1803 ORIGINS OF THE IVORY TRADE IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
Professor Judith Sealy, Archaeology Department, University of Cape Town
In recent years, the burgeoning international trade in elephant ivory has become a major concern to conservationists and poached ivory has funded conflicts across Africa.
When did people start to use ivory? When did it first become a valuable commodity in trans-oceanic trade? It has long been known that ivory was probably exported from southern Africa about one thousand years ago, in trade networks that extended across the Indian Ocean. These networks transported valuable goods, crop plants and animals, and of course knowledge and new ideas.
Recent evidence from KwaZulu-Natal shows that long-distance trade probably started at least three hundred years earlier, around the seventh century CE. Archaeological sites of this age have yielded thousands of ivory shavings (manufacturing waste) from tusks brought in from across broad areas of the landscape. Some of the ivory was for local consumption, but some was almost certainly exported in exchange for the first imported luxury items, such as glass beads and glazed ceramics.