Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fragments of my research - I

A specter was haunting Europe in the 1690s.

Well, it wasn't haunting all of Europe, at least, not yet, but, as specters go, this was a pretty good one.

Word of the specter first appeared on the edges of Europe, in the country that was still referred to as Muscovy. Dutch and German travelers brought word of it back to their countries. Within a few years additional travelers had brought back more stories and the specter was known in England, France, Sweden, and everywhere that learned men gathered to discuss the new natural philosophies. Descriptions of the specter were vague and contradictory. Muscovite merchants said the natives of Siberia had known about the specter since the dawn of time (six to eight thousand years earlier, depending on who you asked). Some said it was a monster that lived underground; others said it lived in the water. No one had seen it alive. It was said to die on exposure to sunlight or air. All, however, agreed that it was an enormous beast--bigger than anything known--and that it had teeth (or horns) longer than a man. The natives called it Mammoth.

The mammoth had been known to merchants outside of Siberia for centuries, but not by that name. Ivory from the North entered into various trading networks on the periphery of Eurasia after passing through numerous middlemen so that its origin and even the name used by its producers was not known by the final sellers. The earliest accounts of something that might be mammoth ivory come from Arab and Persian travelers of the Muslim golden age.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan traveled with an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Volga Bulgars in order to convert the Bulgars to Islam. They succeeded within a few days. Having some extra time on his hands, ibn Fadlan explored the habits of the neighboring peoples. Vikings, he tells us, are the filthiest of all Allah's creatures. The local merchants told him of a large fierce beast (unnamed) that lived on the steppes. It had a single large horn in its forehead from which the Bulgars carved bowls. When it saw riders on the steppes, it would chase them down and kill the riders with its horn. It never hurt the horses. It had the head of a sheep, the body of a mule, and the tail and hooves of a bull. Some people thought it was a rhinoceros. Mammoth enthusiasts, by ignoring everything except the size of the horn, have decided that this is a description of fossil ivory. Unicorn enthusiasts, by paying attention only to the location of the horn and the beast's solidarity with horses, have laid claim to the beast. Cryptozoologists, seizing on the mention that it might be a rhinoceros, have decided that this is proof that woolly rhinoceroses lived into historic times. Since ibn Fadlan was a little sketchy about his return trip, Michael Chrichton added a loop further north into his itinerary so he could help the Vikings fight Grendel in his book Eaters of the Dead. In the movie version of Chrichton's story, The Thirteenth Warrior, ibn Fadlan was played by Antonio Banderas.

The next Islamic writer to mention a mysterious carvable material found in the North as the great Persian polymath Abu Rayhan al Biruni. During his seventy-five years, al Biruni wrote over one hundred forty books on almost every subject imaginable, but primarily on astronomy. He has a crater on the moon named for him. Only twenty-two of his books survived in their complete form, but he was generously quoted by later writers giving us a wide selection of his thought. The relevant material for mammoths appears in his Kitab al-Jawahir (Book of Precious Stones) where he discusses a material called khutu used for knife handles. He reports several possible sources for khutu: fish, fowl mammal, and vegetable.
Although khutu is an animal product, yet people like it and collect it as a treasure.

It is the bone of the forehead of a bull. This is what has been said in books, although the only additional information we could get is that this bull is found in Khirghiz. Its forehead is thicker than two fingers which would show that it cannot be the forehead of the Turkish bull, as it is smaller bodied. But it could well be the horn. As for the belief that it is the forehead of a bull, it would be the forehead of the mountain goats of Khirghiz. Only they can have such foreheads.

A tradition which runs about it – and it is extremely difficult to check the veracity of the factual truth behind this tradition – has it that it is the forehead of a big bird. Natives in the wilderness of China believe it to be a very large fowl residing in uninhabited regions beyond the sea of Zanj and China, eating large ferocious elephants.

The Bulgar bring from the northern sea teeth of a fish over a cubit long. White knife hafts are sawed out of them for the cutlers. The middle portion is distributed among the single hafts, so that every piece of the tooth has a share in them; it can be seen that they are made from the tooth itself, and not from ivory, or from the chips of its edges. The various designs displayed by it give the appearance of wriggling. Some of our countrymen bring it to Mecca where the people regard it as white chatuq.

AmIr Abu Jafar ibn Banu had a large box-like case made of long and broad khutu planks.

Ibn al-Husayn Kashghari, a later writer who quoted and expanded on al Biruni, explained what chatuq is:
Horn of a sea fish imported from China. It is said that it is the root of a tree. It is used for knife handles.

In a few short lines we hear that khutu could come from a bull, a goat, a bird, a fish, or a tree. The only thing we can be sure it is not is rhinoceros horn. Today, rhinoceros horn is extremely popular in the Muslim world for making high quality knife handles and it was popular in al Biruni's time as well. However, al Biruni wrote seperately about rhinoceros horn and its use for knife handles and was clear that they were not khutu. The wide variety of sources indicates that the word khutu was used to describe more than one substance. The word itself was a loan word from Chinese. It's likely that many merchants used the word indiscriminately for "knife handle stuff."

Two elements in al Biruni's investigation of khutu point towards a possible mammoth source. Amir Banu's large box made of khutu planks has to be ivory from a proboscidean. Nothing else is large enough to produce planks. The elephant was familiar enough to everyone in the Chinese, Indian, and Muslim worlds that if the box had been made of elephant ivory, they would have said so. For that example, at least, fossil mammoth ivory is the only possibility (unless they lied about the size of the box). The other element of interest is the Khirghiz connection. The Khirghiz of al Biruni's didn't inhabit the small corner of Central Asia that is today's Kyghizstan. They controlled a wide swath of the steppes from China to Europe and controlled all of the trade between the Muslim world in the south and the hunter and fisher people of the north. If any mammoth ivory entered the Muslim world it would have had to come from Khirghiz or Bulgar middlemen.

The elephant eating bird is too similar to the roc of the Arabian Nights to be anything but the source of the legend. Al Biruni says the story comes from the Chinese who place the bird off at the edge of the world. In 1916 Berthold Laufer put forward the idea that the giant bird with a horn might be a description of the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. On the Arctic coast of Siberia, woolly rhinoceros and mammoth bones can be found mixed together. Both rhinoceros horns and mammoth tusks were sold to the Chinese who used them for making knife handles, among other objects. While the khutu that al Biruni wrote about might not have been rhinoceros horn, its possible that the khutu of the Chinese was.

In the twelfth-century, the Andalusian geographer Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, also visited Bulgar and reported "a tooth four spans long and two spans wide and the cranium of the animal resembling a dome; teeth were also found in the ground like elephant's tusks, white like snow, one weighing two hundred menn; it was not known from what animal it was derived; it was wrought like ivory, but was stronger than the latter and unbreakable." The teeth were sold for a great price in Kwarezm in Central Asia. The fact that he specifically references ivory dug out of the ground makes it almost certain that his informants were speaking of fossil mammoth tusks.

In 1255, the monk Kirakos of Gandsak travelled to Karakorum with Haithon I, king of Cilician Armenia, to pay tribute to the Mongol Khan. Kirakos describes many of the wonders of the East, including the Isle of Dog-faced men. Among the marvels, he mentions "a sandy island there where is found a precious bone in the form of a tree, called fish-tooth; when it is cut, another bone will shoot forth at the same spot, in the manner of deer's antlers." This sounds similar to Kashghari's horn of a sea fish / root of a tree description. The detail of a new bone appearing where the old one was cut might indicate fossil ivory washing out on a beach or an animal that sheds its horns.

Giles Fletcher, who was sent as ambassador by Queen Elizabeth to Russia in 1588, also saw ivory from a fish. "Besides these (which are all good and substantiall commodities) they have divers other of smaller accompt, that are naturall and proper to that countrey: as the fish tooth (which they call Ribazuba) which is used among themselves, and the Persians and Bougharians that fetch it from thence for beads, knives, and sword hafts of noblemen and gentlemen, and for divers other uses."

The first ivory to appear in England that we know for sure was mammoth tusk arrived in 1611. Josiah Logan wrote the following in a letter to Richard Hakluyt in June of that year, after returning from a trading expedition to Pechora on the Arctic coast of European Russia:
There use to come hither in the Winter about two thousand Samoieds with their Commodities, which may be such as we dreamed not on yet. For by chance one came to us with a piece of an Elephants Tooth, which he said he bought of a Samoied.

Logan knew enough of the world to immediately recognize an elephant's tusk (and to know the value of a hunk of ivory that large). There was no question in his mind that the "tooth" came from a bull, fish, tree, rhino, or unicorn.

Studying early knowledge of mammoths presents two problems. The first, is that the people who found mammoth remains were almost never literate and the people who wrote about mammoth remains were so far removed that they almost always got their information second or third hand or worse. The second problem is that, lacking a common name for mammoth remains, it is a huge task to sort out references to mammoth ivory from similar materials used in carving. Giles Fletcher's fish tooth ivory is most likely walrus ivory. Notice how close his description is to Kashghari's and Kirakos'. Does that mean they were all describing walrus ivory? Could they have each been describing something different? And, while Fletcher's description is clearly of a walrus, can we be sure that all of the ivory he saw came from the same source? Was he throwing mammoth ivory in with walrus ivory and calling them the same thing? More research is in order.

Coming soon: Chinese mammoths, earthshaking moles, and the mammoth gets a name.

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