Accepted Paper:

Elephant Companions: apprehending human-elephant working communities in Northeast India  


Nicolas Lainé (Collège de France)

Paper short abstract:

The paper outlines an integrated approach for understanding the working union of humans and elephants in Northeast India. Considering their different physical and cognitive capacities, it asks how their respective subjectivities can meaningfully engage with each other through forms of interspecies communication.

Paper long abstract:

The goal of this presentation is to propose an integrated approach to uncover a human/elephant working together. During labour activities a mahout and his elephant have to act and communicate according to their own physical and cognitive capacities. To what extent can we say that they engage their subjectivity?

Based on ethnographic data collected in Northeast India, I will focus on two different tasks performed by the Tai-Khamtis and their elephants in logging wood operations: digging the logs and charging the truck. In order to understand how human and elephants manage to collaborate, I will describe the modes of communications (vocal, tactile) called upon, trying to depict the way they perform their tasks in terms of engagement (individual and collective) and envisaging it as singular ways of sharing a common world.

Supported by my PhD results, the paper will finally stress the centrality of labour in human-elephant living together, and shows what working with elephants implies both for humans and pachyderms.

In the perspective of anthropology beyond the human, it aims at showing how within an interspecies community a common inter-intelligible world is built. The latter takes into consideration the abilities and cognitive capacities of each of them, their reciprocal influences, and the representations arising from specific contexts in which the cooperation is expressed.

Panel P23
Collaboration and partnership in human-animal communities: reconsidering ways of learning and communication