Elephants, Kings, and Comparison, a Conversation with Tom Trautmann

Painted temple elephant (John Hill)

The April 2021 issue of CSSH features Tom Trautmann’s new research on Indian war elephants, “Megasthenes on the Military Livestock of Chandragupta and the Making of the First Indian Empire” (63-2). It is the perfect occasion to revisit Elephants and Kings: an Environmental History (2015), Trautmann’s book about the rise and fall of the war elephant. As an exercise in deep history and transregional comparison, Elephants and Kings is the kind of work CSSH would like to see more of. 

We invited Trautmann to tell us why he writes about elephants, and how. He touched on several topics in the process: the value of analytical accidents, the recovery of lost knowledge systems, and the power and pluralism of human logics.

Enjoy the show.


CSSH: Why elephants? How did you become interested in them? Did this predate your interest in India, or do the two go together?

Trautmann: Well, as children we are interested in elephants, and in other giant beings such as whales and dinosaurs. I think we all have elephants in some part of our childhoods. I certainly do. As children we live among giants, and it makes us deeply interested in giants of all kinds, as they are so attractive and alarming. This childhood connection must be why the World Wildlife Fund uses elephants so much, along with pandas (giant, live teddy bears!) for its fundraising. A very kind reviewer (Nayanjot Lahiri) seems to have seen the connection of gigantism when she called my book Moby Dick for elephants. That pleased me mightily because Moby Dick is a favorite of mine.

But elephants became a research interest for me many decades later, some considerable time after doing a doctorate in ancient Indian history. Elephants appealed because I was eager to direct my efforts toward underserved aspects of ancient Indian history, which is very well served in the history of religion, for which India has a great deal to offer, but is short in other topics, notably social history and political life. And here was a gigantic topic! I published an article, “Elephants and the Mauryas,” in 1982 in a Festschrift for A.L. Basham, my beloved professor at the University of London, arguing that a royal monopoly of elephants and horses contributed to the formation of the first India-wide empire of the Mauryans. I resolved to collect material on elephants for a book. After a lengthy fermentation, and a wonderful research tour in Cambodia and India, the book came out in 2015, a very long time since my childhood.

Author Tom Trautmann

CSSH: We had the pleasure of discussing Elephants and Kings in front of a town and gown audience in Ann Arbor a few years ago. You’ve written excellent books in your time, but Elephants and Kings covers so much terrain, so many centuries and civilizations, across several living and ancient languages. It’s stunning. The laypeople in the crowd loved it as a praise poem to elephants. The scholars were thinking, “How could one person write this!?” Best of all, it was great fun to read.

Trautmann: It was pure joy to write, too, and a perfect project for an historian of ancient India. The development of the war elephant in India is the book’s center, but its outer edges encompass a large region of Asia, Africa, and Europe that had taken on this Indian invention. The story of Hannibal bringing elephants through the Alps to bear upon Rome, which everyone knows, begins in India, which is not as well known. After the Romans defeated the elephant-using Carthaginians of what is modern Tunisia, and the Hellenistic states in Egypt and Syria, they discontinued the use of the war elephant and promoted instead the circus elephant. The military knowledge of elephants was lost in the orbit of Rome, in parts of which it had once flourished. New military manuals eliminated information on the elephant division of the army, for example, because the Roman generals, who had the whole elephant apparatus of the defeated Carthaginian and Hellenistic rulers at their disposal, decided elephants were no longer wanted for the military. So the story of the Indian war elephant, Hellenistic variant, was lost or at least diminished. 

By contrast, the Roman circus with its obligatory Asian elephants was revived in modern times in such exotic places as Wisconsin, home of the Ringling Brothers, who bought out the Barnum and Baily Circus in 1907. It was the great consolidation of the circus business in America. Baraboo, where the Ringling brothers came from, is near the village where I grew up.

CSSH: That explains a lot.

Trautmann: During work on the elephant book, I made a point of visiting the research library of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, where I found material confirming my belief that circus elephants are almost exclusively female Asian elephants.

CSSH: We’ve just published your latest elephant-related essay in CSSH. Will you write more?

Trautmann: Actually, yes, I am still working on elephants, writing essays dealing with topics I was not able to cover fully in the book, or about which I have new thoughts, or (in one case) second thoughts about something I have written that now seems to me mistaken.

“Shooting an Elephant” is a deep history of a classic essay by George Orwell, about how a colonial policeman, against his will, is obliged by the townspeople in British Burma to kill a captive elephant that has gotten loose. I propose that Orwell’s famous piece had a long series of prior texts in Indian literature about the rogue elephant. But rogue elephants aside, royal protection of wild elephants involved a ban on hunting elephants, until the British introduced sport hunting into India from South Africa, against the resistance of Indian royalty.

I would like to write an essay about the mahout (driver) and the grasscutter, the two types of elephant keepers whose knowledge is most intimate. The problem is this knowledge is transmitted orally and learned through unpaid apprenticeship to a father or uncle in the elephant camp, forming lineages of embodied knowledge through great lengths of time. But little of it has made its way into the written record. Ethnographies by Piers Locke, Paul Keil, and Nicolas Lainé among others have studied present-day practices among elephant-using peoples that might be helpful in the interpretation of ancient and medieval sources.

CSSH: What would you like someone else to do on elephants, if you could solicit original research?

Trautmann: During my research tour for the book, I met an elephant dealer on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, where he kept two elephants. He was one of eleven dealers who rented out elephants for weddings, birthdays, and religious festivals. He represented the group as a whole in relations with the government. Ten of these dealers belonged to a single brotherhood (birādiri), or lineage. The family had been in the elephant business, he said, for 250 years, which goes well back into the era of the war elephant. Much as I wanted to continue with him, I had a flight home the next day, and nothing further came of it. I wish someone in the vicinity could record this remarkable life and family history. 

There is a whole world out there, waning fast, and but a handful of ethnographers and historians trying to record it. Soon, as we say, it will be history, which really means it will disappear leaving only a few traces.

CSSH: Now that you’ve spent so much quality time with elephants as a topic of research, do you have a general take on new approaches to the study of animal-human relations? It’s a popular trend of late, but as you show in your book, humans have been studying elephants for thousands of years. Does the story of our relationship with elephants leave you with any lessons learned, any morals?

Rao Durjan Sal on a military move, National Museum, New Delhi

Trautmann: History and anthropology, which are dear to me, have taken the human group as their object of study, to which the animals in our lives are subordinated. I am also fond of literature, although I prefer the unambiguous real-world reference of history and anthropology. In literature, again, the object of study, the texts and their makers and readers, treats animals as they appear in texts; that is, as content but not as the object of study as such. I find it encouraging that what Irving Hallowell called “other than human persons” are increasingly becoming objects of study for all three disciplines. I do not claim to be abreast of such developments, but do my best to participate in them in my own way.

What most pleased me in the elephant book is that I found what I was not looking for. It was counter-intuitive to find that the institution of the war elephant obliged monarchs to protect wild elephants as a store from which adult male elephants could be captured and trained for war; protecting them, moreover, from being hunted for meat or ivory, including their own royal hunts. The measure of their success is that India today has more wild Asian elephants than any other country. What is more, the South and Southeast Asian countries, plus Yunnan Province in China, are all places in which wild elephants exist today because war elephants were used by their rulers in the past. 

Here is a story of environmental history, the outcome of which I did not already know before I undertook to research it: that, subject to the overall decline of wild elephant numbers in relation to the inexorable rise of human population, the war elephant of the past leaves an imprint upon the present, in the persistence of wild elephants in Asia. Doubtless their numbers are greatly diminished, and there are no guarantees for the future as human populations continue to grow; but their persistence needs to be a part of an honest, thorough inquiry into the deep history of what is the crisis of our times. 

That unexpected discovery was provoked by comparing ancient India to ancient China in the environmental history of the latter by Mark Elvin. Comparison showed the invention of the war elephant in ancient North India, its rejection among kings of the Han majority, and its adoption among the minority nationalities of Yunnan, on the border of Southeast Asia and its war-elephant-using neighbor countries.

In addition to satisfying my personal desire to contribute to underserved aspects of the history of India, the project answered another long-standing wish of mine, to treat ancient India not as a specific interval of past time, but as a resource for understanding the present, a wish to contribute to deep history as distinct from ancient history. The deep history of elephants in India is one in which the fact that India has a substantial number of wild elephants today is due to royal protection in the past, issuing from the invention of the war elephant and the need to maintain wild elephant numbers from which to acquire fresh stock.

CSSH: That’s a wonderful statement of what is distinctive about deep history, about what it can do analytically that other ways of writing or knowing history cannot. Deep history is as much about the present as it is about the past. 

Trautmann: This bears upon the moral question as we think about the future. People for whose expert knowledge I have the greatest respect, such as Raman Sukumar, the leading scientist on the ecology of Asian elephants, and Nicholas Lainé, the ethnographer of elephant-using peoples in India and Southeast Asia, want to keep elephant-human interactions at the center of our collective attention, rather than isolating elephants as stand-alone flagships in order to save them from humans. Humane realism of this kind is very much needed, to find the resources that will help ourselves and the elephants make it through the crisis.

CSSH: It’s fascinating to realize that we’ve actually known a lot more about elephants in the past than we did in subsequent centuries. Whole traditions of military tactics, animal healthcare, knowledge of forest ecologies, and so on … gone.

Trautmann: A major task of a deep history program will be the recovery of lost knowledge systems. We are familiar with this from our own lives. I have to explain to my students what are typewriters, carbon paper, whiteout, and the writing by hand of English language texts in the cursive script, which until recently one learned in the third grade. The latter will have to be taught to history students when they head for the archives.

For a very long time human relations with their domestic animals were similar across the agrarian civilizations, and were in a fairly steady state within them. In Old World armies, horses were central from the Bronze Age until the coming of the railroad and the internal combustion engine. Military livestock in that theatre of world history were such that a general intelligibility prevailed across time and space. Because of this relatively steady state, Donald Engels, in his excellent study of the logistics of Alexander of Macedon, was able to use nineteenth century British intelligence surveys of Afghanistan to map the movements of marching men and horses, and how they were provisioned. Continuity of this kind is exceptional. It suggested to me that it could be used to interpret the intelligence of Megasthenes on the military livestock of Chandragupta Maurya’s empire, which is the focus of my recent CSSH article.

But for us there is a growing distance from animals, especially the working farm animals, that now interrupts that steady state. I find a striking illustration of that at the annual three-day fair of the Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club, which coincides with iterations of high school reunions for me. This event has amazing exhibits of obsolete steam farm machinery made to work again by their obsessed collectors. One can inspect harvesters and threshing machines, pile drivers, saws for rendering trees into planks; but also row upon endless row of every blessed model of tractor, hauled to the fair on flatbed trucks by their farmer-collector-restorers; and working exhibits of letterpress printing machines and such-like everyday working machinery, lovingly restored. One of the fascinating things about this fair, some of the exhibits worked by people known to me personally, is that it draws tourists from among the local Amish families, who come to see these forbidden wonders. It makes me think that only a bit of time separates the horse-based farming of the Amish from the tractor-based farming of the exhibitors. The machinery that replaced horses is being replaced by other machines; steam gave way to gas, and so forth. The bookshop of the fair reproduces handbooks of the more antique machinery, purchasable for collectors who need to restore what they have acquired—dying knowledge kept on life support by the antiquarian collecting bug as a demand upon this highly specialized market.

The increasing rapidity of technological change makes scenes like this familiar, if not exactly commonplace, showing at greater speed what is always taking place: not only the formation and refinement of knowledge, but the decay and loss of knowledge as well. So, yes, we know a lot less about elephants than others before us once did. 

But I also found that some things about elephants remained obscure to the ancients, and have only been discovered in modern times. The ancients thought the elephant lifespan was 120 years, or even 200 years. Only recently have we learned that elephants may live to about age 70, when their last set of molars wear out. It is only through close study of the species of plants they eat and their seasonal movements, beginning with the work of Ian Douglas-Hamilton and Cynthia Moss for African elephants, and Sukumar for the Asian elephant, that we produced a comprehensive account of elephant diet far superior to what the grasscutters, mahouts, and elephant physicians of ancient India knew. So, beside whole branches and modes of knowledge being maintained by apprenticeship, lineages of oral teaching, and texts in Sanskrit of Elephant Science, there have been substantial additions to knowledge of elephants and their insides, and their relations to landscapes, in recent times.

CSSH: Humans never domesticated elephants. They had to go out and catch them in the jungle. As you argue, complex political worlds evolved around the wildness of elephants, the need to care for them in and out of captivity. This is not the tale of the ox or ass. Even less the dog or horse. 

Trautmann: As it happens, I have been working on a piece I call “How to feed your elephant,” which hinges on this marginal status of the captive, trained elephant as contrasted to the hugely successful domestication of cattle. When we think about feeding a domestic animal, we often invoke the self-feeding of its wild relative. But in the case of cattle, the wild congeners, the aurochs or the zebu, are extinct, as is true for many domesticated animals. But wild elephants and tame ones have continued side by side, so to say, and are ideal for direct comparison. We can show in considerable detail how the feeding of a captive elephant in India in the twentieth century by humans differs from elephants feeding themselves in the forest—differences of the time, place, and foodstuffs of the elephant’s daily intake. All of the differences I find are owing to the loss of initiative by the captive elephant, and the transfer of initiative to its human keepers, and their human way of organizing the place, time, and nature of the feeding. So the marginal domestication (or non-domestication) of the elephant can be an advantage for a history of the feeding of animals by humans.

CSSH: What still puzzles you about elephants? Are there aspects of elephant history you can’t quite figure out?

Trautmann: I wrote Elephants and Kings to construct a new overview, one that departs from the scholarly literature, which is in all candor very scant, though containing some real gems. For the Greek and Latin sources on the Hellenistic and Carthaginian war elephant we have two major studies separated by a century: that of Piero Armandi, Histoire militaire des éléphants (1843), and H.H. Scullard’s fine study, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974), plus a few dazzling articles, such as that of Paul Goukowsky, “Le roi Pôros, son éléphant et quelques autres” (1972), and a really obscure but valuable one on Indian military terms in Greek sources, Roger Goosens, “Gloses indiennes dans le lexique d’Hesichius” (1943). My hope is that the new overview will inspire others to open up new lines of research.

A great many things remain to be explained, some of them beyond my reach. Two of them, as examples, would be the Syrian elephant, and the Indian howdah. 

Assyrian kings from Tiglath-Pilesar I to Shalmaneser III, who reigned in an interval of almost three centuries, 1114-824 BCE, issued inscriptions about royal hunts in which elephants and other animals were killed in great numbers. Thereafter we hear no more of this, the elephants seemingly having gone locally extinct. How did they get there in the first place, so far from India? We need the help of archaeologists and zooarchaeologists for robust investigations of the region. We are getting that help from Peter Pfälzer and Denys Ferenz. But there are many obscurities, and the relation of the Syrian elephant to Asian elephants generally continues to be obscure. Canan Çakirlar and Salima Ikram propose that elephants were transferred from India to the Near East through the trade of the Indus Civilization, but they do not explain the methods and agents of this trade in any detail. We will have to depend on those who are experts in these matters to come up with more convincing answers.

Sri Lankan elephant after finishing a drink (Lawanga Ranwala)

As to the howdah (Hindi hauḍa), it certainly comes from Arabic hawdaj, which is a litter upon a camel for a lady or a caliph. Aisha, the widow of the Prophet, was riding one when the Battle of the Camel (656 CE) broke out with the forces of Ali, who prevailed. (My thanks to the late Michael Bonner for this information.) Arabic and Persian, which I do not have, are needed to crack this nut. But it is at least clear that the scholarly literature is in error when it projects the howdah back to the beginning of elephant capture and training in India. Goukowsky helps establish this, showing that the tower (thōrakion) in Greek sources is a Macedonian invention of the Hellenistic period, to give soldiers unused to riding elephants bareback a solid platform from which to fight. But Goukousky is wrong to say that the Macedonian tower inspired the Indian howdah, which makes its entry after the coming of Islam. There are lots of loose ends to be tied up before we have a full answer.

CSSH: This attention to detail, and to regional specificity, is one of the strengths of your work. But your biggest analytical breakthroughs come from asking why war elephants had different careers in India, China, and the Roman Empire. That’s a comparative question, and your answers show the interpretive potential of deep history. And wide history, too, since your frame was India-centric but transregional. 

You say this result pleased you because you didn’t go into the project looking for it. But clearly you produced it, or were open to it, which suggests a kind of theory and method.

Do you have a recipe for blending ancient and deep history in creative ways? 

Trautmann: The comparative dimension of the book—the India-China contrast on wild elephants—came about by a happy accident. I was talking with the environmental historian of China, Michael Hathaway, then a graduate student at Michigan and CSSH Editorial Assistant, about his dissertation. It was on the emergence of environmentalism in China, and is now a fine book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (2013). It so happened that he had been given two copies of Mark Elvin’s book, The Retreat of the Elephants: an Environmental History of China (2006). He gave me one of them, and I devoured it. 

In Elvin’s massive study, religion, philosophy, and the aesthetic appreciation of nature are found to be too weak to counteract royal self-interest. The result is an imperative for kings to make the forest safe for tax-paying farmers by clearing it of dangerous animals. Elvin makes elephants emblematic of what he calls the war against the animals. But viewed from my India-based perspective, this policy seemed not like a compulsion imposed by the nature of things but more like a choice. Behind today’s distribution of wild elephants in Asia, I saw an Indian royal policy of promoting agrarian villages and also elephants and elephant forests, accepting that they are bound to conflict from time to time. Comparison arrived unbidden, to show me what I was not looking for. It displaced the existing biometric calculus of a constant downward pressure upon elephant demographics by the steady drawing-off of some to be turned into war elephants. It supplied a counterbalancing upside in the positive value kings placed on wild elephants by the logic of the situation. Once the war elephant was created and made into an institution, this logic spread to the nascent kingdoms of Southeast Asia, and Yunnan, where elephants persist today.

What is the method here? What is the theory? Was there any at all, as accident played such a large role?

CSSH: Having colleagues who read good books, and give you their duplicate copies, seems to be essential.

Trautmann: I think a lot these days of a good friend, the archaeologist of Mexico, Jeff Parsons, who died just recently. Attending the bag lunches of the archaeologists, I once heard him give a talk called “Reflections on the Valley of Mexico Surveys, 1960-1975.” In the course of the talk, he listed the books they were reading back then, in search of interpretative ideas. I was amazed. I had been reading many of the very same books, also looking for good interpretive ideas, at the very same time, without either of us knowing it. The most unexpected one was Owen Lattimore’s classic on nomadic pastoralism, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, as it was far afield of both India and Mexico. The list also included two books by Michigan faculty whom we knew very well: Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics (plus earlier articles leading up to it) and Charles Gibson’s Aztecs under Spanish Rule. We both read Karl Polanyi, but had different favorites:Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (Jeff) and The Great Transformation (me). We both read Ester Boserup’s The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, he then, me a bit later. And so forth. I felt a rush of good feeling thinking of those books.

Taken altogether I thought, and think, that my generation was especially well served by thrilling works that were “good to think,” written by our seniors, including senior colleagues at Michigan. The unknown-at-the-time communality of our reading list accounts for the fact that writings of Jeff Parsons, including the many he co-authored with Mary Parsons, are so very congenial to me for their manner of conceptualizing and articulating an argument. 

CSSH: You’re right to stress the element of surprise. The insights you arrived at in Elephants and Kings were unexpected, but what makes them compelling is the articulation, both in the sense of how the elements are connected (in the world) and in how you (as author) spell them out. The surprise comes from realizing that the juxtaposition of x and y is pushing you toward arguments you did not intend to make. The “unbidden,” as you put it. That’s one of the beauties of comparative analysis. It rewards a kind of interdisciplinary openness. Reading all those great books was part of the sensibility.

Trautmann: Yes. My claim, in short, is that reading beyond one’s field creates the conditions under which happy accidents can happen. Try it and see.

This kind of reading is exactly what CSSH was created to foster. Sylvia Thrupp, historian of medieval England, wanted intellectual exchanges with anthropologists and sociologists to enliven her own field and nourish her formidable mind. It became the formula for the journal she created and the readership she forged among historians, anthropologists, and sociologists. My hope is that others interested in the deeper past as she was will enrich her legacy by submitting their best new work to the broad-ranging readership of CSSH.

CSSH: We keep an eye out for the deep history essays. They are rare. It’s a demanding genre. The theory and method are hard to master.

Trautmann: As to theory, let me just say a word about what I will call “logics” – not the singular logic of Aristotle, but the uncountable pluralism of logics we encounter in the worlds humans have made. 

A favorite example for me is L.H. Morgan among the Iroquois, for whom, he was surprised to find, “the brother of a father is also a father,” whence an Iroquois person will have many fathers; and similarly, and symmetrically, many mothers, beginning with the mother’s sister, with ramifications through the whole nomenclature of kinship. To understand the meaning of this configuration, Morgan undertook a worldwide survey through correspondence with the help of the Smithsonian Institution, and journeys to the American west. He found what he called the Classificatory System of kinship widely spread in the world. He was astonished by its departures from the “promptings of nature,” considering it a stupendous invention (in a first draft he called it the Artificial System), and yet having a perfectly consistent logic of its own. This concept of a logic which is self-consistent, whether it conforms to one’s sense of nature or does not, was the principle Morgan found when he was not looking for it, and propelled him on to his most original work, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871). 

CSSH: Again, the element of surprise. 

Trautmann: It’s a sorrow to me that Morgan’s great originality is so little known in the discipline—Anthropology—he did so much to create; but I am content that my belief in it has the support of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who dedicated his great work on kinship to Morgan, of whom he said,  “scientific precision and exact observation did not seem . . .  to be incompatible with a frankly theoretical mode of thought and a bold philosophical taste.” A great German anthropologist of middle India, Georg Pfeffer, makes the same case at length in his last book, Lewis Henry Morgan’s Comparisons (2019).

CSSH: Your admiration for Morgan, who got many things wrong, is akin to Matei Candea’s affection for comparative analysis, which he writes about at glorious length in Comparison in Anthropology (2018). He calls it “the impossible method” because we’ll never get it completely right. Still, comparison is worth the risk precisely because it reveals the integral and variable nature of what you call “logics.” It’s hard to detect either without external points of reference, without the kind of back and forth movement comparativism encourages. 

Trautmann: Let me show the power of logics, with elephants. The example astounds me.

I have spoken of the logic by which kings of India and Southeast Asia using war elephants become protectors of wild elephants, a logic which takes in the huge costs of feeding elephants, and their slow rate of reproduction exacerbated by the work imposed upon them, leading to the pattern of quasi-domestication whereby they are captured as wild adults and trained. 

Agatharcides wrote a history of the Red Sea region in Greek, in the Hellenistic period when the Ptolemys of Egypt had a massive operation to capture wild African elephants (likely the smaller, forest species) to train them up into Indian-style war elephants. Agatharcides says the reigning king wanted the peoples of the region, who were called Elephant-eaters (Elephantophagoi), to stop hunting elephants for food, offering a subsidy if they would do so. He did not succeed. The Elephantophagoi told him they would not stop hunting elephants for all the wealth of the Egyptian Pharoah. But the impulse of king Ptolemy in making the offer shows the Indian logic of royal protection reappearing among the Macedonian rulers of Egypt, far, far from India, and attested to by a writer who, because he had no conception of the Indian origin of this logic, is the perfect, disinterested witness. 

CSSH: Astounding indeed. And the perfect note to end on.


Thomas R. Trautmann is Emeritus Professor of History and Anthropology of the University of Michigan. He has written on ancient Indian history, environmental history of India, Orientalist scholarship in British India, Dravidian kinship and language, and the works of the pioneer anthropologist, L. H. Morgan. Among his books are Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras (University of California Press, 2006) and Aryans and British India (University of California Press, 1997).