The Rothschild-Neuville tusk, or simply Rothschild tusk, was the tusk section of an unidentified animal, thought to be a proboscidean, purchased in Ethiopia in 1904 by Baron Maurice de Rothschild and French zoologist Henri Neuville. After two years of study and a formal description, the tusk was deposited in Paris' National Museum of Natural History, but by the late 20th Century it had disappeared. At the time, it was believed to have come from a large tusked animal inhabiting wetlands in the Great Lakes region, which was named Colossochoerus by Lord Walter Rothschild.
Maurice de Rothschild (1881 – 1957) and the French zoologist Henri Neuville (1872 – 1946) purchased the tusk in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), during a 1904 zoological expedition to Africa. They had noticed the specimen while visiting an ivory market operated by Indian merchants, who, owing to its small size and unusual appearance, had been unable to sell it. The merchants did not know where the tusk had come from, or what sort of animal it had belonged to; in fact, they had believed it to be a horn. It was, however, a tusk–an elongated tooth. The specimen was unfossilised; smaller and much darker than most elephant tusks, it was just 22'' in length when measured straight, 29'' when measured along the curve, and bore a number of regularly-spaced, narrow groves running longitudinally along one side, and a single, broader groove on the opposite side. The specimen was incomplete, and Neuville believed that the original tusk would have been very strongly curved, almost semi-circular in shape.
Upon their return to Europe, Rothschild and Neuville exhibited the tusk during scientific meetings at the Société Philomathique of Paris (14 January 1905), the Zoological Society of London (14 November 1905), where it was supposed to be introduced by Rothschild's cousin Lord Walter Rothschild, who by some accounts was unable to attend, and the Paris Academy of Sciences (11 December 1905). The Proceedings of the Zoological Society claimed that two tusks were exhibited at 14 November meeting in London. Zoologist Richard Lydekker (1849 – 1915) also recorded that two specimens had been displayed by Rothschild and Neuville, and noted that a similar specimen existed in the Berlin Museum. The second tusk was in fact a similar, though smaller, specimen from the collection of taxidermist Rowland Ward.
Neuville subsequently spent two-and-a-half years studying the tusk, and comparing to a range of specimens from known fossil and extant species, as well as a number of teratologically malformed tusks. As detailed in a paper published by him and Rothschild in 1907, in the journal Archives de Zoologie Expérimentale et Générale, Neuville found that the tusk was comparable to no known specimen, recent or fossil. Neuville concluded that the tusk had belonged to a large unknown mammal, either a proboscidean or a close relative, which had probably recently gone extinct, but which he suggested may have still existed in 1907.
The Rothschild tusk was deposited in Paris' National Museum of Natural History, but when cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans requested sight of it, giving its accession number, the specimen could not be found. As of 2014, pygmy elephant researcher Matt Salusbury was investigating the possibility that the tusk had been mislabelled or transferred to another museum.
The unknown elephant
From the beginning, the Rothschild tusk was associated with a vaguely-described cryptid reported mainly from the Great Lakes regions, supposed to be a large amphibious animal with tusks curving downwards to the ground. Neuville was the first to make the connection, having received reports of this animal in Ethiopia, and from Lord Walter Rothschild. Consequently, in their paper, Rothschild and Neuville referred to...
Lord Walter Rothschild was supposed to have read a paper on this subject at the November 1905 meeting of the Zoological Society, but was unable to attend. However, in his absence it was announced that he had named the animal, "a huge, ferocious beast, of which strange tales are told by African travellers," Colossochoerus, reflecting his belief that it was a giant (rhinoceros-sized) pig. Neuville and Rothschild's paper later outlined the reports gathered by Walter Rothschild.
However, not all cryptozoologists accept the association of these reports with the Rothschild tusk. Bernard Heuvelmans believed that the stories probably referred to a water lion, a long-fanged semiaquatic cryptid which he believed to be a surviving sabre-toothed cat. Water lions have been reported from some of the regions referred to above, including the nzéfu-loï in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the coje ya menia in Angola. Nevertheless, certain water lions–including the nzéfu-loï and coje ya menia–have also been described as elephantine pachyderms like the Rothschild tusk animal, and Heuvelmans' own initial theory regarding them was similar to his publicly-expressed theory regarding the Rothschild tusk: an amphibious proboscidean, similar to Deinotherium, with tusks which curve downwards.
In 1911, zoologist Édouard Louis Trouessart (1842 – 1927), who was then Chair of Zoology (Mammals and Birds) at the Paris Museum of Natural History, published an article in La Natura describing a similar animal reported from marshy lakes in Central Africa.
Trouessart suggested that the Rothschild tusk had come from this marsh-dwelling animal, which he argued could be a Deinotherium. Subsequently, the Paris Museum urged zoologist Émile Gromier and an explorer named Le Petit or Lepetit, who had previously reported a sighting of water elephants to Trouessart, to lead an expedition to Lake Chad in search of the animal. This expedition, the Mission Gromier-Le Petit, collected specimens in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but did not find the pseudodeinotherium.
Shortly after the Great Brontosaurus Hoax, in 1920, French writer and adventurer Victor Forbin (1864 — 1947) made a number of claims about unknown pachydermic animals in the vicinity of Lake Tanganyika. An unidentified French animal collector had allegedly told Forbin that he had seen "amphibious animals, of gigantic size, similar in various respects to the elephant, the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus" in the area of Lake Tanganyika. Forbin introduced the Frenchman to Carl Hagenbeck, who had previously dispatched an expedition to search for the Brontosaurus in Rhodesia, and who offered the Frenchman a considerable sum of money for a specimen of the pachyderm. However, the pair fell out when the Frenchman felt that Hagenbeck was trying to extract too much information from him regarding to locale of his sighting. Forbin also claimed that in early 1914, English officers home from the same region claimed to have seen two monsters "resembling an elephant as much as a hippopotamus," and that Belgian officers reported a similar story in a London newspaper the following year. Bernard Heuvelmans thought that Forbin's claims were probable mistakes or hoaxes, as his work was poorly-cited and he had previously been involved in the Great Brontosaurus Hoax; Heuvelmans argued that his data is inadmissable as evidence until the primary sources mentioned by Forbin are found.
The chipekwe has also been reported from Lake Tanganyika, where it was allegedly seen chasing down a hippopotamus, but this cryptid was distinguished by a horn, or horns, on its head, instead of by dowards-curved tusks. One chipekwe sighting from Lake Bangweulu did describe a very large, shaggy animal with large fangs like those of a sabre-toothed cat; however, Heuvelmans suggested that this chipekwe was also a water lion.
Among the possible identities rejected by Rothschild and Neuville in their seventy-page paper were an aberrant elephant tusk, an unusually long lower canine from a hippopotamus, and the tooth of a wild pig, a walrus, a toothed whale, or the Plio-Pleistocene proboscidean Deinotherium. The possibility that the tusk had originated elsewhere, and had subsequently been imported to Africa, was also rejected, as the journey from the coast to Addis Ababa was difficult and expensive, and Neuville argued that it would make little sense for merchants to bring a valuable piece of ivory from the coast, where it could have been sold at a port town, into the interior, where ivory was common.
Several of the zoologists present at the Zoological Society meeting, including Richard Lydekker, believed the specimen was merely an abnormal cow elephant tusk, as a very similar tooth, smaller and with much lighter grooves, existed in the British Museum. This specimen had been collected by L. D. Gosling during an expedition from Lake Chad to the Congo, and it had belonged to a small female elephant. The French palaeontologist Albert Gaudry (1827 – 1908) also thought that the specimen was very like an elephant tusk, but ruled out this identity on account of its grooves and its flatter shape.
One Cenozoic mammal which has been closely associated with the Rothschild tusk, and reports of the unknown pachyderm, is the proboscidean Deinotherium (~16–1 MYA). Deinotherium was the terminal genus of the family Deinotheriidae, which contains the successive genera Chilgatherium, Prodeinotherium, and Deinotherium. Deinotheres are distinguished by their tusks, which grew from the lower jaw and curved towards the ground; they were also noticeably long-limbed, and are often reconstructed with relatively short trunks, although whether or not this is accurate is debated. Deinotheres probably originated in Africa, as the ancient African genus Chilgatherium is notably small and primitive, but the group later spread across Eurasia during the Miocene, becoming significantly larger than modern elephants. The latest known species of Deinotherium, however, was endemic to East Africa: this is the Plio-Pleistocene D. bozasi, fossils of which have been discovered in Kenya (~1.0 MYA), Tanzania (~1.8–1.6 MYA), and Ethiopia (~1.1 MYA). Deinotherium was relatively rare by the beginning of the Pleistocene, and D. bozasi is believed to have gone extinct due to the expansion of dry, open habitat.
Rothschild and Neuville had rejected Deinotherium as an explanation for the tusk in their original paper, asserting that no comparison could be made between their tusk and the fossilised tusks of Deinotherium. Despite this, a Deinotherium identity was later proposed by Édouard Louis Trouessart of the Paris Museum, in his 1911 article on the unknown elephant. In Trouessart's opinion...
At that time, Deinotherium was widely regarded as a semiaquatic animal which would have inhabited the shallow water of swamps: it was theorised that its unusual tusks could have been used to root up aquatic plants, or even as anchorage, to help the animal drag itself up riverbanks. However, as a specialised browser reliant on trees for survival, Deinotherium would have inhabited forested regions such as rainforests and dense riverine gallery forests; therefore, if it existed in wetlands, they would likely have been wooded swamps, not open papyrus marshes. As noted by Coudray, the terminal species of Deinotherium were also far too large to account for the Rothschild tusk; however, Bernard Heuvelmans did not rule out the possible existence of a dwarf form of deinothere, a theory which he had previously proposed for certain water lions, and he initially agreed that the tusk appeared to have belonged to a proboscidean.
Heuvelmans did not examine the Rothschild tusk in detail in Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique (1978), as he intended to cover it in a volume on cryptid ungulates of Africa, to be published as part of his unrealised Bêtes Ignorées du Monde series. When Michel Raynal visited Heuvelmans' Centre for Cryptozoology during the 1980s, Heuvelmans told him that he knew what the tusk was; his dossier on the tusk included an article on the Plio-Pleistocene suid Afrochoerus, suggesting that this was his favoured identity. Afrochoerus was an alleged giant warthog found in Tanzania, distinguished by disproportionately enormous, elephant-like tusks. However, it was later discovered that Afrochoerus was a chimaera: the cranial material belonged to the giant warthog (Metridiochoerus compactus), whereas the huge tusks had actually belonged to a proboscidean, the gomphothere Stegotetrabelodon. Lord Walter Rothschild also believed that the tusk belonged to a rhinoceros-sized pig.
Neuville and Rothschild had also rejected a walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) as the possible owner of the tusk, for structural reasons. However, Karl Shuker and Paolo Viscardi, natural history curator of London's Horniman Museum, argue that the specimen may indeed have been a fossilised walrus tusk. Viscardi suggests that Neuville and Rothschild could have miscalculated the size and original curvature of the specimen. It is unclear how a walrus tusk could have ended up in Addis Ababa; Matt Salusbury suggests that whalers travelling from Scandinavia to South Africa could have brought such tusks with them, yet another possibility which had been preemptively rejected by Neuville.
Notes and references
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872
- Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: The Curious Case of Rothschild's Lost Tusk and the Non-Existent Elephant Pig - An Enduring Cryptozoological Conundrum From Africa karlshuker.blogspot.com (3 July 2014) [Accessed 17 December 2020] — Wayback Machine
- Rothschild, Maurice de & Neuville, Henri "Sur une Dent d'Origine Énigmatique," Archives de Zoologie Expérimentale et Générale, Vol. 4, No. 7
- Ward, Roland (1913) A Naturalist's Life Study in the Art of Taxidermy – Online
- Johnston, Harry (1906) Liberia, Vol. 2
- Lydekker, Richard (1908) The Game Animals of Africa – Online
- Heuvelmans, Bernard & Rivera, Jean-Luc & Barloy, Jean-Jacques (2007) Les Félins Encore Inconnus d’Afrique, Les Editions de l'Oeil du Sphinx, ISBN 978-2914405430
- Coudray, Philippe (2009) Guide des Animaux Cachés, Editions du Mont, ISBN 978-2915652383
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge, ISBN 978-1138977525
- Trouessart, Édouard Louis "Existe-t-il dans les Marais du Lac Tchad un Grand Mammifere Encore Inconnu des Naturalistes?," La Natura, No. 76 (21 January 1911)
- Forbin, Victor "Les Patientes Recherches des Savants, Leurs Travaux Laborieux on Permis de Reconstituer les Squelettes des Animaux l'Epoque Tertiaire," Sciences et Voyages (17 May 1920)
- Werdelin, Lars & Sanders, William Joseph (2010) Cenozoic Mammals of Africa
- "Elephants," Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine, Vol. 47 (March 1882)