Shipwrecked ivory a treasure trove for understanding elephants and 16th century trading


Impression: This photograph displays an African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
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Credit: Nicholas Georgiadis

In 1533, a Portuguese trading vessel carrying forty tons of gold and silver cash alongside with other treasured cargo went missing on its way to India. In 2008, this vessel, regarded as the Bom Jesus, was discovered in Namibia, building it the oldest acknowledged shipwreck in southern Africa. Now, an international collaboration of scientists in Namibia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States reporting in the journal Latest Biology on December 17 have uncovered that the ship’s cargo included additional than 100 elephant tusks, which paleogenomic and isotopic analyses trace to a lot of unique herds that the moment roamed West Africa.

The examine is the to start with to incorporate paleogenomic, isotopic, archeological, and historic approaches to identify the origin, ecological, and genetic histories of shipwrecked cargo, according to the scientists. That’s noteworthy in component because ivory was a central driver of the trans-continental industrial buying and selling method connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia by means of maritime routes. The findings also have implications for understanding African elephants of the past and present.

In the new analyze, the crew, which include Alfred L. Roca and Alida de Flamingh, College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Ashley Coutu and Shadreck Chirikure, affiliated with the University of Oxford and College of Cape City, wished to pinpoint the source of elephant ivory that was commonly circulated in the Indian and Atlantic buying and selling methods all through early trade and globalization.

“Elephants dwell in woman-led family members teams, and they tend to remain in the exact same geographic place through their life,” de Flamingh clarifies. “We identified where by these tusks came from by inspecting a DNA marker that is passed only from mother-to-calf and evaluating the sequences to those of geo-referenced African elephants. By evaluating the shipwreck ivory DNA to DNA from elephants with recognized origins throughout Africa, we were being ready to pinpoint the geographic region and species of elephant with DNA properties that matched the shipwreck ivory.”

“In buy to fully examine the place these elephant tusks originated, we wanted various lines of proof,” Coutu adds. “So, we employed a blend of approaches and experience to investigate the origin of this ivory cargo by way of genetic and isotopic data gathered from sampling the tusks. Our conclusions were only possible with all of the items of our interdisciplinary puzzle fitting collectively.”

The team’s analyses, including DNA from 44 available tusks and isotope analysis of 97 tusks, showed that the ivory had occur from African forest elephants. Their mitochondrial DNA, passed down from mom to calf, traced them to 17 or additional herds from West as opposed to Central Africa. That was a surprise, Chirikure suggests, since the Portuguese had founded trade with the Kongo Kingdom and communities along the Congo River by the 16th century. “The expectation was that the elephants would be from distinctive areas, specifically West and Central Africa.”

Four of the mitochondrial haplotypes they uncovered are continue to located today in present day elephants. The many others could have been lost because of to subsequent hunting for ivory or habitat destruction. Isotope analyses also advise the elephants lived in combined forest habitat, not deep in the rainforest, the researchers report.

“There had been some imagining that African forest elephants moved out into savanna habitats in the early 20th century, right after nearly all savanna elephants ended up eradicated in West Africa,” Roca suggests, noting that savanna elephants depict a distinctive elephant species. “Our analyze confirmed that this was not the situation, mainly because the African forest elephant lived in savanna habitats in the early 16th century, prolonged prior to the decimation of savanna elephants by the ivory trade occurred.”

In addition to these insights, De Flamingh claims that these new knowledge can now aid in tracing the resource of confiscated unlawful ivory. And the new findings are just the suggestion of the iceberg in terms of what can be uncovered from experiments of ivory about elephants and the people who hunted them.

“There is huge probable to assess historic ivory from other shipwrecks, as well as from archaeological contexts and museum collections to understand the lifetime histories of elephant populations, the skills and lifeways of the people who hunted and traded the ivory, as nicely as the numerous journeys of African ivory throughout the world,” Coutu states. “The revelation of these connections notify important worldwide histories.”


This work was supported by USFWS African Elephant Conservation Fund, South African Analysis Chairs Initiative of the Nationwide Research Foundation and Division of Science and Technology of South Africa, NRF, USDA ILLU 875-952 and ILLU-538-939, PEEC and Clark Study Support Grants, Claude Leon Basis, and the European Union.

Latest Biology, de Flamingh et al.: “Sourcing elephant ivory from a 16th century Portuguese shipwreck”

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