The use of sperm whale ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal

  • Schuhmacher T
  • Banerjee A
  • Dindorf W
  • et al.
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Scientific analysis were undertaken within a research project concerning ivory objects from the Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age of the Iberian Peninsula. In several of the analyses of objects from Portuguese Estremadura, especially V-perforated buttons, we could detect for the first time the presence of sperm whale ivory. This high- lights the advantage and necessity of scientific analysis of ivory. It also clearly demonstrates that not all ivory used was ivory from African or Asian elephants, but we also did find ivory from the extinct Elephas antiquus, the hippopotamus and in this case sperm-whale. Thus, already in the Chalcolithic the raw material provenience was highly diverse, which in the absence of scientific analysis might lead to an erroneous interpretation of pre- historic exchange networks. Different methods, including optical microscopy, measurement of hardness and specific gravity, Micro-Raman Spectroscopy, elemental analysis and Isotopic Ratio Mass Spectrometry have been applied. In this paper we present these methods and the results, and we discuss about the implications of these results for the reconstruction of prehistoric economy and life in this region. Finally, taking into account the natural conditions as well as prehistoric and historic data of whale hunting and scavenging of beached animals, we conclude that the most plausible explanation for the presence of sperm whale ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal is the use of the teeth obtained from stranded animals. This interpretation is possible because of the human populations using this ivory are those living close to the sea and exploiting – among others– marine resources.




Schuhmacher, T. X., Banerjee, A., Dindorf, W., Sastri, C., & Sauvage, T. (2013). The use of sperm whale ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal. Trabajos de Prehistoria, 70(1), 185–203.

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