The ‘Lost Caravan’ of Ma’den Ijafen Revisited: Re-appraising Its Cargo of Cowries, a Medieval Global Commodity

in Journal of African Archaeology
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Abstract

The lost caravan of Ma’den Ijafen, Mauritania, with its cargo of cowries and brass, is widely discussed in African archaeology, providing significant insight into the nature of long-distance trade in the medieval period. While the brass bars recovered by Théodore Monod during his expedition to the site in 1962 have received considerable attention, the cowrie shells described in his comprehensive publication of the assemblage in 1969 have received much less coverage. This issue was addressed during a recent visit to the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) in Dakar, Senegal in May 2017, when the authors re-examined the shells as part of a wider project which also involved archaeological and environmental surveys in the Maldives, the oft-assumed source of these shells. Examinations of natural history collections of cowries, ethnographic interviews in the Maldives, and environmental surveys in East Africa were also carried out. Drawing on insights from these surveys, we systematically compared the Ma’den Ijafen cowrie assemblage to three others from the Maldives, focussing on four criteria: species composition and diversity, shell size and evidence of modifications. This analysis enabled us to shed new light on the nature of the Ma’den Ijafen cowries and their wider significance to understanding the role of the shells in West African trade networks.

The ‘Lost Caravan’ of Ma’den Ijafen Revisited: Re-appraising Its Cargo of Cowries, a Medieval Global Commodity

in Journal of African Archaeology

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References

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Figures

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    Location of Maldivian Atolls and Islands discussed in the text. Redrawn by authors.
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    Geological map of the Majâbat al-Koubrâ and, inset, copy of a map drawn in the sand by a Monod’s informant Hafdhi O. el ‘Abid. Redrawn after Monod (1996: figures on pp. 46-47 and 68-69). Note terms included are adopted from local usage; see Monod (1996) for further discussion.
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    The Ma’den Ijafen assemblage of brass bars, cowries, fibre mats and ropes. (IFAN: MAU 67-151).
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    Excavations underway at Sultan Park.
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    Cowries from the Utheemu assemblage being sorted. Pile 1: Initial removal of other Cypraea species for subsequent identification; Piles 2 and 3: Different sizes of Monetaria moneta; Pile 4: Shells still to be sorted; Pile 5: Damaged Monetaria moneta; Pile 6: Non-shell fragments.
  • View in gallery
    Distribution of cowrie species within three assemblages excluding un-speciated cowries. Total numbers are: Ma’den Ijafen – 3241 (94.4% of the sampled assemblage), Male N12 – 1188 (95.65% of the total assemblage) and Utheemu – 3356 (95.59% of the sampled assemblage).
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    Prevalence of Monetaria annulus, Monetaria moneta, and other identifiable cowrie species in four archaeological assemblages: Songo Mnara in Tanzania, Ma’den Ijafen in Mauritania, and Male and Utheemu in the Maldives.
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    Cowrie species identified in the studied assemblages: a) Monetaria moneta; b) Monetaria annulus; c) Palmadusta assellus; d) Palmadusta ziczac; e) Pustularia cicercula; f ) Erosaria helvola; g) Monetaria caputserpentis; h) Erosaria erosa; i) Staphylaea staphylaea; j) Erosaria gangranosa.
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    Habitat preferences, size range and abundance of cowrie species identified in the studied assemblages
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    Proportion of different sized shells from the archaeological assemblages.
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    Proportion of different size Monetaria moneta specimens from archaeological collections compared with Maldivian Monetaria moneta specimens in the Natural History Museum and those collected during our ecological surveys in the Maldives.
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    Proportion of modified shells showing the dominance of unmodified shells in the archaeological assemblages.
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    Comparison of analytical criteria assessed for each assemblage
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    Discoloured shells: green patches probably caused by their proximity to the brass bars.
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    Microscopic assessment of perforated shell from Ma’den Ijafen.
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    Shells from Ma’den Ijafen with perforated dorsa.

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