Bead's eye view

Glass beads re­veal an­cient In­dian Ocean trade net­works


IN 2009, Carla Klehm, an ar­chae­ol­ogy stu­dent re­search­ing pre-Euro­pean African cities and king­doms, was ex­ca­vat­ing at Khubu la Dintsa at the east­ern edge of the Kala­hari desert in Botswana. Lit­tered with bro­ken-down en­trance­ways of mud and stone, the site was an un­likely dig for an ar­chae­ol­o­gist re­search­ing ur­ban sites. There was lit­tle ev­i­dence of traders vis­it­ing Khubu la Dintsa, though his­to­ri­ans did have knowl­edge of ur­ban cen­tres a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres away. So Kh­lem was some­what per­plexed when the dig re­vealed more than 200 tiny glass beads.

“I had to strug­gle to con­trol my breath­ing, ter­ri­fied of blow­ing them out of my hand into the Kala­hari desert,” writes Klehm, now a post-doc­toral lec­turer at the Depart­ment of An­thro­pol­ogy at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St Louis in the US.He later found out that the tiny baubles prob­a­bly came from a coun­try in West Asia.

The beads are clinch­ing ev­i­dence of the ways in which the In­dian Ocean net­work linked di­verse so­ci­eties in West Asia, the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and South­east Asia and Africa (see ‘A con­nected world’ on p53). “It sounds sur­pris­ingly mod­ern,” says J D Hill,an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don. “The world was in­ter­con­nected long ago.”

Dat­ing to 1220-1420 AD,the Khubu la Dintsa site is 14 km from Bo­sutswe. Between 700 AD and 1750 AD, Bo­sutswe was a ma­jor re­gional hub for In­dian Ocean trade.It func­tioned both as a con­duit to the Con­golese basin and as a provider of cat­tle—a cru­cial com­po­nent for the long jour­neys un­der­taken by traders. Writes Klehm, “Bo­sutswe’s im­por­tance in re­gional trade would have meant more cat­tle for its elite.The live­stock would have needed grass.The neo-rich de­pended on Khubu la Dintsa for graz­ing sites. The out­ly­ing com­mu­nity here would have been in­cor­po­rated through so­cial and po­lit­i­cal al­liances and ties, pos­si­ble through mar­riages.Khubu la Dintsa would have had an op­por­tu­nity to get rich on glass beads.”

Link to the In­dian Ocean

In a small lab­o­ra­tory as­so­ci­ated with the Field Mu­seum in Chicago, Laura Dus­subieux care­fully holds a tiny—al­most the size of a pin­point—bead so that a laser can drill a mi­cro­scopic pit into its sur­face. Dus­subieux’s work brings out the con­nec­tion between beads found in Khubu la Dintsa—and many other parts of the world—with In­dia and South­east Asia.The drilling re­leases a puff of gas. A mass spec­trome­tre than records the gas’ com­po­si­tion. “The re­sult is a unique sig­na­ture that can re­veal how, where and even when the glass was formed,” Dus­subieux told Sci­ence.

In the 1990s, ar­chae­ol­o­gist Bernard Gratuze of the French na­tional re­search agency cnrs pi­o­neered bead anal­y­sis us­ing lasers and mass spec­trome­tres. Dus­subieux learned the tech­niques as Gratuze’s stu­dent. “Beads were of­ten made lo­cally of raw glass in­gots that had been shipped great dis­tances and new tech­nique made it pos­si­ble to trace the glass to its ori­gin, re­veal­ing ship­ping and trade routes,” she says.

“The bead type re­veals African ties to West Asia start­ing around 7th cen­tury AD, fol­lowed by trade with dis­tant Su­ma­tra and then with In­dia around 1,000 AD.The glass from In­dia is very dif­fer­ent from the glass from South­east Asia,” says Marilee Wood of the Univer­sity

of Witswa­ter­sand in Jo­han­nes­burg. Wood uses bead anal­y­sis to track trade routes along the south­ern coast of East Africa.

Klehm’s re­search shows that the glass beads trav­elled as com­modi­ties around the In­dian Ocean, pass­ing through the hands of many traders and sailors from West Asia and South and South­east Asia to even­tu­ally ar­rive in Botswana in Khubu la Dintsa. An­cient glass is made most of­ten of sil­ica sand, to which an al­kali or al­kali earth-based flux is added to keep the melt­ing point low. “The glass beads in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa are made from sil­ica (from the sand), lime and soda (al­kali). The type of soda can be broadly di­ag­nos­tic of when and where the glass beads were made,”Klehm writes.

“What we see at Khubu la Dintsa are high-alu­minium, low-lime glass beads typ­i­cal of West Asia; they date to the 13th cen­tury AD. Else­where in the Kala­hari, we find min­eral soda beads, typ­i­cal of South and South­east Asia. Th­ese orig­i­nated around the 10th cen­tury AD. By the early 15th cen­tury, beads again flowed in from South Asia,” Klehm adds.

Beads, in fact, had be­come a com­mod­ity in trade sev­eral cen­turies ago. Bead stud­ies have shown that min­eral soda for­mula orig­i­nated in the 5th cen­tury BC in the Gangetic basin and then spread to the south and east. When Dus­subieux an­a­lysed beads ex­ca­vated at Khao Sam Kaeo, which emerged as a trad­ing city in the Malay penin­sula in 4th cen­tury BC,she found that they were made of soda-rich glass. “The raw glass was likely made in In­dia and shipped more than 2,000 km east,” she writes.

In her study of Cam­bo­dian beads, Ali­son Carter, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Madi­son, showed that beads dat­ing to the 1st cen­tury AD from the south­east of the coun­try were made us­ing po­tash—an in­dige­nous Cam­bo­dian method— whereas beads in the north­west con­sisted of min­eral soda glass from In­dia. “East­ern and South­ern Africa are late en­trants to the In­dian Ocean trade story,”says Mark Hor­ton,an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol in the UK.But they took to this com­merce with much gusto. Por­tuguese mer­chants who be­came in­volved in the 15th cen­tury AD note the high trade value placed on glass beads. Ac­cord­ing to Klehm,“Their African part­ners were spe­cific about the point of ori­gin. Only glass beads orig­i­nat­ing from the In­dian Ocean were con­sid­ered proper cur­rency. Euro­pean glass beads were con­sid­ered un­ac­cept­able. Por­tuguese traders would travel all the way to ports in In­dia to ob­tain beads for the African trade.”

Th­ese traders de­scribe how glass beads played a large role in the ex­change of African trade goods, es­pe­cially gold. Sev­eral ac­counts talk about the port of Cam­bay (to­day Kham­bat in Gujarat) as one of the sev­eral cen­tres of glass bead manufacturing. Glass beads sig­nalled so­cial stand­ing in African groups in­volved in the trade.The most dis­tin­guished in­di­vid­ual wore a string of In­dian Ocean beads.

They con­tin­ued to re­main im­por­tant in East­ern and South­ern Africa, even af­ter the In­dian Ocean trade had di­min­ished. David Liv­ing­stone, the 19th-cen­tury Bri­tish ad­ven­turer mis­sion­ary, noted that glass beads were cur­rency in Botswana. Colonists used glass beads to bribe chil­dren to at­tend mis­sion­ary schools.

In the In­dian Ocean coun­tries too, peo­ple sep­a­rated by cul­ture, polity and geog­ra­phy share a love for glass beads.

Glass beads trav­elled as com­modi­ties around the In­dian Ocean. In the process, they passed through the hands of traders and sailors

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