Friday, February 27, 2015

The Ivory Road

Towards the end of the 4th millennium, strategic fort building emerged in pre-Beaker, South-Central Portugal and Southern Spain.  Walled enclosures grew to perch over the avenues to inner Iberia and the Atlantic.  Their rise accompanies intense trade in the Portuguese region slowly fading after the rise of a Beaker identity.
Castro do Zambujal.  Initial build-up of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro culture, Portugal (photo O. Lemercier)
The business of these hardened locations and the trading cartels that traded with them (or through them) has attracted a lot of scientific interest.  This economy projected itself on Western Europe and was instrumental in the promotion of the early Beaker identity throughout Europe.  It may offer insight of those who chose to settle in distant corners of Europe and those who adopted the culture or viewed it favorably.

Savannah Elephant Ivory, S.W. Spain  Photographer: Miguel Ángel Blanco de la Rubia (Schuhmacher, 2012)
This pre-Beaker economy seems to have been fueled by in the importation of exotic African goods, notably ostrich eggs and elephant tusks.  (Schumacher, Cardoso, Banerjee, 2009)   In fact, as I wrote on the genetics page 1, the buildup and hardening of this area is otherwise inexplicable compared to the Near East or Central Europe.  After all, the wealth of the VNSP people is not owed to trade with Zanzibar or its own surpluses; yet through trade its tentacles began reaching out into various islands, first with the importkeramik/symbolkeramik/grooved tradition, quickly followed by the beaker tradition.

'Pineapple Vessel' from Valencia de la Concepcion, Seville, Spain.  Also known from Perdigoes & Morocco
(foto Blanco de la Rubia)

The provenance of Elephant ivories and products positively connects this pre-Beaker import culture with Western Morocco.  (Garica-Sanjuan et al, 2013)  That's a pretty big deal when considering the very origins of the Beaker phenomenon because it is in these fort interiors that bell beakers first appear who, by the way, have material precursors (pottery, decoration, lithics) with the other half of the equation.

Again, this region almost appears to exist because of these western lanes.  From Schumacher, Cardoso, Banerjee (2009):
"Whereas in Portugal we find a majority of African savannah elephant in the Early Chalcolithic, in south-eastern Spain on the contrary we cannot identify this type of ivory before the Early Bronze Age (end of the third and first half of the second millennium BC). So the analysis of ivory from various tombs from the necropolis of Los Millares (Almeria) revealed a majority of Asian ivory (Elephas maximus) (Figure 6). The situation in south-western Atlantic Spain, on the other hand, coincides with the one in Portugal, where African savannah elephant ivory can be found in the Early Chalcolithic."
"This speaks for the existence of an Atlantic route of contact and exchange for the western part of the Iberian Peninsula already in the first half of the third millennium BC. Finds like the necropolis of Rouazi-Skhirat (Morocco) with cylindrical ivory containers similar to others from the Iberian Peninsula, could, in fact, sustain this idea (Daugas 2002). Could it therefore be possible that the African savannah elephant ivory coming from Atlantic North Africa is in agreement with the mentioned hypothesis of Harrison and Gilman?"
Crystal & Ivory from Valencina de la Concepción, S.W. Spain Garcia SanJuan et al
(foto: Miguel Ángel Blanco de la Rubia)

A man from neighboring Seville (Drawing: Miriam Luciañez Triviño)
In this sense, the African Steppe could be viewed as a sort of "African Silk Road", one that connected semi-sedentary cattle communities across the steppe with opportunities for transporting exotic materials that ended up in the Tagus and Guadalquivir estuaries.  Their identities and relationship to the later Beakers become problematic when looking at their lithics and pottery decoration.  From Schumacher, Cardoso, Banerjee (2009):

"Harrison and Gilman had already noticed the difficulties of applying this scheme to the Pre-Bell Beaker Chalcolithic, commenting, ‘. . . no characteristic Millaran or VNSP pieces have been found in Northern Africa’. And they asked themselves, ‘. . . why were no VNSP channelled, pattern-burnished copos (the so called Importkeramik) sent to North Africa like the luxury ware of a later time (Beakers)?’"
(Ukraine, Russia and Horses not depicted)
It is rather curious that Bell Beaker pottery is locally made in the Maghreb and appears in rather humble settings.  At the height of the ivory trade this would probably indicate that Beakers were trading with Beakers, not Beakers trading beakers.  But when exploring the issue deeper, Harrison and Gilman's original question as to why importkeramik never influences Africa in the earliest time makes you wonder how the actors in this earliest relationship lead into the Final Chalcolithic.

Regardless, its spread from the end of the continent is rather apparent, not because of radiocarbon dating, but as was observed nearly eighty years ago, based on decoration and typology.  I think Lemercier's map below can help relay the significance of these connections.

Fig 3, Olivier Lemercier "Le Campaniforme et l'Europe a la fin du Neolithique"

Antonio Valera writes that beakerware never appears in small ditched enclosures in Western Iberia.  In larger enclosures it becomes prevalent, usually one type.  Only in the largest walled enclosures are multiple beaker forms present.  It's a strange situation.

In my own view, I think it is probable that Western Iberia was overcome by the trading cartels.  Whether or not this included immigration or not, who knows.  Ancient DNA from Neolithic Saharan Africa would be a good start.


  1. I love the caption on the first map. ;)

    Very interesting stuff as always.

    1. Thanks, there's at least one new paper on the subject. So if it is accessible I'll post as well.