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The Authors Forum Presents: "Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History," A Conversation with Thomas Trautmann and Andrew Shryock

Thursday, January 28, 2016
12:00 AM
Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library - Gallery #100

Book signing and sale courtesy of Nicola's Books.

Because of their enormous size, elephants have long been irresistible for kings as symbols of their eminence. In early civilizations—such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Civilization, and China—kings used elephants for royal sacrifice, spectacular hunts, public display of live captives, or the conspicuous consumption of ivory—all of them tending toward the elephant’s extinction. The kings of India, however, as Thomas R. Trautmann shows in this study, found a use for elephants that actually helped preserve their habitat and numbers in the wild: war.

Trautmann traces the history of the war elephant in India and the spread of the institution to the west—where elephants took part in some of the greatest wars of antiquity—and Southeast Asia (but not China, significantly), a history that spans 3,000 years and a considerable part of the globe, from Spain to Java. He shows that because elephants eat such massive quantities of food, it was uneconomic to raise them from birth. Rather, in a unique form of domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them, one by one, through millennia. Kings were thus compelled to protect wild elephants from hunters and elephant forests from being cut down. By taking a wide-angle view of human-elephant relations, Trautmann throws into relief the structure of India’s environmental history and the reasons for the persistence of wild elephants in its forests.

Thomas R. Trautmann is professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of many books, including Dravidian Kinship, Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship, Aryans and British India, and India: Brief History of a Civilization.

Andrew Shryock is a cultural anthropologist. He has done ethnographic fieldwork in Yemen, Jordan, and among Arab and Muslim communities in Detroit. The author of several books, including Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend, he is Chair and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

The Author's Forum is a collaboration between the U-M Institute for the Humanities, University Library, & Ann Arbor Book Festival.

Additional support for this event provided by the departments of Anthropology, History, and the Center for South Asian Studies.