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date: 10 December 2022

The Trade, Use, and Circulation of Elephant Ivory in Sub-Saharan Africa over the Longue Duréelocked

The Trade, Use, and Circulation of Elephant Ivory in Sub-Saharan Africa over the Longue Duréelocked

  • Paul J. LanePaul J. LaneDepartment of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University
  •  and Ashley N. CoutuAshley N. CoutuUniversity of Oxford

Summary

Humans have utilized and exchanged ivory from different species of elephant living on the African continent for millennia, with ivory from both forest and savannah species being exploited. Starting around 4600 bp, elephant ivory sourced on the African continent also began to be exported to other parts of the world. The ways of working ivory, the uses to which it has been put, and its symbolic and representational meanings have all varied according to context across space and time. Different agents have played diverse and varying roles in its acquisition, crafting, and distribution. From early on, ivory’s malleability and comparative strength relative to other raw materials made it particularly sought after. Its color and texture, as well as the variation between species and in its structure at different points on a tusk, have also been critical aspects of its material affordances. Archaeological evidence from sub-Saharan Africa, especially material dating from after the bce/ce transition, combined with ethnographic and historical data, provides important insights into the deep history of ivory, where it has been sourced on the continent, what is known about how it was worked in the distant past, and the changing history of its trade and exchange both within and beyond the continent. Regional and global shifts in its circulation, along with some of the societal and ecological consequences of these have also been studied, with particular reference to eastern Africa. Despite many advances in recent years, there is still a need for further multidisciplinary and multi-sited research informed by posthumanist perspectives and ethics.

Subjects

  • Archaeology

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