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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • 3 subspecies recognized by IUCN Red List, though much debated by taxonomists (Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982; Wittemyer 2011; Nowak 2018; Williams et al. 2020)
    • Further range-wide studies of morphology and genetics may be warranted
    • Proposed subspecies, Elephas maximus borneensis
      • Morphology, behavior, and genetic studies suggest Asian elephants in Borneo are distinct from other subspecies (Fernando et al. 2003)
        • May have been geographically and genetically isolated for 11,000–18,000 years (end of Pleistocene) (Sharma et al. 2018)
  • Elephas maximus
    • Described by Linnaeus (1758) through examination of several type specimens and illustrations (see Cappellini et 2014 for discussion)
    • Linnaeus did not distinguish between Asian and African elephants
      • Separate Asian and African elephant species later recognized
    • One of Linnaeus’ types, an maximus skeleton described earlier by John Ray in 1693 and now in Florence, nominated lectotype (Cappellini et al. 2014)


  • Genus: Elephas
    • From the Latin elephantus and Greek elephant-, elephas, meaning "elephant, ivory" (Gove 1971; Oxford English Dictionary 2023)
      • Greeks became familiar with traded elephant tusks before learning of the animal (Peris 1993)
      • Note: proposed meaning of “huge arch” has been discredited (Peris 1993)
    • Ultimate etymology of “elephant” not known (Oxford English Dictionary 2023)
      • May have arisen in Asia Minor, where there “was a flourishing centre of the ivory trade in the second millennium” (Oxford English Dictionary 2023)
    • Also see discussion by Peris (1993)
  • Species: maximus
    • From the Latin maximus, meaning "greatest" (Gove 1971)
      • Superlative of magnus, meaning "great, large"


(Shoshani and Eisenberg 1982)

  • Elephas asiaticus Blumenbach, 1797
  • Elephas gigas Perry, 1811
  • Elephas indicus Cuvier, 1798
  • Elephas sumatranus Temminck, 1847

Common names

  • Asian elephant, Indian elephant, Asiatic elephant (English) (Williams et 2020)
  • Eléphant d'Asie, Eléphant d'Inde (French) (Williams et 2020)
  • Asiatischer Elefant (German) (Wittemyer 2011)
  • Elefante Asiático (Spanish/Castilian) (Wittemyer 2011; Williams et 2020)
  • Elephant

Other local or colloquial names

  • Gajah
    • Sri Lankan and Indonesian word for elephant
    • From Sanskrit gaja, meaning elephant (Kahl and Santiapillai 2004)
  • Hathi
    • Hindustani word for elephant
    • From Sanskrit hastin or hasta, meaning "hand, trunk" (Gove 1971)

Evolutionary History

Early elephant-like animals

  • Order Proboscidea
    • About 10 or 11 living and extinct families
    • Common traits include tusks and trunk (fused upper lip and nose)
    • Over evolutionary time, members diverged to include many sizes
      • Diverse forms, such as a dwarf, dog-sized island species (e.g., Elephas falconeri) and mammoths that reached about 4 m (13 ft) tall (e.g., Mammuthus columbi)
  • Early fossils
    • First proboscideans (elephants and their extinct relatives) discovered in Moroccan rocks (Gheerbrant 1996, 2009)
      • 60-million-year-old Eritherium weighed 4–5 kg (8.8–11 lb)
      • 55-million-year-old Phosphatherium weighed 15 kg (33 lb)
  • Extinct elephant relatives
    • Mammoths (Mammuthus)
      • More closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants (e.g., Sukumar 2003; Palkopoulou et al. 2018)
      • Migrated out of Africa in the Late Pliocene
      • Rapidly dispersed throughout Europe, northern Asia, and North America
        • Also inhabited Central America, Britain and Ireland, and Mediterranean islands
    • Also see Extinct Columbian and Channel Island Mammoths Fact Sheet
    • Mastodons
      • Diverged from other elephantids approx. 20 to 30 mya (Shoshani et al. 2006)
      • Distantly related to modern elephants
      • Occurred in Europe, Asia, North America, and Central America
    • Extinct pygmy elephants
      • Present on numerous Mediterranean islands until about 10, 000 years ago (e.g., Athanassiou et al. 2019)
      • Extinct pygmy proboscideans also known from Indonesia (e.g., Hooijer 1955; van den Bergh et al. 2008; Van Der Geer et al. 2016) and the Philippines and Japan (Saegusa 2008; Liscaljet 2012)

Origins of living elephants

  • Divergence among living (extant) elephant species
    • Asian and African elephants diverged approximately 6 to 9 mya (Rholand 2007; Palkopoulou et 2018)
    • Modern genera Elephas and Loxodonta both originated in Africa, approximately 6 mya (Sooriyabandara et al. 2023)
      • Earliest Asian elephant fossils found in 5- to 7-million-year-old rocks in Kenya
  • Asian elephant (Elephas) ancestors
    • Elephas migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia
      • Migrated into China and southern Asia in the Late Pliocene (Tong and Patou-Mathis 2003; Adrian Lister, personal communication, 2024)
    • E. maximus descended from an extinct species, Elephas hysudricus, from the later Pleistocene (approx. 0.5 to 2.0 mya) (Maglio 1973; Fernando et al. 2000; Vidya et al. 2009; Adrian Lister, personal communication, 2024)
      • Fossils known from northern India and Pakistan
  • African elephant (Loxodonta) ancestors
    • Diverged from Asian elephants and mammoths approximately 7 to 8 mya
    • Loxodonta dispersed throughout Africa

Closest living (extant) relatives

  • Manatees and dugongs (sea cows) (Order Sirenia)
    • Also, other members of Afrotheria (meaning “African mammal”)
      • Hyraxes, aardvark, golden moles, and tenrecs
    • All members of Afrotheria (including elephants and sea cows) share a common ancestor that originated in Africa

Cultural History

(For in-depth information, see some of the cultural history titles listed under Books, below.)


  • Early art and literature
    • 7000–6000 BCE: petroglyphs of elephants at Ambajholkhol in central India are possibly the earliest depictions of the Asian elephant in art (Sukumar 2011)
      • Recently discovered rock art in Maharashtra may be even older, perhaps dating to 10,000 BC (Konnur 2018)
      • Rock art sites also found in Sri Lanka (Sukumar 2011)
    • Approximately 2800–1900 BCE: oldest known depiction of elephants in human care (Saller and Gröning 1999; Sukumar 2011)
      • Small seals discovered in the Indus River Valley (modern day Pakistan)
      • Lines shown across elephant's body may depict edges of a cloth or blanket used while riding; other features are more ambiguous
      • Asian elephant likely tamed by Harappan people at least 4,600 years ago (Sukumar 2011)
    • Asian elephants referenced in many stories, hymns, and ritual texts of Indian and Chinese cultures (see Sukumar 2011)
      • Stories often reflected the changing relationship between humans and elephants, with humans' increasing ability to trade and use elephants as work/ceremonial animals over time
      • Some texts allude to issues of ivory trade, animal rights, and human–wildlife conflict over crops
  • Asian elephants in military history (Sukumar 2011)
    • Elephant armies used in warfare to establish/expand empires, and to control trade routes or access to natural resources
    • During India's Magadhan empire, an elephant division could be used in addition to foot-soldier, chariot, and infantry divisions
      • A well-trained elephant army division might consist of up to a few hundred elephants
    • Elephants also played important roles in the military strategies of the Greeks (e.g., general Alexander III of Macedon), Mauryans, and Nandas
      • Required a huge investment of human effort to feed, provide shelter, and care for many elephants
  • Asian elephants as political (diplomatic) gifts
    • ca. 1513: Portuguese King Manuel I presented an Asian elephant named Hanno as a gift to Pope Leo X, after his succession to the papal throne (Sukumar 2011)
      • Hanno lived in the Vatican garden, where the pope visited him regularly
      • After Hanno died, Leo X commissioned the artist Raphael to create a life-size painting of him
    • 1803: Dutch East India Company donated a pair of elephants, Hans and Parkie, to the people of Holland (Delort 1992)
      • French troops later abducted the elephants and transported them to Paris
        • Crowds gathered to see the elephants as they were transported to the capital
    • 1861: Abraham Lincoln declined an offer from Thailand's King Mongkut to send elephants to the United States to raise as work animals (Lincoln wrote back, commenting on the preferred use of steam engines in America; see Kaewjinda 2018)
  • Global media attention
    • 2020–2021: Media coverage raises international attention to 2 migrating Asian elephant herds in southwestern China (during COVID-19 pandemic) (e.g., Campos‐Arceiz et al. 2021; Jiang et al. 2023; Lin et al. 2023)
      •  Elephants' long-distance movements watched by hundreds of millions of people
      • Elephants moved hundreds of kilometers and into densely human-populated areas, using habitat near roads and agriculture (see Jiang et al. 2023)
      • Also see Wang et al. (2021) and related news stories (example story)

Culture, religion, and folklore

  • Religious and cultural traditions
    • Hinduism culture/mythology
      • Elephant worshiped in India as the god Ganesha (Saller and Gröning 1999)
        • Depicted with the head of an elephant (considered to be the most intelligent animal)
        • Ganesha sometimes portrayed comically with a pot belly, broken tusk, or twisted trunk
      • Hindu god, Indra, often rides a white elephant (in representations after early first millennium BCE) (Sukumar 2011; Clemens 2019)
        • Indra is the king of the gods; an equivalent of the Greek god Zeus
          • One of the nine Navaratnas ("nine gems")
        • White elephants considered sacred; worshiped in Thailand since ancient times
    • Buddhism
      • Elephant plays a central role in the legend of Siddhartha Gautama's birth (the Buddha) (Sukumar 2011)
        • Bodhisattva (Buddha in an earlier birth) descends from a mountain in the form of a 6-tusked white elephant and prompts queen Maya to conceive a son (Prince Gautama)
        • Elephants also among the animals depicted in parables communicating the Buddha's sermons on how to live virtuously
    • Elephants well represented in Janism and the Quran (Sukumar 2011)
  • Sculptural art
    • Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram ("Descent of the Ganges..." 2022)
      • 7th century rock-cut sculptural relief in Tamil Nadu, southeastern India
      • Large carved elephants, approximately life-sized; some depicted sheltering their calves with surrounding spiritual symbols
      • UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Political symbol in the United States
    • The elephant is the official party symbol of the US Republican Party
      • Used prominently in campaigns
    • First used as early as 1860 during Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign (Monaghan 1944)
    • Elephant depictions popularized by Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper's Weekly, beginning in 1874
  • Symbolism in other countries
    • Elephant is the national symbol of Thailand
  • US pop culture
    • Elephant riddles (Cray and Herzog 1967)
      • A fad in the early 1960s
      • By July 1963, commonly heard on radio shows with teenage audiences
      • Appeared in newspaper columns, and in Time and Seventeen magazines


  • Cultural history and conservation books
    • The Story of Asia's Elephants by Raman Sukumar (2011)
    • The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin (2004)
    • Elephas maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant by Stephen Alter (2004)
    • Tusker: The Story of the Asian Elephant by Vivek Menon (2002)
    • The Great Indian Elephant Book: An Anthology of Writings on Elephants in the Raj by Dhriti K. Lahiri-Choudhury (1999)
    • Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History by Karl Gröning (text by Martin Saller) (1998)
    • Aliya: Stories of the Elephants of Sri Lanka by Teresa Cannon and Peter Davis (1995)
    • The Life and Lore of the Elephant by Robert DeLort (1992)
  • Adult literature
    • Elephant Speak: a Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd by Melissa Crandall (2020)
    • Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke (2014)
    • Last Chain On Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top by Carol Bradley (2014)
    • The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago (2010)
    • Water for Elephants: a Novel by Sara Grue (2007)
    • Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer (1997)
  • Children’s literature
    • Elephants Can Paint Too! by Katya Arnold (2005)
    • Hansa: The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby by Clare Hodgson Meeker (2002)
    • Run, Elephant, Run: An Indonesian Rainforest Adventure by Patricia McCarthy (2018)
    • Robi Dobi: the Marvelous Adventures of an Indian Elephant by Madhur Jaffrey (1997)
    • Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young (1992)
      • Based on the Indian fable

Television and film

  • Documentaries
    • The Elephant Whisperers, 2022 (Netflix)
      • Story of an indigenous couple who begin caring for an orphaned baby Asian elephant named Raghu
        • Set in India's Mudumalai National Park
      • Oscar winner: Best Documentary Short Film, 95th Academy Awards (2023)
    • Love and Bananas, 2018 (Abramorama)
      • Story of an elephant rescue mission in Thailand
    • The Eyes of Thailand, 2013 (DVA Productions, Indiewood Pictures)
      • Soraida Salwala, founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant Elephant Hospital, dedicates her life to treating the wounds of Asian elephants, including a prostheses for two Asian elephants that walked over a landmine.
    • An Apology to Elephants, 2013 (HBO)
      • Explores paths to more humane treatment of these sensitive and intelligent animals
      • Since the film's release, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have announced they will no longer feature Asian elephants in their acts.
    • The Urban Elephant, 2008 (PBS)
      • This Nature episode (Season 19) explores the species in the fight of lost territory while they participate with humans in a surprising array of professions.
  • Movies and entertainment films
    • Zoo, 2018 (Wee Buns)
    • Pop Aye, 2017 (185 Films)
    • Operation Dumbo Drop, 1995 (Disney, Interscope, PolyGram)
    • Elephant Walk, 1954 (Paramount)
    • Dumbo, 1941 (Walt Disney Pictures)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia Linnaeus, 1758 — mammals

Order: Proboscidea Illiger, 1811

Family: Elephantidae Gray, 1821 — elephants

Genus: Elephas Linnaeus, 1758

Species: Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 — Asian elephant, Indian elephant

Subspecies: Elephas maximus maximus Linnaeus, 1758 — Sri Lanka
Subspecies: Elephas maximus indicus Cuvier, 1798 — mainland Asia
Subspecies: Elephas maximus sumatranus Temminck, 1847 — Sumatra (Indonesia)
Proposed Subspecies: Elephas maximus borneensis Deraniyagala, 1950 — Borneo


Also see Taxonomy.

Sources: Shoshani and Eisenberg (1982); Fernando et al. (2003); Williams et al. (2020); ITIS (2023)

Asian Elephant

Page Citations

Alter (2004)
Fernando et al. (2003)
Fleischer et al. (2001)
Gheerbrant et al. (1996, 2009)
Nikaido (2003)
Palombo and Villa (2001)
Poulakakis et al. (2006)
Rohland et al. (2007)
Shoshani (1992, 2006)
Thenius (1990)
Yang (1996)

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