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

Old_World_Metal_Alaska_Dated_Before_European_Arrival_1Credit: 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.

Old_World_Metal_Alaska_Dated_Before_European_Arrival_3

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.

Old_World_Metal_Alaska_Dated_Before_European_Arrival_2

Credit: University of Colorado

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

Source: Purdue University

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  • Geoff Kieley

    “…this shows that locals were not only using locally available metals but were also obtaining metals from elsewhere.” Perhaps I’m missing the point – but how does this change what we already knew? The Bering Strait is easily-traversed, particularly when it’s frozen. Why is it unusual that the Thule people would have metal and metal objects from Europe? They weren’t smelting melting and working them; they were brought over.

    • Dattatreya Mandal

      It was not until 17th century that Europeans were certain of a strait that fell between Asia and America, regardless of the ease of crossing. As for the hypothetical ‘frozen’ land-connection (known as Beringia), this postulated route of human migration to the Americas from Asia possibly ceased to exist (that is melted) before 11,000-12,000 years.

      • Geoff Kieley

        Thanks for this response. I was aware that Peter the Great commissioned Vitus Bering to explore it. Still, because it was unknown to Europeans, does that mean it was unknown to the people who lived there? There weren’t loads of people, but there was an indigenous population on both sides of the Strait, and certainly they were known to have means of crossing the water. The Strait is only 85 km at it’s narrowest point, so the idea of cross-Strait trading doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Is the theory that these metal goods did, in fact, cross the Strait? If not, how else did they get there?

        • Dattatreya Mandal

          Yes, the theory is that the metals crossed the Bering Strait. Now the metals objects themselves were believed to crafted in Eurasia. So the sheer distance of trade connections of the Thule that went all the way across Russian steppes, Siberia and Bering Strait into another continent – and that too circumventing the ‘Old World’ European factor, is surely surprising.

          • Geoff Kieley

            Great, many thanks, Really enjoy this site. Keep up the great work

          • Dattatreya Mandal

            Thank you for your kind words. We value the readership of rational thinkers. And feel free to ask questions or correct any information (or typo) pertaining to our posts.

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