In 2008, miners off the coast of Namibia stumbled upon buried treasure: a sunken Portuguese ship generally known as the Bom Jesus, which went lacking on its strategy to India in 1533. The buying and selling ship bore a trove of gold and silver cash and different helpful supplies. However to a group of archaeologists and biologists, the Bom Jesus’ most valuable cargo was a haul of greater than 100 elephant tusks — the most important archaeological cargo of African ivory ever found.
Genetic and chemical analyses have now traced those tusks again to a number of distinct herds of forest elephants that after roamed West Africa. “It’s by far essentially the most detailed and complete try to supply [archaeological] elephant ivory,” says Paul Lane, an archaeologist on the College of Cambridge not concerned within the work.
The brand new outcomes, reported within the Feb. 8 Present Biology, give perception into historic African elephant populations and ivory commerce networks.
For having been misplaced at sea for practically 500 years, the Bom Jesus’ ivory is extremely well-preserved, says Alida de Flamingh, a molecular biologist on the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When the ship sank, the copper and lead ingots [stored above the tusks] sort of pushed the ivory down into the seabed,” defending the tusks from scattering and erosion. A frigid ocean present additionally runs by this area of the Atlantic. “That basically chilly present in all probability helped protect the DNA that was within the tusks,” de Flamingh says.
She and her colleagues extracted DNA from 44 tusks. The genetic materials revealed that each one of that ivory got here from African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) moderately than their African savanna kin (L. africana). By evaluating the ivory DNA with that of previous and current African elephant populations with identified origins, the group decided that the shipwrecked tusks belonged to elephants from a minimum of 17 genetically distinct herds throughout West Africa — solely 4 of which nonetheless exist. The opposite elephant lineages might have died out because of hunting or habitat destruction (SN: 11/7/16).
The kinds, or isotopes, of carbon and nitrogen within the tusks offered extra element about the place these elephants lived. Carbon and nitrogen accumulate in tusks over an elephant’s lifetime by the meals the animal eats and the water it drinks. Relative quantities of various carbon and nitrogen isotopes rely on whether or not an elephant spent most of its time in, say, a rainforest or an arid grassland. The isotopes within the Bom Jesus tusks revealed that these elephants lived in a mixture of forests and savannas.
Nationwide Museum of Namibia
“We had been fairly shocked,” says research coauthor Ashley Coutu, an archaeologist on the College of Oxford. Fashionable African forest elephants are identified to roam forests in addition to savannas. However researchers thought that forest elephants first ventured out into grasslands solely within the twentieth century, as many savanna elephants had been worn out by poachers and the forest elephants’ unique habitats had been destroyed by human growth. The brand new outcomes counsel that African forest elephants had been amenable to each forest and savanna habitats all alongside.
Higher understanding the habitats traditionally most well-liked by African forest elephants may inform efforts to preserve this vulnerable species (SN: 9/9/16). Greater than 60 % of those elephants have been poached within the last decade, and those that stay inhabit solely a few quarter of their historic vary, in line with the African Wildlife Basis.
The origins of the Bom Jesus’ ivory additionally paint a clearer image of the sixteenth century ivory commerce on the African continent, Lane says. The truth that the tusks originated from many various herds hints that a number of communities in West Africa had been concerned in supplying the ivory. But it surely’s unclear whether or not Portuguese merchants gathered this numerous ivory from a number of domestically sourced ports alongside the coast, or from a single port that was linked to intensive buying and selling networks inside the continent, Lane says. Future analyses of ivory uncovered at historic port websites may assist remedy the thriller.