What was a bronze buckle from East Asia doing in 11th century Alaska?

Illustration for article titled What was a bronze buckle from East Asia doing in 11th century Alaska?

Archaeologists have discovered a bronze artifact in ancient Eskimo settlement...which is pretty surprising, considering ancient Alaska never actually went through the Bronze Age. This artifact was likely cast long ago in Asia before making its long, mysterious journey Northward.

Whatever the artifact was, it's a tiny thing, measuring only two inches long by one inch across, and far less than an inch thick. It was discovered in a house that was dug into the side of a beach ridge by Inupiat Eskimos around a thousand years ago. The house is located on the Seward Peninsula, which is in the northwestern part of Alaska and once formed the American half of the Bering Land Bridge linking the continent with Asia.

The artifact features several telltale signs that it was made in a mold, indicating whoever made this had knowledge of metallurgy. That means there's almost zero chance that the artifact originated in the Seward Peninsula, or indeed anywhere near the area where it was found, as there's zero archaeological evidence of prehistoric metalworking north of Mexico.


What's more, the artifact was probably old even to the 11th century Inupiat Eskimos who lived in the settlement. A leather strap found around the artifact was older still, as the University of Colorado archaeologists were able to radiocarbon date it to about 600 C.E. Of course, the object itself might be much, much older than the strap around it. Exactly what function the artifact served is unknown - it looks like it might have been originally part of a harness, though the Inupiat Eskimos might have repurposed it as a clasp or some other ornamental piece of clothing.

All the available evidence points to an origin in East Asia, though exactly where is an open question. The artifact might have been manufactured in ancient Siberia, Korea, Manchuria, or even as far afield as southern China. It's possible that the artifact was either manufactured in or traded to ancient Siberia, and then it made its way to Alaska along the trade networks that linked the two far northern peoples. In case you're wondering, this ancient link between Asia and North America isn't generally included on lists of Pre-Columbian contact, probably because Alaska was completely isolated from the rest of the Americas, though I do feel a bit silly omitting it from my article on the subject.

Another possibility is that the strap was brought over when the earliest Inupiat Eskimos crossed the Bering Strait about 1,500 years ago. In this scenario, the artifact might well have been passed down from generation to generation as a keepsake of this momentous journey. Either way, it's likely that the artifact held some significance long after it was manufactured, considering that it was still lying around the house centuries later.


Via the University of Colorado.

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Seriously io9? "Eskimo"!? This isn't the 80s, you can't go hurling incorrect and out of date titles for entire groups of people while also discussing scientific and historic discoveries. The large group of people made up of many different nations that generally inhabit northern North America are called Inuit. The Inupiat Inuit in this instance.