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Asian Metals were Traded in Alaska Centuries before Sustained Contact with Europeans

Asian Metals were Traded in Alaska Centuries before Sustained Contact with Europeans

Two artifacts found at Cape Espenberg on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula in Alaska are the first evidence that Asian metal alloys reached North America prior to sustained contact with Europeans, according to a team of archaeologists led by Purdue University scientist H. Kory Cooper.

Metal and metal/ivory composite artifacts from Cape Espenberg: a bone fishing lure with iron inset eyes, a piece of bone fishing tackle with a copper hook, an eyed copper needle, a small fragment of sheet copper, a cylindrical bead and buckle fragment. Image credit: H. Kory Cooper et al.


“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,” Dr. Cooper said.

“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, also known as Thule culture, in Alaska.”

“Locally available metal in parts of the Arctic, such as native metal, copper and meteoritic and telluric iron were used by ancient Inuit people for tools and to sometimes indicate status.”

Two of the Cape Espenberg items that were found — a cylindrical bead and a fragment of a buckle — are heavily leaded bronze artifacts.

Both are from a house at the site dating to around CE 1,100-1,300, which is before sustained European contact in the late 18th century.

The findings were published online June 8 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“This article focuses on a small finding with really interesting implications. This will cause other people to think about the Arctic differently,” Dr. Cooper said.

“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 items were found at Cape Espenberg on the Seward Peninsula where the Thule people lived in houses.

During 2009-2011, six houses were excavated collectively dating to between ca. 600 and 1,500 CE.

“Their inhabitants pursued an economy based on the hunting of marine mammals (primarily seal) and terrestrial mammals (primarily caribou), supplemented with fish and fowl,” Dr. Cooper and co-authors explained.

“Excavation of the houses yielded thousands of wood, bone, ivory, antler, lithic, and ceramic artifacts and four of the houses produced a total of six metal or composite metal artifacts.”

The metal artifacts included: (i) a bone fishing lure with iron inset eyes; (ii) a piece of bone fishing tackle with a copper hook; (iii) an eyed copper needle; (iv) a small fragment of sheet copper; (v) a copper alloy cylindrical bead; and (vi) a fragment of a small copper alloy buckle.

“The fish hook, needle, and sheet fragment were all determined to be copper and the cylindrical bead and buckle fragment were found to be leaded bronze, an alloy of copper, tin, and lead,” the scientists said.

The fragmented leather strap on the buckle provided radiocarbon dating, and the item was dated to 500-800 years old, although the metal could be older.

“The belt buckle also is considered an industrial product and is an unprecedented find for this time,” Dr. 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 BC.”

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