African trade routes sketched out by mediaeval beads

The chemical composition of glass beads and their morphological characteristics can reveal where they come from. Archaeologists from the University of Geneva analyzed glass beads found at rural sites in Mali and Senegal from between the 7th and 13th centuries AD. The scientists demonstrate that the glass they are made of probably came from Egypt, the Levantine coast and the Middle East. The results show that international trade linking Africa to Europe and Asia during was connected with local and regional trade.

The origin of glass beads dates back to early ancient times. The chemical composition of the beads and their morphological and technical characteristics can reveal where they come from; this information can then be used to reconstruct the trade channels between glass production areas and the sites where the beads were used at different times. Archaeologists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), working in partnership with the Institut de Recherche sur les Archéomatériaux at the Center Ernest-Babelon in Orléans, France, analyzed 16 archaeological glass beads found at three rural sites in Mali and Senegal from between the 7th and 13th centuries AD.

In the journal Plos One, the scientists demonstrate that the glass they are made of probably came from Egypt, the Levantine coast and the Middle East. The results show that international trade linking Africa to Europe and Asia during the development of the large West African state configurations did not stop at the great urban centers located along the Niger River: it also connected with local and regional trade. In this way, an extensive network including sub-Saharan rural areas and trans-Saharan trade routes took shape.

The glass beads uncovered in Africa do not only come from the well-known junk cargoes shipped by boat to be exchanged for slaves around the 18th century. Their provenance is much older and their places of origin many and diverse. In western sub-Saharan Africa, the beads have been found in urban archaeological sites from the medieval period along the Niger River. Several Arabic texts describe these trade routes crossing the Sahara and connecting the African continent to Europe and Asia. “Trans-Saharan caravans traded horses, guns, luxury objects and salt for ivory, gold and slaves,” explains Anne Mayor, a researcher in the Anthropology Unit in UNIGE’s Faculty of Sciences.

Members of the Archaeology and Population in Africa Laboratory of UNIGE have been carrying out archaeological excavations for several decades at sites in central Mali and eastern Senegal, including old cemeteries and villages. They have investigated the evolution of lifestyles and techniques. A total of 16 glass beads has been unearthed at three of these sites dating from between the 7th and 13th centuries AD. To understand their provenance and form a picture of what trade was like at a time when the first African kingdoms were developing, the archaeologists embarked on an analysis of their morphological and technical characteristics together with their chemical composition.

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