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In Alaska, Purdue Metallurgist Finds Those Who Smelted It Also Dealt It

Courtesy H. Kory Cooper

Research from a Purdue anthropology professor has uncovered the first evidence of prehistoric metal trade between Asia and North America.

Anthropology professor and metallurgy expert H. Kory Cooper analyzed two objects uncovered in northern Alaska. The two tiny artifacts—a buckle and a small bead—are made of bronze. That’s important because bronze doesn’t occur in nature--it’s an alloy.

By looking at how such alloys are mixed, anthropologists can pinpoint metals age and where they’re from.

In this case, Cooper discovered this bronze was a Eurasian smelted mix of copper, tin and lead, different than the hammered copper prehistoric Alaskan people were known to use.

Historians have generally believed trade historically took place between people on both sides of the Bering Strait, the 50-mile stretch of sea between present-day Russia and Alaska. But until now, Cooper says, little was known about when that started.

“The question is: how far back does that go?” Cooper says. “And so we know it goes back at least 1,000 years based on these artifacts.”

He says that 1,000-year old date means ancient Siberians were trading with native Alaskans way before European settlement on the peninsula, which didn’t come until the 18th Century.

“It points to communication between again the old world and the new world before Europeans actually showed up and began to establish trading posts in this area,” he continues.

Historically understood as a backwater area where little happened, the Alaskan Arctic might boast a history more active than previously believed, based on this find, Cooper says, adding “This may  cause other people to think about the Arctic differently.”

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