Background and Significance: European trade of African elephant ivory was gaining in momentum during the 16th and 17th centuries with several nations setting up trading ports in Africa. One of these was the Netherlands whose Dutch East India Company (VOC) loaded cargo at the Cape of Good Hope, and for a short time, Mozambique. Two vessels, the Vergulde Draeck in 1656, and the Zeewijk in 1727 both wrecked on the coast of Western Australia, of which both were carrying elephant tusks as unrecorded cargo. To determine whether the tusks were illegal or official trade, this study aims to use mitochondrial DNA analysis to provenance the tusks to an approximate geographical origin using reference data from modern African elephants. A West African origin may indicate illegal trade, whereas an East African origin would indicate official trade.
Basic Methodologies: Twenty-four tusks from the two shipwrecks were sampled. A 316 bp fragment of the mitochondrial control region was sequenced and compared to 280 modern African elephant reference sequences of known provenance using BEAST and Arlequin. Haplotype diversity, and whether geographic origin could be estimated compared to the modern reference data was determined.
Major Findings: Twenty-three shipwreck samples were assigned to an approximate geographical origin based on modern reference data. Control region mtDNA analysis showed that all of the shipwreck samples matched most closely with haplotypes seen in forest elephants. The geographical origins were most likely within Western, West-central, South-central, and North-central Africa. This result indicates that the tusks were illegal trade as none of the samples matched closely with East African haplotypes. New haplotypes were identified that are no longer present in modern elephants. Habitat destruction and extensive hunting of African elephants for their ivory over the last 400 years is the likely cause to this observed decline in haplotype diversity.