Ivory Production & Consumption in Ghana in the Early Second Millennium AD

Article excerpt

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). …