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York Postdoc finds Earliest Evidence for the Ivory Trade in Southern Africa

Posted on 16 October 2016

Ashley Coutu used isotope analysis to examine elephant ivory from the seventh-tenth centuries AD

Ivory bracelet

Ivory armband found at KwaGandaganda. (Photo: Ashley Coutu)

 A York post-doctoral researcher has published a paper revealing the earliest evidence for the ivory trade in southern Africa. Ashley Coutu, a Marie Curie researcher based at BioArCh, examined ivory from elephants collected from the major Early Farming Community settlements in what is today the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Carbon, nitrogen and strontium isotope analysis was employed to explore the origins and procurement of this ivory, in combination with Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to identify the species of animals from which it was derived. 

Ivory pendants

From left to right: elephant ivory copy of canine tooth from KwaGandaganda. bone copy of a canine tooth pierced for suspension from KwaGandaganda, canine tooth pierced for suspension from KwaGandaganda, and four bone copies of canine teeth, three with perforations, from Ndondondwane. (Photo: Ashley Coutu)

Results indicate that ivory found at these sites was sourced from elephant and drawn from different habitats, which means that as early as 650 AD ivory was moving across long distances in southern Africa. Evidence of imported trade goods also start to appear on sites in KwaZulu-Natal at this time, such as ostrich eggshell, marine shell and glass beads and Middle Eastern ceramics from Indian Ocean trade. Some of the ivory found was for the production of artefacts such as pendants and arm-bands, so we suggest that southern African communities exchanged local commodities such as ivory for imported items. These communities invested substantial effort in obtaining ivory from across the region, which speaks to the significance of ivory as part of social networks and Indian Ocean trade from the 7th century AD onwards.


The full article is available at African Archaeological Review