Aepyornis maximus is commonly known as the 'elephant bird', a term that apparently originated from Marco Polo's account of the rukh in 1298, although he was apparently referring to an eagle-like bird strong enough to "seize an elephant with its talons". Sightings of eggs of elephant birds by early sailors (e.g. text on the Fra Mauro map of 1467-69, if not attributable to ostriches) could also have been erroneously attributed to a giant raptor from Madagascar.
It is often believed that the extinction of the Aepyornis was an effect of human activity. However, the birds were probably not only elusive but widespread, occurring from the northern to the southern tip of Madagascar, yet their eggs were vulnerable. A recent archaeological study found remains of eggshells among the remains of human fires, suggesting that the eggs regularly provided meals for entire families, but it is not known if there were taboos ("fady") against the killing of adult birds, although there is indeed evidence that they were killed. Animals arriving with the human colonists, such as rats and dogs, may also have preyed upon the eggs of the ratite population and reduced their viability.