In the eighteenth to nineteenth century West Africa was the scene of the infamous Atlantic trade in ivory and slaves. The authors' researches show a different situation in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, when the people of Ghana were engaged in the indigenous procurement, manufacture and trade in ivory with neighbours across the Sahara
Keywords: West Africa, Saharan trade, ivory
Ivory is a raw material long valued for its strength and homogenous composition which make it ideal for carving (Hodges 1976: 154; MacGregor 1985: 38). From antiquity, ivory was a valued commodity and a 'readily obtainable colonial product' (St. Clair & McLachlan 1989: 2) used to produce a variety of utilitarian and art objects (Cutler 1985: 25-26; MacGregor 1985: 38). However, its availability declined following the demise and ultimate extinction of North African elephant herds (from the fourth century AD; Wilson & Ayerst 1976: 12; see also Cutler 1985: 20-37) and the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Increased consumption after the ninth century AD in Western Europe and Byzantium was associated with a revival of African (as well as Indian) trade routes, now controlled by Islamic states (St. Clair & McLachlan 1989: 3). The Renaissance fuelled artistic demand for ivory as new centres of ivory working emerged after the tenth century in north-eastern France and the upper and lower Rhineland (Burack 1984: 20, 23; MacGregor 1985: 39). European demand for ivory steadily increased from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as a widening array of secular objects ranging from toilet articles to piano keys were routinely produced (Feinberg & Johnson 1982: 450; Johnson 1978: 548).
Though India was an important source of ivory, the tusks of African elephants were valued for their large size (St. Clair & McLachlan 1989: 6). The importance of East African sources of elephant ivory is often stressed in the literature (e.g., Cutler 1985: 23; MacGregor 1985: 38); however, West Africa also supplied the European and Mediterranean world's growing demand for ivory (Feinberg & Johnson 1982:446; Newbury 1966). The importance of West African sources is attested by the name assigned to a portion of the Guinea coast--the Ivory Coast, a centre for the French trade in ivory (Burack 1984: 23). It has been tacitly assumed that elephant ivory was the primary/sole source of ivory, but as Reid and Segobye (2000: 328) observed, "specific identifications have seldom been made" and hippo ivory may have been an important item of exchange as well (Barnett 1954; Insoll 1995; 1997). Hippo ivory has been used since the fourth millennium BC for a variety of purposes (Insoll 1995: 331), and was particularly valued by Ancient Egyptians (Barnett 1954: 666). It is extremely hard, and therefore less easily worked, but is also less subject to exfoliation than elephant ivory (Burack 1984: 33). Its density makes it resistant to stains so that, unlike elephant ivory, its pure white colour does not yellow with age. This made hippo ivory a favoured raw material for artificial teeth as early as the Roman period (Burack 1984: 33, 130). Recent archaeological evidence from Gao (Insoll 1995; 1997), a historically important terminus in the trans-Saharan trade from at least AD 1000 (Figure 1), yielded a large cache of unworked hippopotamus ivory (at least 50 tusks) that Insoll (1997: 264) suspects was destined for the ivory workshops of North Africa and Spain. The cache was associated with contexts dated from the late ninth to eleventh centuries AD, and Insoll (1997: 264) suggests that hippo ivory, with its pure white colour, may have been valued in North Africa and Spain as a source for inlay. Gao was involved in the trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves and salt, and Insoll (1995: 334) suggests that ivory, including hippo ivory, may have been a fourth commodity that flowed through Gao into trans-Saharan networks (see also Insoll & Shaw 1997). …