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North Devon in 100 Objects: 45. The Straight-Tusked Elephant

A piece of elephant tusk.

Why an elephant in Barnstaple?

In 1844, workmen digging clay in the brickfields in Summerland Street unearthed this fragment of elephant tusk, together with some teeth (now in the Natural History Museum).  At this time the popular view was that the earth was no more than 5,800 years old, although many geologists knew it had to be millions of years old. So how elephants could have lived in Barnstaple only a few thousand years earlier was a puzzle.  We now understand that in the last million years or so, the Ice Ages, there were both very cold and very warm periods.  In one of the long warm periods (interglacials) it would have been warm enough for elephants to flourish around Barnstaple just as hippos are known to have wallowed in what is now Trafalgar Square.

The tusk is of the extinct straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus.  These creatures stood some 4 metres tall, weighing as much as 11 or 12 tonnes, rather larger than an African elephant of today.  It is thought that Barnstaple’s elephant  lived about 120,000 years ago, when global temperatures may have been 2-3 degrees Centigrade warmer than today.  Sea level would also have been up to 10 metres higher, so the Summerland Street area may have been a swamp.  The teeth found are from an infant elephant as well as an adult, so perhaps our elephant died while trying to rescue its calf from the mud.

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