A bronze buckle and a cylindrical metal bead found in Alaska are the first hard evidence of trade between Asia and the indigenous peoples of the North American Arctic, centuries before contact with Europeans, archaeologists say.
An analysis of the artifacts has shown that they were smelted in East Asia out of lead, copper, and tin, before finding their way to an indigenous village some 700 years ago.
H. Kory Cooper, an anthropologist at Purdue University described the discovery as “a small finding with really interesting implications.”
“This will cause other people to think about the Arctic differently,” Cooper said in a press statement.
“Some have presented the Arctic and Subarctic regions as backwater areas with no technological innovation, because there was a very small population at the time.
“That doesn’t mean interesting things weren’t happening, and this shows that locals were not only using locally available metals but were also obtaining metals from elsewhere.”
The artifacts were originally reported in 2011, after they had been unearthed from the site of a house in northwestern Alaska that dated between 700 and 900 years old.
The dwelling was part of a cluster of sites inhabited by the Thule, ancestors of the modern Inuit, on Cape Espenberg on the Seward Peninsula.
The metal objects found there were clearly not locally made, Cooper said, and yet the site was inhabited centuries before sustained contact with Europeans began in the late 1700s. [Learn about life at a site long before European contact: “‘Twin’ Ice Age Infants Discovered in 11,500-Year-Old Alaska Grave“]
Indigenous peoples of the Arctic did use naturally available metals, such as raw copper, native iron, and even meteorites, Cooper explained, but they did not smelt their own metals.
Analysis of the buckle and the bead conducted at Cooper’s lab using X-ray fluorescence showed that both were made from a heavily leaded alloy like that smelted in Asia at the time.
“We believe these smelted alloys were made somewhere in Eurasia and traded to Siberia and then traded across the Bering Strait to ancestral Inuits people,” Cooper said.
While the metals themselves can’t be dated, the buckle was attached to a leather strap that yielded a radiocarbon date of 500 to 800 years — within the same age range as the house where they were found, although researchers point out that the bronze pieces may well be older than the house. [See the latest discoveries made in the region: “Ice Age Fire Pits in Alaska Reveal Earliest Evidence of Salmon Cooking“]
“The belt buckle also is considered an industrial product and is an unprecedented find for this time,” Cooper said.
“It resembles a buckle used as part of a horse harness that would have been used in north-central China during the first six centuries before the Common Era.”
The confirmation of Asian metals being traded in pre-contact Alaska is not entirely unexpected, Cooper noted.
“This is not a surprise based on oral history and other archaeological finds, and it was just a matter of time before we had a good example of Eurasian metal that had been traded,” he said.
In fact, the same team that uncovered the buckle and bead on Cape Espenberg had found three other artifacts made from copper at another nearby site.
The finds there included a fish hook, a needle, and a small piece of copper sheeting. [See metal artifacts left behind by castaways: “200-Year-Old Shipwreck Survivors’ Camp Found on Alaska Island“]
These pieces were found at the site of much more recent dwelling dated to the 17th century, which is believed to have been part of an indigenous trade network of native copper.
The discovery of metal artifacts of any kind is rare, Cooper noted, because such tools were often used until they were worn down and did not preserve well.
“These items are remarkable due to curation and preservation issues,” Cooper said.
Cooper and his colleagues report their findings in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Cooper, H., Mason, O., Mair, V., Hoffecker, J., & Speakman, R. (2016). Evidence of Eurasian metal alloys on the Alaskan coast in prehistory Journal of Archaeological Science, 74, 176-183 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2016.04.021