Over 20,000 years in an ivory tusk

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Nguyen Truong Son poses with one of the four pieces of his 21,000-year-old elephant tusk. In total, the four pieces are 1.26 meters in length and 24 kilograms in weight.

Forester Nguyen Truong Son from Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands believes that his 21,000-year-old elephant tusk could unlock geological and historical secrets such as when Vietnam's last volcano erupted and how long elephants have been here.

On the wall of Ivory cafe in Dak Lak Province's capital Buon Ma Thuot where Son works for the Vietnam Forest Science and Technology Association's Department of Sustainable Forest Protection and Forestry Certificate hangs a giant tusk-shaped model made of gypsum almost three meters long. Without knowing that the object is an exact replica of Son's ancient local elephant tusk, it is often presumed to be a mere decoration, an enlarged version of an Asian elephant's tusk.

Very few have the chance to see the artifact with their own eyes. The object, which is now in four separate pieces, is kept in a secret location for safety purposes. In total, the four pieces are 1.26 meters in length and 24 kilograms in weight.

Son told Vietweek that he and his family had been offered upwards of US$2 million for the artifact, but they've declined every offer.
"I just want to use the tusk for scientific purposes," insisted Son.

Finding what's forgotten

It was on a visit to a Bahnar hill tribe village in Chu Athai, 30 kilometers from the dormant volcano Ham Rong in Gia Lai, that Son's 80-year-old father Nguyen Van Nam, a photographer and expert maker of life-size models of animals and plants, received the four pieces of the tusk as gift from the village leader. Son later inherited it.

There is a layer of colorful obsidian   a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock covering the surface of all the four pieces of tusk, which is in its early state of fossilizing and has 47 rings corresponding with the elephant's age when it was buried in hot lava and volcanic ash millennia ago.

"Since the tusk is covered with a layer of obsidian, I guess it's possible to say that the animal could not escape from the disaster and sank in the hot lava," said Son, adding that the elephant was not a wooly mammoth, but a Palaeoloxodon, an ancient elephant with a straight-shaped tusk that went extinct 10,000 years ago.

However, Son initially paid little attention to the origin and value of the tusk. It wasn't until recently that he's had more time and could afford to do research.

In 2010, Son's tusk was certified as a "precious stone" by the Institute of Precious Stones and Jewelry in Hanoi. Radiocarbon dating done by the Institute of Archaeology in the capital found that the tusk originated from around 19,450 BCE, meaning it is now more than 21,000 years old.

Based on the two certificates, last May the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism issued a document acknowledging Son's proprietary rights over the tusk.

However, according to Phan Xuan Vu, Director of the Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, based on current laws, the department issued the certificate as proof of Son's ownership over the item only. It has nothing to do with the tusk's value, which is the work of archaeologists and geologists.

Likewise, Vu said there was no confirmation that the tusk actually originated in the Chu Athai area in Phu Thien District.

In order to confirm the artifact's significance, Son, who also makes life-size models of animals for local universities and forestry and biology departments across the country, has traveled regularly to Dak Lak's Don Village, which is dubbed "elephant kingdom" for its tradition of taming and domesticating the creature, to make observations and measure the size of modern local elephants' skulls and tusks.

"The size of the skulls is related to the tusks," Son said. "In addition, I found that the size of the ancient tusk is three times bigger than modern ones, which means the ancient bearer was also at least three times bigger than the modern bearers, which are now Asian elephants."

Based on his study, the forester, who at 10 accompanied his father on ivory hunting and trading trips through the jungle, calculates that the diameter of the biggest part of the complete tusk was around 29 centimeters and it was nearly three meters long and 57kg in weight before being broken into pieces. He made the gypsum model based on these conclusions.

In the future, Son, who was awarded a medal by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development for his outstanding contributions to the field in 2001, and colleagues will make a skull model of the elephant based on his own research and related documents.

He inherited not only the artifact from his father, but also his passion for the natural world. Son's priority now is to carry out further research on the issue in the hope of gleaning more information about Vietnam's last volcano and the existence of ancient elephants in the area.

He hopes that by learning how the ancient beasts lived here, Vietnam can better protect the ones that still wander an increasingly unfriendly and dwindling landscape.

"We still don't know when and how Ham Rong stopped erupting, but the obsidian on the tusk can help to answer these questions as well as to find out solutions to protect modern elephants from extinction in Vietnam," he said.

"However, it's impossible for me to carry out the work alone," said Son, "But with support and help from local scientists, the hidden information lying in the tusk will soon be revealed."

Elephant fossils in Vietnam and the world

Fossils artifacts, including fossil elephant's teeth, are not so rare in Vietnam, and most of the owners insists that theirs are invaluable and they will not sell them to anyone at any price.

The list includes wooly mammoth teeth owned by Nguyen Duc Chinh in Hanoi. Chinh bought the 8-kg artifact in 2002 from a local antique trader for US$10,000.

A whole set of similar teeth that are thousands of years old was also found in Son Bua commune in the mountainous district Son Tay in the central province of Quang Ngai early this year. It is currently displayed at the commune's Youth Center.

Recently, a 10,000-year-old elephant tusk was unearthed in the eastern province Anhui in China. The 3-meter long tusk is of an adult Palaeoloxodon elephant, which inhabited the areas north of Vietnam from 120,000 to 10,000 years ago. The item is fragile due to calcification.

The two longest tusks ever to be discovered in the world, unearthed in northern Greece in 2007 by scientists at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, belonged to a mastodon"”a prehistoric elephant-like mammal related to the mammoth.

Aside from the mastodon's toothy remains, which measure 16.4 feet (5 meters) and 15 feet (4.6 meters), the team also uncovered some of the animal's leg bones and parts of a jaw with molars.

Based on the partial skeleton, the researchers believe the animal stood 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) tall at the shoulder and weighed about six tons.

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