Huge Elephant Tusks from Greece – Can they provide a glimpse of Ancient Climates?
Two enormous prehistoric elephant tusks have been unearthed by a joint Dutch and Greek research team from a dig site in northern Greece. One of the tusks, believed to belong to a type of Mastodon (primitive elephant) is 5 metres long. As a comparison, the tusks of a large Imperial Mammoth (Mammuthus imperator) were up to 4.4 metres long, although they were much more curved compared to tusks uncovered in Greece.
The mastodon remains, which include limb bones, teeth and jaw bones have been excavated from a sand quarry near the village of Milia about 250 miles north of Athens. The larger of the tusks probably belonged to a male and that stood over 3.5 metres at the shoulder and could have weighed in excess of 5 tonnes. A number of other prehistoric mammal remains have been excavated and these latest finds have been dated to the end of the Pliocene epoch, making them approximately 2.5 million years ago (mya).
The excellent state of preservation has permitted the research team to speculate that they may be able to study the annual growth rings laid down in the tusk enamel. This would provide a valuable insight into the seasonality of the climate in Greece around this time.
Mastodons roamed extensively across Europe, Asia and North America but began to decline at the end of the Pliocene epoch with the last of the Mastodons surviving in North America into the end of the Pleistocene (10,000 years ago). Such well preserved tusks are an important find, given their excellent condition the growth rings from the tusks plus micro fossils such as plant remains and pollen may provide a detailed picture of the climate at the time when these huge elephants roamed the Mediterranean.
There have been many prehistoric elephant remains found in Greece and on the Greek islands. It is thought that the legend of the one-eyed monster called the Cyclops came from the misinterpretation of extinct elephant remains by the ancient Greeks. The large nasal space in the centre of an elephant’s skull (the part where the fleshy trunk would be attached) may have given rise to the myth of the one-eyed monster.
Certainly, many elephant skulls have been found in this region, with many scientists speculating that it was the discovery of a relatively dwarf species of extinct elephant on Crete that marks the starting point of the Cyclops legend.
When you view an proboscidean skull from the front (anterior view), you can see how this misinterpretation may have come about.