Thursday, 22 March 2012

Elephant No. 172: Inukshuk

I suppose I shouldn't really call this an inukshuk, since inuk means "person" in the northern Canadian language of Inuktitut, and the word inukshuk means "in the likeness of a human". Traditionally, there was no word for "elephant" in Inuktitut for obvious reasons, but alipa has recently been added to the lexicon, so I suppose I could call today's elephant an alipashuk or, to be more traditional, an uumajuqshuk—meaning more or less "in the likeness of an animal".

Inuksuit—the plural of inukshuk—are found across the circumpolar world, particularly in North America. Traditionally meaning "someone has already passed this way" or "you are on the right path", inuksuit have been used for centuries as a form of communication, and as navigational aids. They can also serve as memorials to loved ones, to mark migration routes, and to point the way to sources of food source such as fish. Similar stone structures indicated places of power and served as objects of veneration. Most inuksuit are solitary, although they can also stretch out in long lines across the Arctic. Occasionally they are even grouped together, as at Enusko Point on Canada's Baffin Island, where there are more than 100 inuksuit. 

Inukshuk, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Inuit tradition forbids the destruction of inuksuit, partly because they are venerated as representations of ancestors who survived off the land. As most of us do with well-known landmarks, the Inuit welcome the sight of a familiar inukshuk when crossing the Arctic.  

Inuksuit range in size from the small to the truly monumental. Although the most familiar form is the human-like figure—known as an inunnguaq—an inukshuk can be made of a single rock, or a stacked grouping of rocks, boulders and flat stones. Inuksuit are built from whatever stones are in the immediate environment, making each one unique. The purpose of the inukshuk is indicated by the way the stones are arranged. The figure's arms or legs, for example, could point the way to open water, or to a passage through the mountains. An inukshuk without arms, or with antlers propped up on top, usually indicates a cache of food. 

The flag for the Canadian territory of Nunavut features an inukshuk, as did the 2010 Winter Olympics. In recent years, the inukshuk has become an informal symbol of Canada, with inuksuit erected at cities across the country, as well as at some of Canada's high commissions. Canada has also donated inuksuit to five cities around the world: Brisbane, Monterrey, Oslo, Washington, D.C., and Guatemala City. 

The flag of the Canadian territory of Nunavut features an inukshuk in the middle.

Lately, inuksuit erected by hikers and campers in more southerly parts of Canada have actually become something of a nuisance. In some areas they are so prevalent that park wardens have had to dismantle a plethora of inuksuit in order to keep the actual trail markers visible.

For today's elephant, I wasn't sure how well I was going to be able to stack rocks into something that looked like an elephant of any kind. However, since I'm quite capable of building a rock wall and even laying a flagstone patio, I was willing to give it a try. And one thing there's no shortage of around here is rocks.

I didn't, however, have a lot of flat rocks. Oh well, since I wasn't planning to make anything huge, I figured I could probably make it work.

I started by making the legs—only two legs, mind you, because I didn't think I was going to be able to manage the balancing act that four legs would have entailed. These first legs ended up being too tall, and a bit too far apart, but this is how I started.

When the legs seemed more or less the same height, I started filling in the middle. This worked well enough until I tried to add a trunk, when the whole thing fell in. Many times.

I was determined, however, to make the trunk piece fit, so I kept at it. The problem with the trunk piece was that it was razor-thin where it connected to the head, giving it a disturbing tendency to swing around and fall off. This brought everything on top of it down as well. You can see how precarious the trunk area is from the view below of the other side.

Eventually it stayed together. I even managed to add an ear and a tail. Because of the many times it collapsed, this took me about an hour, but it wasn't an unpleasant activity by any means.

I'm actually quite proud of this, despite the vaguely Elvis toupee. I know it probably won't be there in the morning—one swish of a feral cat's tail, and it will fall to pieces, I'm sure—but I like that I managed to include a trunk, an ear and a tail. I doubt that there's a herd of alipasuit in my future, but I wouldn't be averse to trying this again. Maybe even with four legs next time.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In late February 2012, palaeontologists working in the United Arab Emirates uncovered a series of elephant footprints that are estimated to be seven million years old. This makes them the oldest of their kind ever found, as well as the longest preserved trackway in the world.

The footprints came from a herd of at least thirteen elephants, ranging from a young calf to adults of both genders. The herd walked through mud, which later hardened, preserving the tracks. The tracks then became buried, revealed only millions of years later through erosion.

Photomosaic of elephant tracks discovered in Abu Dhabi in February 2012.

Interestingly, it is believed that the tracks also tell us a great deal about elephant social structures. One set of tracks veers off from those of the main herd. Given that these tracks are larger, it is thought that this was a male elephant—leaving the herd as male elephants still do today, once they reach a certain age.

The site has since been surrounded with a fence by the Historical Environment Department of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. This valuable find is the oldest fossil record of elephants ever found, and an important indicator of behaviour that would not be evident through a study of fossilized remains such as bones and teeth.

Male prehistoric elephant (stegotretrabelodon) leaving the herd.
Illustration: Mauricio Antón
Don't go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Elephant Nature Park (Thailand)  

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