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Geochemistry reveals ancient trade in cotton between Arabia and India

​According to a study carried out by scientists from the LSCE (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ), CNRS and the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, an isotopic analysis of strontium reveals the Indian origin of archaeological cottons dating from the 2nd-3rd centuries, in southeastern Arabia.

Published on 27 January 2021

Thanks to their strategic position at the crossroads of East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Near East and the Mediterranean, the navigators and merchants of the Arabian Peninsula have actively contributed to the spread of animal and plant species since prehistoric times.  However, the very profusion of trade routes makes their reconstruction complex, especially during antiquity.

Thus, cotton (Gossypium) - a plant of tropical and subtropical origin - appeared on several sites on the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the 1st millennium BC:  Its presence in an arid environment is a precious marker of the history of trade at that particular time. Two questions remain:  Is this cotton produced locally or imported?  When did it arrive in the peninsula?

The ancient site of Mleiha, located in the peninsula of Oman (now the United Arab Emirates) has the particularity of offering rich archeobotanical remains - cotton seeds and fabrics - dating from the end of the pre-Islamic period (2nd-3rd centuries).  These remains were very well preserved in a fortified building, thanks to a fire.

Researchers analyzed the strontium isotopes contained in these charred remains.  Conclusion:  These cottons do not come from the peninsula of Oman but probably from the northwest coast of India, an origin compatible with the isotopic composition measured. This hypothesis is supported by archaeological and textual evidence of cotton production in Indo-Pakistani regions during antiquity.  These independent clusters of evidence demonstrate that maritime trade between the Oman peninsula and western India was well established at that time.

The concomitant presence of non-local textiles and seeds suggests that cotton cultivation in the neighbouring oases of Mleiha had not yet become common practice, or at least was in its infancy.

This work was carried out in collaboration with the "Archaeozoology - Archaeobotany" Laboratory.  Societies, Practices and Environments" (CNRS – Muséum national d'histoire naturelle), with the support of the DIM "Ancient and Heritage Materials" of the Île-de-France Region.

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