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A bronze buckle in old Alaska

By Ines Morales - 15 Nov 2011 23:51:0 GMT
A bronze buckle in old Alaska

Caption: A National Science Foundation-funded excavation led by the University of Colorado Boulder to look at human response to climate change on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska some 1,000 years ago has yielded a bronze artifact resembling a buckle that was found inside an ancient house dug into the side of a sand-covered beach ridge once occupied by Inupiat Eskimos. The object is the first prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast ever found in Alaska and appears to have originated in East Asia; Credit: Jeremy Foin, University of California, Davis

For all of our modern knowledge about how this planet works and how we can build a more technologically advanced - and hopefully equitable - future, we know remarkably little about our own past. Archaeologists, historians, and other social scientists operate on a limited series of assumptions and preconceptions about what the history of our species should be like. From time to time, however, something pops out of the ground - a piece of textile preserved in a grave, the foundations of a very old house - to challenge everything we had previously believed and throw us off balance.

In this case, the surprise is a small bronze artifact - tentatively labeled as a buckle, although no one really knows what it was used for - found in a house on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska in the course of a research project led by the University of Colorado at Boulder. The house belonged to a family of Inupiat Eskimos who lived in this part of the Peninsula around a thousand years ago. The little buckle, which is several centuries older than the house, wouldn't be of much consequence if it weren't for two important facts.

First, no trace of bronze metallurgy had ever been found in Alaska, until now. As far as scientists knew, ancient Inupiaq Eskimo society - at least on this side of the Bering Sea - was definitely a child of the Stone Age. Now, however, we have concrete evidence that these early Inupiat people knew what bronze was, and also how they could use it.

A copper needle found in the same archaeological site offers further proof that Eskimos were at least acquainted with metals, if not with metallurgy.

Second, the bronze buckle has been assumed to come from East Asia - anywhere from Korea to southern Siberia. If this is indeed the case, and it wasn't locally produced in Alaska, there are two possible explanations.

The buckle could have been brought across the Bering Strait by one of the original Eskimo migrants. This would make the object more than fifteen centuries old. It would also mean that it was meaningful enough that the descendants of its first owner kept it for generations. Alternatively, the buckle could have crossed the Bering Strait at a later date and this would be evidence of the existence of prehistoric trade routes linking territories considerably far apart.

We need more research on the object, and we will probably never know for sure what its story was. But one thing is certain: Its story was filled with wonder.

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