The shipwreck in a diamond mine: analysing the ivory cargo of a 16th-century Portuguese merchant ship

Investigators: Dr Ashley Coutu (Research Fellow, Pitt Rivers Museum) & Professor Shadreck Chirikure (British Academy Global Professor, Institute of Archaeology, Oxford)

Funders: The European Union, Marie Curie International Fellowship "TEMBo"

Together with curators at the National Museum of Namibia, archaeologists at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), and geneticists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (USA), Dr Coutu and Prof Chirikure are investigating the origin of shipwreck cargo from a 16th-century Portuguese ship recovered during diamond mining operations on the southern coast of Namibia.  

In 2008, offshore diamond mining on the Namibian coastline uncovered the remains of the Portuguese vessel Bom Jesus, which wrecked off the coast of Namibia in 1533 AD.

The ship carried large quantities of valuable cargo, including copper ingots, gold coins, and 100 tusks of elephant ivory.

Using a combination of stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses with archival and archaeological records, the team are working to source the ivory cargo to habitats in West Africa.  The results of these analyses reveal patterns of ivory acquisition and circulation during the formative stages of maritime trade that linked Europe, Africa, and Asia. 

Find out more about 'Tusks found in 500-year old shipwreck reveal origins of ancient elephants and impact of the ivory trade'. (Press release, 17.12.20)


Project publications:

  1. Werz, Bruno. 'The Oranjemund Shipwreck, Namibia. The Excavation of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Oldest Discovered Wreck', Journal of Namibian Studies : History Politics Culture 6 (2009): 81–106.
  2. Chirikure, Shadreck, Ashton fSinamai, Esther Goagoses, Marina Mubusisi, and W. Ndoro. 'Maritime Archaeology and Trans-Oceanic Trade: A Case Study of the Oranjemund Shipwreck Cargo, Namibia.' Journal of Maritime Archaeology 5, no. 1 (2010): 37–55.
  3. Flamingh, A. de, Coutu, A.N., Roca, A.L., and Malhi, R.S. (2020) 'Accurate Sex Identification of Ancient Elephant and Other Animal Remains Using Low-Coverage DNA Shotgun Sequencing Data'. G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. DOI:10.1534/g3.119.400833.

Further resources:

National Geographic article on the wreck: