Like a number of animals throughout the ages – cats in Ancient Egypt being a prime example – giraffes have been revered and even worshipped by various civilisations. As far as historians are aware, the first depictions of the giraffe as anything other than a grazing animal are from Africa. That’s no surprise, being their home continent, but the range of tasks for the giraffe may be a little surprising. Neolithis cave drawings from around 10,000 years ago in modern day Niger suggest that the giraffe was used as a pet, traded between tribes and used as a religious symbol. The giraffe dance was even performed to get rid of a headache.
As well as cats, the Egyptians also probably kept giraffes as pets and are known to have exported them to various Mediterranean ports. There are drawings of giraffes in tombs in modern day Egypt. Perhaps the Roman’s received one of these giraffes in Europe or perhaps they brought one back from Africa themselves, but both they and the Greeks were aware of, and collected, the camelopardalis, as they called the giraffe.
With the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the sophisticated Romans were no longer in a position to influence other Europeans who quickly abandoned any attempts to continue looking after giraffes. They were still revered, however, in the Middle East and a giraffe is known to have been moved in 1414 from what is now Kenya, across the Middle East to Bengal (India) and finally on to China by the legendary Chinese explorer Zheng He.
Fifty years later a giraffe was brought to Florence in Italy and presented to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic. This was the first giraffe to be seen in Italy quite possibly since the days of the Romans at least 800 years earlier. In the 19th century a giraffe named Zarafa became something of a celebrity in Paris and was quite possibly the first time memorabilia was sold in connection with an African animal in Europe.