Researchers now believe that precolonial ivory trade started at least by the seventh century in South Africa. The archeologist based their findings on ivory found at several KwaZulu-Natal sites located along the Indian Ocean. The researchers say that they used a new technology called ZooArchaeology from Mass Spectrometry which was developed by the prestigious research institution the University of Manchester. This technology allowed the researchers to use soft-ionization mass spectrometry to determine where elephants growing the ivory lived.
When Do the Researchers Now Believe Precolonial Ivory Trade Started?
Researchers attending the University of Cape Town which is consistently ranked as one of the top research universities in the world worked with an archeologist from prestigious KwaZulu-Natal Museum which regularly sponsors research projects in South Africa.
They discovered that ivory found at various sites in KwaZulu-Natal came from a much wider area than previously believed. They suggest that this means that trading across the Indian Ocean started at least 200 years earlier than previously believed.
Working with soft-ionization mass spectrometry was seen as preferable to using ancient DNA techniques because it can produce results in under 24 hours. It is seen as highly effective at delivering reliable outcomes. It is also cost effective.
Using soft-ionization mass spectrometry, researchers were able to determine what the elephants who grew the ivory ate. They were also able to use the spectrometry technique to determine that the ivory definitely came from elephants as opposed to hippopotamus or warthogs that farmers also used for ivory.
Archeologists have long believed that this area in the KwaZulu-Natal region was where people lived in communities first in South Africa during the Iron Age. Ivory was highly prized by these early settlers because they used it to carve bangles for leaders to show their importance.
The researchers found more ivory in the three areas that they studied during their work. Therefore, they believe that people living in KwaGandaganda‚ Wosi and Ndondondwane specialized in working with ivory.
The researchers note that similar ivory was not found across KwaZulu-Natal suggesting that people living there traded for the ivory. This area has been home to numerous archeological studies examining the early Iron Age dating from about 650 AD.
The archeologists say:
“We suggest at least some of the ivory from the KwaZulu-Natal sites may also have been destined for trans-oceanic trade based on the large quantities of ivory on some KwaZulu-Natal sites and the new evidence reported here that ivory procurement was not merely local but was conducted over considerable distances‚ with a greater degree of organization than previously suspected.”
The Cape Town researchers say that they do not know if the ivory bangles were designed to be worn by local citizens as a sign of royalty. Alternately, they could be sold by those living in the communities and taken across the Indian Ocean. The oldest glass beads and ceramics found in the area date to about the same period.
This study done on ivory found in the area supports other recent findings. Archeologists have found old coins and other items that would have been used as money in the area. Nearby research suggests that bananas were traded much earlier than previously believed.
Archeologists working at the University of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal Museum now believe that trading across the Indian Ocean may have started as early as 650 AD. This is at least 200 years earlier than previous estimates. The researchers base their findings on ivory scraps that were found in the KwaZulu-Natal region where researchers have long believed the first communities were formed. The new research is further supported by coins and ceramic pottery found in the area.
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