In the classic Disney animated film, The Lion King, our protagonist, Simba, and his future love interest, Nala, go against the wishes of their elders and venture into the macabre mounds of the Elephant Graveyard. Elephants have long captured the imaginations of curious kinds and cubs alike Their unprecedented intelligence and uncanny capacity for traits usually reserved for us higher order primates have successfully immortalized their kind into our common vernacular with the ancient idiom, an elephant never forgets.
However, much of what the general public purports to know about these pachyderms have been mythicized over the ages. This is no more evident than with the persistent myth of elephant graveyards—common areas to which aged elephants trek to upon feeling the weight of their mortality in order to die amongst the bones of their own kin. This tale gives the elephant a certain dignity most non-human animals lack. While the brute beasts pass by the deceased with indifference—or, in some cases, cannibalize them—the noble elephant pauses from its routine life and excuses itself kindly from the herd to inter its bones with those who came before it. The elephant is not simply another emotionless automaton of nature, but an empathic, feeling being not fair removed from our own sensabilities.
Alas, it appears Pokémon has drawn inspiration from this myth regarding #105 in the Pokédex, Marowak.
Dubbed the Bone Keeper Pokémon, Marowak is a pure Ground Type and the evolved form of Cubone. Its English name is a clever combination of marrow—referring to bone marrow, the flexible inner tissue of bone for which red blood cells are derived—and whack, the act of hitting, alluding to its frequent use of bones as weapons:
The bone it holds is its key weapon. It throws the bone skillfully like a boomerang to KO targets. (Pokémon Red and Blue Versions)
However, its Japanese name, Garagara, is an onomatopoeia that describes the “heavy clattering” of the bones it carries, and it’s this affinity for bones, as well as the elephant graveyard inspired Pokédex entries, which drew my attention to the abundance of similarities between elephants and Marowak and made me ask the question—is supposed to be Marowak an elephant? And is there a Marowak graveyard?
Branches and Bones
One of the main draws to the elephant for the researcher and layman alike is its unusual displays of intelligence. A scientific review article found elephants capable of a myriad of high functioning activities, including but not limited to breaking off twigs to fend off flies, recognizing their reflection—an ability previously limited to chimps and orangutans—recognizing “means-ends” relations, and producing vocal imitations of other species and even of trucks (Irie et al. 2009). As it happens, the expression an elephant never forgets bears some truth, as one study found an elephant capable of recognizing calls from members for her herd who had been gone for 12 years!
However, the pinnacle of intelligence in the animal world is tool use, and elephants are documented tool users. In a study conducted one part in the wild and one part in captivity, elephants plucked branches from trees and the ground and used them as flyswatters. When researchers attempted replicating this with captive elephants who they had a closer view of, they found the elephants often modified the given branches, cleaning the branch of side stems for a more effective switch (Hart et al. 2001).
Pokémon in general display higher intelligence than the average animal—obeying commands and whatnot—however, only a handful are explicitly mentioned as tool users. Moreover, Pokémon who do possess the capacity for tool use are typically associated with high intelligence. Notable examples include the spoon-user Alakazam with an IQ of 5,000 and Passimian who uses hard berries as weapons in battle. Marowak and Cubone are among these few gifted Pokémon. Additionally, Marowak and Cubone have the distinct honor of being the only Pokémon, even among fellow tool-users, capable of using the moves Bone Club and Bonemerang, moves that prominently feature the use of bones as weaponized tools.
Emo Elephants, Macabre Marowak
Like the fabled expression an elephant never forgets is grounded in some distant reality, so too is the pervasive myth of elephant graveyards in that in many observational studies, elephants have been shown to have a peculiar interest in the deceased, at least when compared to their non-human counterparts.
According to the Elephant Gestures Database (yes, apparently that’s a thing), elephants have been observed to undergo a number of “death rituals” when encountering the remains of a fellow pachyderm. For instance, they are typically silent when approaching corpses, at least silent by elephant standards. Other behaviors include exploring the body with their tusk and engaging in forms of play with bones, stamping rolling, biting, and even tossing the remains.
This is not all too different from the bone obsessed Marowak who collects its bones from a similar place:
Somewhere in the world is a cemetery just for Marowak. It gets its bones from those graves. (Pokémon Crystal Version)
Furthermore, by all the evidence thus far, elephants’ fascination with the dead is not simply due to the novelty of the remains or dumb luck. Scientists took nine families of elephants and conducted three experiments to test if there was a statistical significance to their interests in the objects presented. In the first experiment, elephants were presented with an elephant skull, a piece of ivory, and a piece of wood; in the second, an elephant skull, buffalo skull, and rhino skull; and in the third, the skull of that family’s matriarch along with two other matriarch skulls unrelated to the elephants.
In the first experiment, elephants strongly favored the ivory over the skull and wood. Furthermore, elephants showed more interest in the elephant skull than the rhino or buffalo skulls. However, elephants showed no more interest in the skull of their own matriarch than the skulls of other matriarchs (McComb et al. 2006).
Ivory in particular seemed to garner the most interest of the elephants, with subjects shoosing it over even the skulls of fellow elephants. The researchers attribute this possible to an association with the living:
Their preference for ivory was very marked, with ivory not only receiving excessive attention in comparison with wood but also being selected significantly more than the elephant skull. Subjects also placed their feet on or against the ivory significantly more often than on other objects. Interest in ivory may be enhanced because of its connection with living elephants, individuals sometimes touching the ivory of others with their trunks during social behaviour. In experiments where no ivory was present, other items in the array appeared to receive less high interest activity overall. Despite this, the elephant skull was clearly selected for attention over the buffalo and rhinoceros skulls and over the wood. (McComb et al. 2006)
If this is the case, it would suggest that elephants are of higher cognitive ability than previously thought.
Death rituals can also be found in Marowak, or at least Alolan Marowak:
Its custom is to mourn its lost companions. Mounds of dirt by the side of the road mark the graves of the Marowak. (Pokémon Moon)
While it is unclear if Marowak is the architect of these burial mounds, this account corroborates with Marowak’s known interest in its mother’s bones, and lends further credence to the myth of Marowak graveyards existing in the Pokémon World.
Is there, in fact, a Marowak graveyard somewhere in the world?
A Marowak Graveyard—Fact or Fiction?
It collects bones from an unknown place. A Marowak graveyard exists somewhere in the world, rumors say. (Pokémon Silver Version)
If elephants are intelligent creatures and if they show, at minimum, an interest in death, surely the elephant graveyard is a reality, right?
It makes a good story and fits the narrative we’ve painted of elephants as noble paragons of wisdom amongst the brute beasts of the savage animal kingdom. However, science is not interested in good stories. Science is interested in good evidence. And what does the evidence say? Well, the authors of the death interest study put it best:
Reports of elephant graveyards, specific places where old elephants go to die, have been exposed as myths—where large concentrations of elephant bones have been found their occurrence can be adequately explained by hunting practices or mass die-offs during periods of drought (Moss 1988; Spinage 1994). Our results suggest that elephants may not specifically select the skulls of their own relatives for investigation, but their strong interest in the ivory and skulls of their own species means that they would be highly likely to visit the bones of relatives who die within their own home range. This is the most likely explanation for why elephants have sometimes been observed interacting with the bones of particular family members, although it remains possible that where ivory is present alongside skulls, elephants may, through tactile or olfactory cues, recognize tusks from individuals that they have been familiar with in life. (McComb et al. 2006)
This myth is further perpetuated by the bits of popular factoids about elephants—most of which are grounded in some semblance of reality though so far removed from fact that they become fantasy—floating around concerning their high intelligence and great memory. It doesn’t help that humans have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing, attributing human traits, feelings, and rationale to non-human animals, and media such as MGM’s Tarzen and Disney’s The Lion King help to further promote the myth that these places exist (Disney is not new to furthering animal myths, they literally ran a herd of lemmings off a cliff for a documentary, and now everyone thinks that they’re suicidal).
Likewise, while certain traits of Marowak may fit with the graveyard narrative, what is inspired by myth is likely myth itself.
Accurate Pokédex Entry: Marowak’s interest in the remains of deceased Marowak, as well as their frequent use of tools, may be indicative of a higher cognitive ability. However, contrary to popular belief, the existence of a Marowak graveyard is a myth likely derived from massive die-offs during periods of drought.
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Bates, L.A. and R.W. Byrne. “Creative or Created: Using Anecdotes to Investigate Animal Cognition.” Methods, vol. 42, no. 1, 01 May 2007, p. 12-21. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.ymeth.2006.11.006.
Benjamin L. Hart, Lynette A. Hart, Michael McCoy, C.R. Sarath, “Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching.” Animal Behaviour, Volume 62, Issue 5, 2001, Pages 839-847, ISSN 0003-3472, https://doi.org/10.1006/anbe.2001.1815.
“Elephant Gestures Database.” ElephantVoices.org, https://www.elephantvoices.org/multimedia-resources/elephant-gestures-database/426-death/body-investigation.html?layout=gesture. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
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McComb, Karen, Baker, Lucy, and Moss, Cynthia. “African elephants show high levels of interest in the skulls and ivory of their own species.” Biol. Lett. 2006 2 26-28; doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0400.
Nicholls, Henry. “The Truth About Elephants.” BBC Earth, 1 June 2015, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150601-the-truth-about-elephants. Retrieved 16 September 2016.