Eurasian Metals Discovered in Alaska from Centuries Before the Arrival of Europeans to the New World

Eurasian Metals Discovered in Alaska from Centuries Before the Arrival of Europeans to the New World


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A new study of two bronze objects discovered in northwest Alaska shows that they provide the first known evidence of the presence of metals from Eurasia in prehistoric North America. The artifacts apparently came to the Americas several centuries before the first official contact with Europeans occurred.

“This is not a surprise, based on oral history and other archaeological finds it was just a matter of time before we had a good example of Eurasian metal that had been traded. We believe these alloys were made somewhere in Eurasia and marketed in Siberia, then crossed the Bering Strait, where they were acquired by the predecessors of the Inuit, also known as the Thule culture in Alaska." Explained Kory H. Cooper, member of the scientific team and Purdue University, in remarks published by the new portal Noticias de la Ciencia .

The Thule were the ancestors of the Canadian Inuit who came through Alaska around 500 AD and settled in the current Canadian territory around the year 1000. In addition, a group of them populated Greenland in the 13th century. In fact, this group’s name comes from Thule (now Qaanaaq), a town located in northwest Greenland, where they found the first archaeological remains belonging to this culture.

Thule archaeological site located in Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island, Canada. ( Ansgar Walk/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science . They show that the cylindrical piece of cord and belt buckle are made of a bronze alloy with lead. The leather belt in the buckle has been radiocarbon dated, resulting in a date of between 500 and 800 years ago, although the metal could be even older.

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“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.” Cooper told SCI NEWS . However, two of the artifacts found at Cape Espenberg - a cord and a buckle - are leaded bronze. Both of these were recovered from a site dated to the Late Prehistoric period, between 1100 and 1300, notably before European contact in the late 18th century.

Fragment recovered from a brass buckle of the Thule culture that still retains some of its leather strap (Credit: Jeremy Foin / University of California, Davis)

Numerous scholars have presented prehistoric subarctic regions as areas without technological innovation, based on the small population that lived there at that time. Regarding this, Cooper has stated :

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


    Prehistory of Alaska

    Prehistoric Alaska begins with Paleolithic people moving into northwestern North America sometime between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago across the Bering Land Bridge in western Alaska a date less than 20,000 years ago is most likely. [1] They found their passage blocked by a huge sheet of ice until a temporary recession in the Wisconsin glaciation (the last ice age) opened up an ice-free corridor through northwestern Canada, possibly allowing bands to fan out throughout the rest of the continent. Eventually, Alaska became populated by the Inuit and a variety of Native American groups. Trade with both Asia and southern tribes was active even before the advent of Europeans. [2] [3] [4]

    Today, early Alaskans are divided into several main groups: the Southeastern Coastal Native Americans (the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian), the Athabascans, the Aleut, the two groups of Eskimos, and Inupiat and Yup'ik. [1]


    These Renaissance-Era Italian Beads Found In Alaska Traveled To America Long Before Columbus Did

    It’s time to re-write the history books again folks, although if you’re still reading that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, you need to buy a whole new history book. Renessaisance-era Venetian glass beads discovered at multiple archaeological sites in Alaska suggest they pre-date Columbus’s arrival by decades, making them the earliest known European goods in the Americas. This means Indigenous North Americans had contact with people who had either been to Italy or traded with people who had long before Columbus rocked up.

    By now, it’s commonly accepted that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot on continental North America. Leif Erikkson, a Norse explorer from Iceland, led the first European expedition in search of the “New World” nearly 500 years before Columbus, with the oldest known Norse settlement discovered in Newfoundland, Canada dating to 1000 CE.

    Now, it looks like Columbus has been pushed further back in line, as Venetian blue glass beads discovered at three archaeological sites in Alaska date back to the mid to late 15th century. These blue glass “trade beads” have been found in North America before, as well as the Caribbean and east coast of Central America, but they dated between 1550 and 1750. Using mass spectrometry carbon-dating, two archaeologists have revealed these beads date to sometime between 1440 and 1480.

    What were mid-15th-century glass beads from Venice’s Murano Island – still famous for its glasswork today – doing halfway across the world on a continent Europeans didn’t know existed, and how did they get there?

    Detailing their findings in the journal American Antiquity, authors Michael Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin Mills from the Bureau of Land Management suggest these beads were brought to Alaska by traders who traveled China’s Silk Road, through Siberia, and eventually crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska.

    This, the authors write, makes them “the first documented instance of the presence of indubitable European materials in prehistoric sites in the Western Hemisphere as the result of overland transport across the Eurasian continent.”

    The beads and copper jewelry found at Punyik Point. Image courtesy of M. L. Kunz et al., 2021, American Antiquity

    The glass beads were found at three archaeological sites in Alaska's Brooks Range: Punyik Point, a known seasonal site for Inuit peoples, Lake Kaiyak House, and Kinyiksugvik, which all date to the Late Prehistoric indigenous period. Glass beads had been found at these sites before in the 1950s and '60s, but when Kunz and Mills found more, alongside some bronze jewelry and – importantly – twine they had a way of dating these items that previous archaeologists didn't: mass spectrometry carbon-dating.

    Along with the beads, they found some copper bangles, some flat metal shaped sheets that could be hoop earrings, and what may have been parts of a necklace or bracelet. Wrapped around a copper bangle, they found some twine made of some sort of plant fiber, possibly the bark of a willow shrub, that incredibly had survived. They sent the twine off for carbon dating and were shocked at the results a few months later.

    “We almost fell over backwards,” Kunz told the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s. It was like, Wow!”

    This result, backed up by the dating of charcoal and other objects found near the beads at all three of the sites suggests North America needs a new timeline.

    In the 1400s, Venice was Europe's elite glass-making center and craftspeople were known to trade Murano glass – already famous – with people throughout Asia and the Ottoman Empire. The beads may have been bought and sold in Venice, traveled by horse-drawn cart along the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected Europe and the Mediterranean to Asia, arrived in the Russian Far East, and ultimately to the Bering Strait – a known point of entry to the Americas.

    It's unlikely this was a regular trade route, but these beads represent the earliest evidence of an overland connection between Europe and Alaska long before Christopher Columbus and the European colonialists in 1492 sailed across the ocean blue to discover this long-existing "New World".


    Impact

    Although a precise determination of the population of the Americas in 1492 is probably impossible, there is no doubt that contact with Europeans resulted in a massive demographic collapse of the Native American population. The magnitude of the collapse and its causes remain controversial. Assessing the impact of European contact is a not simple matter because changes in population are the result of complex forces. Some scholars have argued that the devastating population decline in the New World was due primarily to imported diseases, while others have argued that the demographic catastrophe was the result of the chaos and exploitation that followed the Conquest. The rapid decline in the numbers of Native American peoples and the demands of Spanish settlers for labor, led to the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade by 1518. The Americas became the site of an unprecedented mixing of peoples and infectious agents from previously separate continents.

    Although it is impossible to quantify with any certainty the impact of European contact on New World populations, estimates of the pre-contact population of the Americas have ranged from 8 to 30 million. Between 1492 and 1650 the Native American population may have declined by as much as 90% as the result of virgin-soil epidemics (outbreaks among populations that have not previously encountered the disease), compound epidemics, crop failures and food shortages.

    The first Spaniards to reach the Caribbean islands found at least four distinct Indian cultures. Some recent estimates suggest that the pre-Columbian population of Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic and Haiti) was close to 4 million. By 1508, fewer than 100,000 Indians remained. By 1570, almost all of the Caribbean Indians had disappeared, except for the Caribs in a fairly isolated area of the eastern Caribbean. A similar pattern occurred in Cuba, which was conquered in 1511.

    Even before the first appearance of smallpox in the Caribbean, some epidemic disease seems to have swept through the islands and devastated the Indians of Hispaniola, Cuba, and the Bahamas. The first epidemic disease to attack the Caribbean Indians might have been swine influenza, brought to the West Indies in 1493 with pigs that Columbus had obtained from the Canary islands on his second voyage. Typhus may also have attacked the islands before the first known smallpox outbreaks in Hispaniola in 1518 and Cuba in 1519. Smallpox decimated the Arawaks of the West Indies, before making its way to Mexico with the Spaniards, and preceding them into the Inca Empire. The Spanish estimated that death rates among Native Americans from smallpox reached 25 to 50%. A similar death rate occurred in Europe, but the disease had essentially become one of the common childhood diseases. Therefore, most adults were immune to the disease. Other European diseases seem to have reached the islands before the measles epidemic of 1529. More recent examples of virgin soil outbreaks suggest that the mortality rate for swine influenza is about 25%, smallpox about 40%, measles about 25%, and typhus between 10 and 40% of the affected population.

    With the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade by 1518, diseases from Africa were added to the epidemic burden imposed on Native Americans. The vector and virus for yellow fever probably appeared in San Juan, Puerto Rico by 1598. Better-documented outbreaks occurred on Barbados and Guadeloupe, Cuba, and the Gulf coasts of Mexico and Central America in 1647. Soon after the original human inhabitants of the islands were gone, the native plants and animals were forced to compete with Old World invaders. The peoples of the present day Caribbean trace their ancestry principally to Asia, Europe, and Africa. Slaves were imported as early as 1502, but by 1518 the decline in labor supply had become so acute that King Charles I of Spain approved the direct import of slaves from Africa. However, the Africanization of the islands was the result of the "sugar revolution" that began in the seventeenth century, along with the importation of epidemic yellow fever.

    The Empire of the Aztecs was the first American civilization to encounter the Spanish and the first to be destroyed. Several factors, including devastating epidemics of smallpox, which killed many Aztec warriors and nobles, facilitated the Spanish capture of the Aztec capital in 1521. Native Americans came to see this smallpox epidemic as a true turning point in their history. The time before the arrival of the Spanish was remembered as a veritable paradise, free of fevers, smallpox, stomach pains, and tuberculosis. When the Spanish came, they brought fear and disease wherever they went. Mayan civilization had already experienced a long period of decline by the time it encountered European explorers and invaders, but the Inca Empire was at its peak when the Spaniards conquered it in 1532.

    European diseases probably preceded European contact in the Andean region. A catastrophic epidemic, which might have been smallpox, swept the region in the mid-1520s, killing the Inca leader Huayna Capac and his son. Subsequent epidemics struck the region in the 1540s, 1558, and from the 1580s to 1590s. These waves of epidemic disease might have included smallpox, influenza, measles, mumps, dysentery, typhus, and pneumonia. The precise impact of smallpox and other European diseases throughout the Americas is difficult to document or comprehend. However, studies of more recent and limited virgin soil outbreaks clearly demonstrate how small a spark is needed to create a great conflagration in a native population.


    Old World metal objects found in Alaska, dating from hundreds of years before European contact

    Credit: Jeremy Foin/University of California, Davis

    According to Purdue University researchers, Cape Espenberg on the northwestern coast of Alaska has yielded two objects made of metal that was originally sourced from the Old World, specifically Eurasia. This particular Alaskan area on the Seward Peninsula was inhabited by the Thule people, who are considered as the ancestors of all modern Inuit. Their culture was originally pronounced around the Bering Strait (circa 200 BC), but migrations led to their spreading westward even to Greenland by 1300 AD. As for the objects in question here, the two items pertain to a cylindrical bead and a fragment of a small buckle strap-guide.

    The metallic part of these items were made of leaded bronze, which basically entails a alloy of copper, tin and lead. Interestingly enough, analysis of the leather from from the buckle by radiocarbon dating has revealed that it is around 500-800 years old, thus harking back to conventional middle ages (or Late Prehistoric Period in the Arctic regions, circa 1100 – 1300 AD). On the other hand, the metal parts could actually be even older than the leather fragment. This is what H. Kory Cooper, an associate professor of anthropology, who led the artifacts’ metallurgical assessment, had to say –

    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. 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 bead and a buckle — are heavily leaded bronze artifacts. Both are from a house at the site dating to the Late Prehistoric Period, around 1100-1300 AD, which is before sustained European contact in the late 18th century.

    Now beyond just the date, the discovery of a belt buckle sheds new light into the ‘industrial’ scope present in the Thule culture. According to Cooper, this belt buckle specimen actually resembles a horse-harness component that was prevalent in north-central China after 7th century BC. And other than just the leaded bronze objects, the archaeologists have also found four copper items from another native house – though this other residence is dated from 17th to 18th century.

    So at the end of the day, Alaska, along with proximate Arctic regions, presents a rather dynamic historical side that is not just limited to the ‘late-coming’ European side of affairs. As Cooper added –

    This article focuses on a small finding with really interesting implications. This will cause other people to think about the Arctic differently. 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.

    Credit: University of Colorado

    The study was originally published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


    The Cherokee

    Tah-Chee (Dutch), A Cherokee Chief. Image credit: Charles Bird King/Public domain

    The Cherokee were the largest nation in what is now the southeastern U.S. Although they began as hunters, they eventually embraced agriculture as well. Cherokee society was matrilineal, with clan membership derived from the mother. The Cherokee lived in fortified towns consisting of 30-80 waddle and daub houses, or asi, as they called them, plus a larger meeting house. They are related to the Iroquois, but they were never part of the Iroquois Confederacy. In fact, they formed their own confederacy in their native land, which was in the Appalachian Mountains, in territory now part of present-day Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.


    Native Alaskans May Have Been Trading Metals With Asia Long Before European Contact

    The old trope that the Americas existed in splendid isolation until the Europeans discovered the continent in the 15th century has slowly but surely been eroded. From Vikings to Polynesians, there are many seafaring nations that may have made landfall. But now researchers claim to have found the first good evidence that the Native Americans living in Alaska were probably trading with people outside of the continent long before Christopher Columbus arrived and the Europeans made contact.

    Researchers have found evidence that early Inuits were trading for metal that originated in Eurasia. In the remains of a prehistoric house discovered on the northwest coast of Alaska, they found a bead and part of what is thought to have been a buckle forged from leaded bronze. Only found at this time in Eurasia, it means that it must have come from across the Bering Sea between 1100 and 1300 CE.

    “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,” explains H. Kory Cooper, an associate professor of anthropology, who led the metallurgical analysis of the artifacts. “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.”

    It has long been suspected that the Americas was not this isolated world until Columbus turned up in 1492. Earlier this year, for example, it was found that the Vikings of Northern Europe had made much greater inroads to the Americas than had previously been thought, as researchers discovered what they think is a Viking settlement on the eastern island of Newfoundland. If proven, it would show that the Scandinavians set foot on the North American continent some 1,000 years earlier. This new piece of evidence from Alaska adds to the notion that there were apparent trade links with the outside world in the other direction.

    Not only that, but it also shows that the native peoples living in the Arctic were also far more advanced than they are often given credit for. The objects were found at Cape Espenberg, on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska where the Thule people lived in houses. The researchers were able to date the pieces of leaded bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and lead, by the fragmented leather strap still attached to the buckle.

    “The belt buckle also is considered an industrial product and is an unprecedented find for this time,” says Cooper. “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.” These were found alongside other pieces of copper fishing hooks, which the Alaskans were known to already be producing.


    Hide Out Now

    Tiny glass beads from Venice made their way to Alaska decades before Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.

    The beads, the color and size of blueberries, were uncovered in a house pit in Punyik Point, a seasonal Inuit camp near the Continental Divide in Alaska's Brooks Range.

    Archaeologists determined the objects were created between 1440 and 1480 following a radiocarbon-dating of twine that held the jewelry.

    Researchers from the University of Alaska suggest the beads were among trinkets that passed hands through various trade routes — starting in Europe, then along the Silk Road to China, through Siberia and finally to the Bering Strait.

    According to the study, the new discovery resets the clock on when traded began between Europe and North America.

    Venetian glass beads discovered in Alaska were brought to North America decades before Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492, according to a new paper in the journal American Antiquity

    Mike Kunz, an archaeologist with the university's Museum of the North in Fairbanks, discovered a total of 10 beads in three locations in the Brooks Range: Punyik Point, Kinyiksugvik and Lake Kaiyak House.

    Kunz theorizes the baubles were just small piece of a number of trinkets that made their way various trade routes that began in Europe, then along the Silk Road to China, through Siberia and finally across the Bering Strait.

    They were then presumably brought across the frigid Arctic Ocean to Alaska by kayak.

    Punyik Point was a popular stopping point for traders, Kunz says, because of the many caribou in the area.

    According to archaeologist Mike Kunz, the beads could have traveled from Italy along the Silk Road to China then to Siberia and across the Bering Strait to Alaska

    'And, if for some reason the caribou didn't migrate through where you were, [it also] had excellent lake trout and large shrub-willow patches,' he added.

    University of Wisconsin archaeologist William Irving found several turquoise beads at Punyik Point in the 1950s and 1960s.

    But Irving had no way to know when they were deposited.

    Flash forward to 2004, when Kunz and Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Robin Mills returned to the ancient campsite.

    They found three more beads there, along with copper bangles, metal loops that could have been earrings and other metal pieces that could have been part of a necklace or bracelet.

    Wrapped around one of the bangles was twine that had survived centuries of burial just a few inches below the surface.

    Because twine is made of plant fibers — probably the inner bark of a shrub willow, the scientists surmised— it meant they finally had organic matter to conduct radiocarbon dating on using Accelerator mass spectrometry.

    'We almost fell over backwards,' Kunz said in a release. 'It came back saying [the plant was alive at] some time during the 1400s. It was like, Wow!'

    With that information, along with radiocarbon dating of charcoal found nearby, they surmised the glass beads at all three locales arrived at some point between 1440 and 1480.

    The beads discovered at Punyik Point were found with metal bits that were likely part of a necklace or bracelet. Performing radiocarbon-dating on twine wrapped around copper bangles, researchers determined the objects were from between 1440 and 1480 AD

    'The beads challenge the currently accepted chronology for the development of their production methodology, availability, and presence in the Americas,' the researchers wrote in a new paper in the journal American Antiquity.

    'This is the first documented instance of the presence of indubitable European materials in prehistoric sites in the Western Hemisphere as the result of overland transport across the Eurasian continent.'

    According to Kunz and Mills, the beads probably made landfall at Shashalik, an ancient trading post north of modern-day Kotzebue, and then were transported further inland.

    The archaeologists theorize they were part of a necklace or other piece of jewelry.

    The item's location, at the entrance to an underground house, suggests it was dropped or discarded rather than intentionally buried.

    Venice has been known as a glassmaking mecca for over 1,500 years, with the island of Murano the center of production since at least since the 13th century.

    Columbus' ships landed in the Bahamas in October 1492, before venturing on to Cuba and Haiti, where he started the first European settlement in the Americas since the Norse some 500 years earlier.

    After briefly returning to Spain, Columbus made three more voyages to the New World between 1493 and 1502, exploring the Lesser Antilles, Trinidad, Puerto Rico and the northern coast of South America.

    The bead variety, commonly known as 'Early Blue' and 'Ichtucknee Plain,' has been found throughout the Caribbean, the east coasts of Central and North America, and the eastern Great Lakes region, but only after Columbus' arrival, generally between 1550 and 1750.


    Abstract

    Six metal and composite metal artifacts were excavated from a late prehistoric archaeological context at Cape Espenberg on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula in Alaska. X-ray fluorescence identified two of these artifacts as smelted industrial alloys with large proportions of tin and lead. The presence of smelted alloys in a prehistoric Inuit context in northwest Alaska is demonstrated here for the first time and indicates the movement of Eurasian metal across the Bering Strait into North America before sustained contact with Europeans.