Molecular identification and geographic origin of a post-Medieval elephant finding from southwestern Portugal using high-throughput sequencing

Sci Rep. 2020 Nov 6;10(1):19252. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-75323-y.


Molecular species identification plays a crucial role in archaeology and palaeontology, especially when diagnostic morphological characters are unavailable. Molecular markers have been used in forensic science to trace the geographic origin of wildlife products, such as ivory. So far, only a few studies have applied genetic methods to both identify the species and circumscribe the provenance of historic wildlife trade material. Here, by combining ancient DNA methods and genome skimming on a historical elephantid tooth found in southwestern Portugal, we aimed to identify its species, infer its placement in the elephantid phylogenetic tree, and triangulate its geographic origin. According to our results the specimen dates back to the eighteenth century CE and belongs to a female African forest elephant (non-hybrid Loxodonta cyclotis individual) geographically originated from west-west-central Africa, from areas where one of the four major mitochondrial clades of L. cyclotis is distributed. Historical evidence supports our inference, pointing out that the tooth should be considered as post-Medieval raw ivory trade material between West Africa and Portugal. Our study provides a comprehensive approach to study historical products and artefacts using archaeogenetics and contributes towards enlightening cultural and biological historical aspects of ivory trade in western Europe.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't