Tracing ivory from a sixteenth century shipwreck

2 minute read

Geneticists have added a lot of new knowledge about elephant relationships and phylogeography over the last few years. One of the big areas of advance has been in forensic examination of elephant ivory. International trade in elephant ivory is banned, but it is still possible to sell and trade in ivory from extinct mammoths, which mostly comes from Siberian permafrost. Yet telling legal mammoth ivory apart from illicit elephant ivory is not trivial, and the ultimate test is genetic analysis. Genetics has also become useful to pinpoint the source country of elephant ivory, using the geographic variation in mtDNA and nuclear genomes of elephant populations across Africa.

A new paper from Alida de Flamingh and coworkers applied this forensic methodology to ivory found in the oldest shipwreck off the coast of Africa: “Sourcing Elephant Ivory from a Sixteenth-Century Portuguese Shipwreck”.

Elephant tusks from the Bom Jesus shipwreck
Elephant tusks from the Bom Jesus shipwreck. From de Flamingh et al. 2020.

The Bom Jesus was a Portuguese trading ship bound for India that wrecked off the coast of Namibia in 1533. The wreck was rediscovered in 2008 and the cargo included more than 100 elephant tusks. De Flamingh and colleagues worked to identify the source population of the elephant tusks. They found that all of them come from Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant, and the region of origin was West Africa.

The Bom Jesus tusks are of varying length and size (from 2 to 33 kg), and the elephants may have been hunted indiscriminately, both males and females, young and old alike. Among the mtDNA haplotypes identified from the sixteenth-century tusks, only four have been reported among contemporary populations (Figure 3C), likely reflecting the impact of the ivory trade and reduction of historic elephant range by at least 93% in West Africa.

It’s remarkable the extent of haplotype loss evidenced by this sample from 500 years ago. The authors emphasize that adding these historic samples to our databases will help with identification of historic ivory and study of the conservation crisis of today’s elephants.

I find it so sad. I’ve seen so much ivory in museums, crafted into the art objects of the medieval and Renaissance world. That ivory represents a tremendous loss of natural diversity. Evidence like the Bom Jesus brings to attention the reality that African ivory was traded across the entire medieval world. The stories of the elephants that were extinguished, their lives and social relationships, remain as echoes trapped within these objects.