down to us are, admittedly, just as shorn of context as cave paintings when seen in reproduction. But by their nature they were designed to carry their meanings with them. Studied directly — even if one has to view them behind protective glass, propped on little pedestals in museum displays, far from where they were created — they still evoke a sense of what it must have been like to hold and carry them, which in turn gives us a glimpse into what it must have been like to make them. As stand-alone, portable, hand-sized pieces worked from chunks and slabs of rock, lumps of clay, and pieces of bone and ivory, they were meant to be handled, caressed, stroked, and pondered by flickering fires, clutched under furs and skins, worn around the neck. The touch of these pieces was surely as important as their appearance, for what can be detected under the ball of the thumb or probing fingertips is apparent even in the dark. What was felt in them surely had to be part of their nimbus of meaning. So many of them were made of ivory.

WHAT WAS IT about ivory that made it a desirable material to early man? There were others at his disposal, from antler and amber to shells and stone. And ivory in substantial quantities — from mammoths or, possibly, in some regions, mastodons — may not have been widely available, although some 15,000 years ago entire shelters on the east European plain were made of mammoth skeletons either scavenged from dead animals or gathered from humans' own kill sites of these creatures. Bones from the huge, impressively furred creatures were used like lumber. Over a foundation of skulls, nearly a hundred mandibles might be arranged around a yurtlike hide tent that used femurs and tusks as tent ribs. As building posts, tusks had certain disadvantages: they could crack, warp, and be chewed by rodents.

Yet surely chunks and flakes from broken mammoth tusks first fell to hand after the hunt, and it would require no elaborate testing to discover what the material had to offer. Ivory's density was obvious from its weight, but its surface was not implacably granitic. Ivory wasn't easy to work, but it didn't split like bone or wood, which made it useful for spear points, needles, and other small tools.

Its primary creative use in Paleolithic times, however, appears to modern eyes to have been artistic. Any flake of ivory was potentially a plaque on which an exquisitely detailed drawing might be laboriously scratched — often images of mammoths, as evocative examples that have been unearthed demonstrate. A chunk of ivory slowly yields to determined gouging, scoring, and chipping with a sharp tool and can be rounded and smoothed by rubbing with fine abrasive substances known to early man, such as red ocher (hematite), which, as White points out, is no different from the jeweler's rouge in use today. It is the last stage of polishing, of course, that unlocks ivory's tactile appeal; something is brought out in the silken surface that makes those who touch it want to touch it again. That was all it would take. The magic of ivory had wormed its way into the human psyche.

NOT ONLY IS ivory a perfect vehicle for plastic expression, but in the right conditions it can last indefinitely. That is why we still have small ice age carvings whose iconography covers not only the range of then extant fauna — ibex and aurochs, hook-jawed salmon and migratory birds in flight, horses and cave lions, mammoths, reindeer and woolly rhinoceroses, all the bountiful and terrifying life that surrounded early man — but also forms used to mirror humans back to themselves. Unlike animal carvings, which are often carefully observed and delicately crafted, many (though not all) of these latter figures are highly abstract. Some are little more than simple forks or wishbone shapes, elongated trunks and pairs of splayed legs with vulva-like notches that seem to mark them female.

Other woman forms are contrastingly bulbous. These so-called Venus figures often feature faceless checkered knobs for heads, tiny feet and swelling torsos, all breasts, belly, buttocks, hips, and thighs, now and then showing carefully detailed navels and genitals. Their adipose, steatopygous shapes were first thought a racial characteristic and, later, evidence of their use as fertility figures, although their precise symbolism is now an open question. Among various possibilities, they may have been created as objects of veneration, as obstetrical models, or simply to stimulate arousal. While the most famous, the Venus (or Woman) of Willendorf, is limestone, many others — including the Venus of Brassempouy or La Poire ("the Pear"), a headless, bulging female torso from the Grotte du Pape in Périgord; and the highly abstracted, wonderfully geometric, almost ballooning Venus of Lespugne, found in the HautGaronne — are both carved from mammoth tusks.

That many of these little statuettes were made from ivory suggests something about the meanings that began to accrue to the material. If they were objects of reverence or simple teaching tools, ivory, with its perfect workability, would have been an obvious choice for careful sculptural expression; if they were Paleolithic sex toys, as some have suggested, then too there would be no better material than ivory, with its slip and warmth, to fondle in recalling the pawing and stroking of sex.

Whatever their intended purpose, the considerable effort required to carve an ivory figurine with flint tools would have imbued the resulting object with importance and value. In fact, it's something of a puzzle as to how early man, lacking anything like a saw, managed to reduce mammoth tusks (which could be up to sixteen feet long) into portable pieces. Tusks don't fracture easily, and splitting and wedging techniques — the kind used to split logs — won't work with ivory that isn't already thoroughly desiccated. Whacking a fresh tusk with a stone tool accomplishes little. But segments of mammoth tusk evidently intended for later carving have been unearthed and show that more careful methods, albeit enormously time-consuming, were devised. A flaked hammer stone was used to stipple a guideline around a section of tusk, which was then laboriously widened into a channel. A stone knife would be drawn around and around to deepen the groove, and finally the section was broken free by blows of one hammer stone on another held against the remaining core.

IVORY IS DENTIN, an essential component of teeth.

Teeth are not bones; the two substances are different in their biology, though both are composed of collagen and minerals. Teeth, which lack the blood vessel system of bones, are denser and although connected to the skeleton are exposed, poking through the skin in some fashion. A tooth consists of a root (or roots) and a crown. The roots, which are covered by cementum, an acellular material, are fixed in the bony sockets of the jaws. All teeth feature a pulp cavity in the root, a chamber filled (in the living tooth) with soft, pulpy tissue well supplied with blood vessels. The crown, which is distinguished by its covering of hard enamel, is what's on display in the mouth of most animals.

There are further details but we needn't linger over them; we're after the main mass inside the tooth, underneath the crown's surface: dentin. This "very tough and resilient tissue," as one scientist puts it, is "familiar as the precious material ivory." In nature there is no shortage of teeth, but there are only a few significant sources of this "precious material."

A mere half dozen animals have teeth big enough to yield a significant mass of carvable ivory: the hippopotamus, the walrus, the narwhal, various pigs, a few whales, and, most important of all, the elephant and its ancestors, notably the mammoth.

An elephant or mammoth tusk is an enlarged upper incisor. It's all dentin except for a thin layer of cementum on the surface (called "bark") and a tiny crown of enamel at the tip or distal end; as a result, virtually the entirety of its bulk can be utilized. A large tusk can be more than six inches in diameter and nearly three yards in length. The "lesser ivories" not only are far smaller in comparison but have various drawbacks, including heavy enamel cladding, different layers of dentin density, and uneven coloring. Each of these examples has had an historic role — hippo teeth were carved in ancient Egypt, pig teeth have been used since ancient Greece, walrus and narwhal ivory were important in medieval Europe and still are in Inuit culture, and whale teeth remain Oceania's sole native source of ivory — yet all pale in significance next to "true ivory," which comes from ancient or modern elephants and needs no qualifier.

The exceedingly compact, uniform structure of ivory derives from the network of minute tubules, each about one-fifteen-thousandth of an inch in diameter, that radiate in clusters outward from the pulp cavity. These tiny dentinal structures are surrounded by a meshwork of collagen, whose gelatinous quality contributes to its carvability and polish. It may be difficult to imagine tusks, as solid and weighty asthey are, growing, but that's exactly what they do, from the root out. Throughout a creature's life span, specialized mineralizing cells called odontoblasts line up on the growing surface of the dentin that outlines the funnel-shaped pulp cavity, forming tubules that inexorably deposit layer upon layer of calcified tissue, like adding to a stack of cones from the bottom. An elephant's immense incisors grow some seven inches a year.


Excerpted from "Ivory's Ghosts"
by .
Copyright © 2009 John Frederick Walker.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: 1898 1

Part 1 Shapes in Tusks

1 Mammoth Teeth 9

2 Tribute and Treasure 25

3 The Master Carvers' Medium 49

Part 2 Ivory Under the Saw

4 Piano Keys and Billiard Balls 83

5 "A Tooth of Ivory and a Slave to Carry It" 107

6 Ivory Hunters 136

Part 3 The Elephant Dilemma

7 Researchers and Poachers 157

8 The Ivory Ban 183

9 Elephant Dreams, Elephant Realities 221

Epilogue: 2007 249

Notes 259

Acknowledgments 291

Illustration Credits 295

Index 297

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Well-written and informative.”—Foreign Affairs

“[An] entertaining chronicle...Ivory’s Ghosts admirably tells the story of this enchanting substance while making clear that as long as there are elephants, there will be ivory. Now, surely, it is ivory's turn to help ensure that there will always be elephants.”—Leon Lazaroff, The Hartford Courant

“Walker provides sensitive and insightful analysis...Ivory, he acknowledges, is as wondrous as the creatures that produce it...Walker sees the future of elephants not in an absolute ban on all ivory, but in a system of sustainable harvesting and wildlife management. It’s a difficult balancing act, to be sure, but ivory can its bloody past...to become a self-renewing resource which can fund national parks, stabilize local economies, and preserve the impressive creatures that make it.”—Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History

“[A] tour de force examination of the history of ivory, humankind's lust for this exquisite treasure, and the demise of the elephant and human decency in the process of this unholy quest...Walker is a scholar and a perfectionist, but his meticulous examination of the allure of ivory reads like a novel that is impossible to put down...Whether you agree with this approach to conservation or not, read Ivory's Ghosts if you have any affinity for the history and future of this magnificent animal that has been sacrificed over the ages for what amounts to the white gold of its teeth...This book is a provocative, fascinating and compelling read. Highly recommended.”—Georgianne Nienaber, The Huffington Post

“Walker colorfully illustrates the [ivory] trade’s history...While Walker doesn’t pretend to offer definitive answers to the threats these pachyderms face, understanding the importance of the issues he raises is critical to the survival of more than elephants. In this comprehensive work with a serious message, there is never a dull moment.”—Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure

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