Skip to main content

Tracking Elephants: Mapping pre-colonial African ivory trade networks using Bioarchaeological techniques

Final Report Summary - TEMBO (Tracking Elephants: Mapping pre-colonial African ivory trade networks using Bioarchaeological techniques)

Tracking Elephants: Mapping pre-colonial African ivory trade networks using Bioarchaeological techniques
During the Iron Age, particularly between 800 and 1500 AD, trade began to significantly expand out of southern Africa to markets all over the world. Settlements along the Indian Ocean coastline grew rapidly during this time, which caused an increase in the export of raw materials, such as ivory and gold, from interior regions.

Our current knowledge of the pre-colonial ivory trade in eastern and southern Africa consists of evidence from a handful of archaeological sites that have yielded ivory-working debris (e.g. Mapungubwe, Ndondondwane, KwaGandaganda in South Africa) or ivory objects (e.g. Mosu in Botswana). Small amounts of worked ivory have also been recovered from archaeological deposits at places such as Kilwa, Shanga, and Chibuene, important trading centres along the east and south-east African coast. In southern Africa, sites dating from the 7-11th centuries AD such as Schroda, K2, and Ndondonwane have yielded large caches of ivory debris, suggesting that these places were centres for ivory carving/production for export. This ivory was likely traded through indigenous networks of exchange amongst diverse communities living in southern Africa at the time, such as foragers and Bantu-speaking farmers and herders. But we do not know whether the raw ivory was obtained locally or whether these sites were centres for production and the raw ivory was traded in from further afield. These questions are being investigated through the use of biomolecular techniques (isotope and ZooMS) and mapping tools (ArcGIS), utilised to map the source regions and routes of the ivory trade from these sites. A better understanding of the ivory trade will make a key contribution to the larger research goal of reconstructing wider Indian Ocean networks of trade and interaction in pre-colonial times. Another goal is to extend the existing database of analyses characterising elephants from different parks and wildlife sanctuaries across southern Africa. Tembo will increase the geographical coverage and employ a wider range of isotopic indicators, thus improving our ability to distinguish ivory from different source areas.

The isotopic composition (d13C, d15N, d18O, 87Sr/86Sr) of animal tissues, including ivory, reflects the soils, vegetation and climate of the region where the animal lived. The patterning of these isotopes can be mapped across the landscape, and used to trace the origin of non-local materials, including trade goods. This can be used to fingerprint ivory to specific regions, which has application in modern wildlife conservation. Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) is a technique used to identify the species of the ivory when it is impossible to do so by eye or microscope. Because Iron Age people would have been able to use hippopotamus, elephant, or warthog ivory, this technique was utilised to determine which type of ivory these people were crafting, which would then tell us something about hunting strategies, extraction zones, and social networks. We have also worked in collaboration with researchers in the Netherlands and the USA on methodological advances in using biomolecular techniques on ivory and bone artefacts. These include experimental work on oxygen isotope analysis in ivory collagen and using non-destructive methods for obtaining collagen from ivory samples for ZooMS species identification. These two collaborative projects have resulted in a better understanding of using these techniques on archaeological ivory to maximise the potential information gained from these objects.

So far the Tembo project has analysed ivory artefacts from over 20 Iron Age sites in southern Africa. Results to date, published in African Archaeological Review, reveal the earliest evidence for ivory trading in southern Africa. Three sites in what is today the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa have substantial evidence of ivory working in central deposits associated with iron working activities. The ZooMS results revealed that all of the ivory material in these deposits came from elephant, and the isotope results revealed that the ivory was being sourced from different habitats. These sites also have evidence for trade with other regions such as ostrich eggshell, marine shell, and Islamic ceramic and glass beads from Indian Ocean trade. Therefore, we suggest based on the results from the ivory analyses that the ivory was likely traded into these sites for working, as not all of the ivory was hunted locally. Because the ivory only occurs in abundance on these three sites and we know that they were central sites in the region, ivory craftsmen were likely settled at these sites and traded the worked ivory through larger networks. These Iron Age sites therefore yield the earliest evidence for the trade of ivory in southern Africa, which in later centuries would expand into a major inter-continental network of exchange on a global scale. These early trade routes served as conduits for the exchange of not only goods, but also ideas and worldviews across long distances. By analysing ivory as one part of this growing network of trade amongst these communities, it is possible to start understanding how people were increasingly interconnected in complex networks from the Iron Age onwards.