The History of the Human Use of Elephants

This article contains a brief introduction to the history of the human use of elephants. All dates in this article are based upon the popularly accepted timeline of history. The first part of this article contains paragraphs which focus on the human use of elephants in different parts of the world. The second part of this article contains a concise chronology of the human use of elephants.

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Elephants have been used by humans in agriculture, war, entertainment, and more. The Asian elephant is commonly considered the first species of elephant to be tamed by humans. The earliest evidence for the human use of elephants was located in the Indus Valley and typically is dated back to around 4500-4000 BC. The earliest recorded use of war elephants by Europeans tells us that the elephants were under the control of Alexander the Great’s general, Polyperchon.

According to the information provided in the chronology below, the use of elephants for agriculture and war first developed in asiatic populations. As mentioned above, the earliest evidence for the human use of elephants is typically dates back to around 4500-4000 BC. Although the wikipedia article itself says that the oldest evidence roughly comes from around 4500 BC, the citation that is used to substantiate that claim says 2000 BC. Other website articles also give the dates of 4500 BC or 4000 BC, so I have included the older date since it is the more popular one. When I locate the reasoning behind these dates, I will include it here in this article or in another article which will be linked here. As of now I’m not sure what the Indus Valley populations are believed to have used the elephants for.

Evidence for the presence of elephants found in Shang China has been dated to around 1600-1100 BC. The 6th century allegedly has reports about elephants being used in war in China. Additional reports say that due to deforestation and an increase in human populations, the elephants of Mesopotamia went extinct around 850 BC and that the elephants of Chinese were becoming endangered around 500 BC.

The 4th century BC is when Alexander the Great initially encountered war elephants, and due to the magnificence of their presence, added the fifteen that he had captured from his enemies to his ranks. In 318 BC, Alexander the Great’s general, Polyperchon, was the first amongst the Europeans to command the war elephants in battle. It is also in the 4th century BC when Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have formed the Maurya Empire. Chandragupta Maurya’s armies allegedly contained 9,000 war elephants.

Our reference (4) reports that the time in which humans began training elephants for war remains unknown, but by the 3rd century BC, the elephants were valuable additions to armies in India and northern Africa. One notable figure from this time period is Hannibal. Hannibal met his maker during the battle of Zama in 202 BC while in command of war elephants.

The same can be said for the time in which humans began training elephants for entertainment, with the only exception being that the notable marking point for this would be their use in Roman circuses. After Alexander the Great and Hannibal, there are many reports of Romans using war elephants. The war elephants were in use from ancient to modern times.

Throughout the ancient world and the mediaeval world, war elephants have their place. Popular figures like Charlemagne and Tamerlane both employed war elephants in their ranks. The most elephants under one person’s rule that I found was in the 17th century under Jahangir. Reports estimate around 113,000 elephants in his captivity.


The concise chronology of the human use of elephants;

c. 4500 BC – Indus Valley Civilization

1600-1100 BC – evidence for the presence of wild elephants in the Yellow River valley in Shang China

c. 850 BC – the Mesopotamian elephants are extinct

6th century BC – Elephants widely used in warfare in India

c. 543 BC – King Bimbisara uses war elephants

506 BC – the state of Chu uses elephants against Wu by attaching flaming torches to the elephants tails. The attack failed

c. 500 BC – the Chinese elephants are severely reduced in numbers and limited to areas south of the Yellow River

5th-4th centuries BC – the Ramayana and Mahabharata depict elephant warfare

331 BC – Alexander the Great’s Battle of Guagamela is the first confrontation between the Europeans

321-297 BC – Chandragupta Maurya forms the Maurya Empire. His military contained allegedly 9,000 war elephants

318 BC – Alexander the Great’s general, Polyperchon, makes use of war elephants for the first time in Europe

280 BC – King Pyrrhus of Epirus brought twenty elephants to the battle of Heraclea

255 BC – the Carthaginian elephants were ineffective at the battle of Panormus

202 BC – Hannibal and his elephants are defeated in the battle of Zama

200 BC – King Dutugamunu rode Kandula and King Ellalan rode Maha Pambata (Big Rock) – both war elephants

199 BC – the invasion of Macedonia includes Roman war elephants

197 BC – the battle of Cynoscephalae includes Roman war elephants

190 BC – the battle of Magnesia includes Roman war elephants

168 BC – Romans deploy 22 elephants at Pydna

161 BC – Seleucid king Antiochus V Eupator invades Judea with elephants

49-45 BC – the army of Metellus Scipio uses elephants against Caesar’s army at the battle of Thapsus

46 BC – Juba I of Numidia uses turreted elephants

451 AD – the Sassanid elephants are used against the Armenians at the Battle of Vartanantz

554 AD – the Liang dynasty uses tower carrying war elephants against the Western Wei. The attack fails

570 AD – Abraha marches upon the Ka’bah in Mecca and intends to destroy it. He uses elephants but fails

602-605 AD – war elephants are used during the Linyi-Champa Campaign

636 AD – the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah has elephants

804 AD – Charlemagne takes his elephant Abul-Abbas to fight the Danes

948 AD – the Southern Han successfully attack Ma Chu with war elephants

970 AD – the Song dynasty invades Southern Han. This is the last time that Chinese warfare uses elephants

1386-1388 AD – Ming-Mong Mao War has war elephants being used

1398 AD – Timur’s army fights over 100 Indian elephants

1449 AD – Vietnamese war elephants help the Ming Dynasty against the Mongols

1526 AD – Babur invades India and establishes the Mughal Empire, with elephants (?)

1556-1605 AD – the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar sees 32,000 elephants in his stables

1558 AD – King Rajasinghe I has 2,200 elephants in an army and attacks the Portuguese fort at Colombo, Sri Lanka

1605-1627 AD – Jahangir’s reign sees 113,000 elephants in captivity

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