Prehistoric Elephants Everyone Should Know

Rock engravings, Arakau, Niger
De Agostini / G. Gamba / Getty Images

 Sure, everyone is familiar with the North American Mastodon and the Woolly Mammoth—but how much do you know about the ancestral pachyderms of the Mesozoic Era, some of which predated modern elephants by tens of millions of years? In this slideshow, you'll follow the slow, majestic progress of elephant evolution over 60 million years, starting with the pig-sized Phosphatherium and ending with the immediate precursor of modern pachyderms, Primelephas.

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Phosphatherium (60 Million Years Ago)


DagdaMor / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Only five million years after the dinosaurs went extinct, mammals had already evolved to impressive sizes. The three-foot-long, 30-pound Phosphatherium ("phosphate beast") wasn't nearly as big as a modern elephant, and it looked more like a tapir or a small pig, but various features of its head, teeth, and skull confirm its identity as an early proboscid. Phosphatherium probably led an amphibious lifestyle, prowling the floodplains of Paleocene northern Africa for tasty vegetation.

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Phiomia (37 Million Years Ago)

phiomia skull on display

LadyofHats / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

If you traveled back in time and caught a glimpse of Phosphatherium (previous slide), you probably wouldn't know if it was fated to evolve into a pig, an elephant, or a hippopotamus. The same can't be said about Phiomia, a ten-foot-long, half-ton, early Eocene proboscid that resided unmistakably on the elephant family tree. The giveaways, of course, were Phiomia's elongated front teeth and flexible snout, which adumbrated the tusks and trunks of modern elephants.

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Palaeomastodon (35 Million Years Ago)

Palaeomastodon graphic rendering

Nobumichi Tamura/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Despite its evocative name, Palaeomastodon wasn't a direct descendant of the North American Mastodon, which arrived on the scene tens of millions of years later. Rather, this rough contemporary of Phiomia was an impressively sized ancestral proboscid—about twelve feet long and two tons—that stomped across the swamps of northern Africa and dredged up vegetation with its scoop-shaped lower tusks (in addition to the pair of shorter, straighter tusks in its upper jaw).

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Moeritherium (35 Million Years Ago)

Moeritherium graphic rendering
Warpaintcobra / Getty Images

The third in our trio of northern African proboscis—after Phiomia and Palaeomastodon (see previous slides)—​​Moeritherium was much smaller (only about eight feet long and 300 pounds), with proportionately smaller tusks and trunk. What makes this Eocene proboscid unique is that it led a hippopotamus-like lifestyle, basking half-submerged in rivers to protect itself against the fierce African sun. As you might expect, Moeritherium occupied a side branch on the pachyderm evolutionary tree and was not directly ancestral to modern elephants.​

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Gomphotherium (15 Million Years Ago)

Platybelodon grangeri graphic rendering

Nobumichi Tamura / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

The scoop-shaped lower tusks of Palaeomastodon clearly conferred an evolutionary advantage; witness the even more massive shovel-shaped tusks of the fully elephant-sized Gomphotherium, 20 million years down the line. In the intervening eons, ancestral elephants had actively migrated across the world's continents, with the result that the oldest Gomphotherium specimens date to early Miocene North America, with other, later species native to Africa and Eurasia.

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Deinotherium (10 Million Years Ago)

Illustration of Deinotherium (Proboscideans)


Not for nothing does Deinotherium partake of the same Greek root as "dinosaur"—this "terrible mammal" was one of the biggest proboscides ever to walk the earth, rivaled in size only by long-extinct "thunder beasts" like Brontotherium. Amazingly, various species of this five-ton proboscid persisted for almost ten million years, until the last of the breed were slaughtered by early humans prior to the last Ice Age. (It's even possible that Deinotherium inspired ancient myths about giants, though this theory is far from proven.)

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Stegotetrabelodon (8 Million Years Ago)

Warpaintcobra / Getty Images

Who can resist a prehistoric elephant named Stegotetrabelodon? This seven-syllable behemoth (its Greek roots translate as "four roofed tusks") was native to, of all places, the Arabian Peninsula, and one herd left a set of footprints, discovered in 2012, representing individuals of various ages. There's still a lot we don't know about this four-tusked proboscid, but it at least hints that much of Saudi Arabia was a lush habitat during the latter Miocene epoch and not the parched desert it is today.

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Platybelodon (5 Million Years Ago)

Warpaintcobra / Getty Images

The only animal ever to be equipped with its own spork, Platybelodon was the logical culmination of the line of evolution that began with Palaeomastodon and Gomphotherium. So fused and flattened were the lower tusks of Platybelodon that they resembled a piece of modern construction equipment; clearly, this proboscid spent its day scooping up moist vegetation and shoveling it into its enormous mouth. (By the way, Platybelodon was closely related to another distinctively tusked elephant, Amebelodon.)

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Cuvieronius (5 Million Years Ago)

cuvieronius tusks on display

Ghedo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

One doesn't normally associate the continent of South America with elephants. That's what makes Cuvieronius special; this relatively petite proboscid (only about 10 feet long and one ton) colonized South America during the "Great American Interchange," which was facilitated a few million years ago by the appearance of the Central American land bridge. The huge-tusked Cuvieronius (named after naturalist Georges Cuvier) persisted to the brink of historical times​ when it was hunted to death by early settlers of the Argentinean Pampas.

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Primelephas (5 Million Years Ago)


A.C. Tatarinov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

With Primelephas, the "first elephant," we finally reach the immediate evolutionary precursor of modern elephants. Technically speaking, Primelephas was the last common ancestor (or "concestor," as Richard Dawkins would call it) of both extant African and Eurasian elephants and the recently extinct Woolly Mammoth. An unwary observer might have difficulty distinguishing Primelephas from a modern pachyderm; the giveaway is the small "shovel tusks" jutting out of its lower jaw, a throwback to its distant ancestors.

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Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Elephants Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 27). Prehistoric Elephants Everyone Should Know. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Elephants Everyone Should Know." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).