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.