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Living in elephant worlds: human-elephant relations on the fringe of forest and village in Assam, Northeast India

By Paul Keil

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The worlds and practices of the people we study are not produced by human intention and action alone. They emerge in interaction with other organisms, materials, and forces that constitute a person’s field of relations. A multispecies or more-than-human approach to anthropology seeks to better understand other nonhumans’ co-determining agency in the formation of “human” worlds, and that to be human is to be subject to and shaped by interspecies relations. Elephants have played an important role in the formation of South and South East Asia Certain histories, environments, societies, and cultures that constitute the region have emerged from the wild and captive relationships between human and elephant. Inhabiting a shared environment, these two socially and cognitively complex animals have over time become deeply entangled, interconnected along ecological, social, and behavioural dimensions. This thesis is a more-than-human anthropology and ethnoelephantology of human-elephant relations. Data is drawn from 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Assam, Northeast India studying communities who lived on the fringes of elephant-bearing forest. Thisresearch will seek to: untangle the factors that bind the two species and reproduce their interactions across time; examine how humans and elephants coordinate and mutually affect each other’s behaviour; map how their respective habitats and perspectives coincide, and; understand how religious and other beliefs about elephants shape the dynamics of their interaction. Studies of human-elephant interaction in the conservation and animal sciences tend to characterise the relationship as one of conflict and domination. This thesis explores modes of relation that are beyond this oppositional dynamic. Ethnographic observations resist efforts to situate each animal as belonging to incommensurable sides of the nature-society divide. Human and elephant worlds in Assam overlap and are deeply enmeshed. Across a single landscape, the interspecies dynamic is multifaceted, variation depending upon material and symbolic, social and ecological aspects. The perceptions and behaviours of both animals intersect at negotiated junctures, sometimes from radically different positions and intentions, and other times aligning in surprising ways, but always co-constituting the other as they learn to inhabit a shared environment.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2017
Pages 310
Publisher Sydney, Australia : Macquarie University
Department Anthropology
Degree Doctor of Philosophy
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Elephants
  3. Human-animal interactions
  4. India
  5. open access
  6. Wild animals
  1. open access