Kefilwe Rammutloa, a graduate student at the University of Pretoria, is building a database to trace the distribution of exotic goods at sites across southeastern Africa. She’s finding evidence that suggests members of indigenous communities exchanged these items, often as gifts, rather than professional merchants establishing trade between towns.
Like Wood, Rammutloa has uncovered a social aspect to the items. Mapungubwe, for example, the first indigenous kingdom of southern Africa, was rich in ivory and gold — but bodies found in its cemeteries were interred with glass beads from Persia and porcelain from China.
“People used the materials to create relationships,” says Rammutloa. “We’re talking about humans here. Someone gives you a gift, they’re negotiating a role in your life. It creates a network."
Indian Ocean trade never truly disappeared. Beginning in the 15th century, however, with the expansion of European exploration and China’s withdrawal from international affairs, the world’s economic focus shifted westward.
In the centuries that followed, few researchers studied this early and extensive trade network. Says Wood: “It’s the European background of the people writing the histories, including our own. There’s more work being done now, but part of the problem is that we depend on written documents, and there are a lot less [for the Indian Ocean trade network]. It’s also a question of language. I’m sure there are a wealth of documents on it hidden away in China, but someone’s got to translate them.”