Native Americans 3,500 years ago were engaged in extensive trade networks (spanning more than 1,500 km) and across various regions

A research team has found a copper band that indicates ancient Native Americans engaged in extensive trade networks spanning far greater distances than what has been previously thought.


“Our research shows that Native Americans living roughly 3,5000 years ago were engaged in extensive trade networks spanning far greater distances than we had previously assumed (more than 1,500 km) and across various regions that we did not know were connected (the Great Lakes and the coastal Southeast),” said Matthew Sanger, assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University. “While we still struggle to understand the nature of these trade networks, our findings suggest that they moved not only objects (such as the piece of worked copper we recovered) but may also be a pipeline through which belief systems, cultural values and societal norms were also exchanged. The possibility that information also traveled along trade networks is evidenced by the shared use of cremation found alongside the exchange of copper between the two regions.”

Sanger and colleagues found a copper band, slightly wider than a bracelet, alongside the cremated remains of at least seven individuals at a burial site in coastal Georgia. Prior to their discovery, both copper and cremated human remains dating to the Archaic period (around 3,000-8,000 years ago) were rarely, if ever, found in the Southeast United States.

The copper band and burials were located in the center of a Late Archaic shell ring–circular deposits thought to have been used by Native Americans as both residential sites and as places of ritual gatherings and feasting events. Radiometric dating using an Accelerated Mass Spectrometer indicate that the remains and band are both more than 3,500 years old. This is significant, as it pushes the practice of cremation, as well as the use of copper, in the region more than a millennium older than previously thought.

Remarkably, the copper band was not manufactured from local materials, but rather originated in the Great Lakes region, more than 1,500 km away. Copper sources each have their own unique chemical makeup, including very small amounts of trace elements.

As such, archaeologists can match manufactured objects to their sources by comparing their chemical signatures, or “fingerprints.” Using Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICPMS), researchers at Ball State, the Field Museum and the New Jersey State Museum determined the chemical makeup of the copper band was most similar to sources found near the Great Lakes. While archaeologists had long known copper was exchanged out of the Great Lakes region, the discovery made by Sanger and his colleagues extended previously documented boundaries of Archaic Period copper exchange by nearly 1,000 km.

The use of cremation is also notable, as this practice is virtually absent in the Southeast United States during the Archaic period, yet quite common further to the north, including in the Great Lakes, where the copper originated. The co-occurrence of copper use and cremation practices suggests, according to Sanger and colleagues, that these two regions were more closely linked than previously assumed. The possibility that the two regions shared cosmological worldviews or religious practices would suggest direct connections across huge amounts of space.



Abstract Long-distance exchange of copper objects during the Archaic Period (ca. 8000–3000 cal B.P.) is a bellwether of emergent social complexity in the Eastern Woodlands. Originating from the Great Lakes, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Appalachian Mountains, Archaic-age copper is found in significant amounts as far south as Tennessee and in isolated pockets at major trade centers in Louisiana but is absent from most of the southeastern United States. Here we report the discovery of a copper band found with the cremated remains of at least seven individuals buried in the direct center of a Late Archaic shell ring located in coastal Georgia. Late Archaic shell rings are massive circular middens thought to be constructed, in part, during large-scale ritual gatherings and feasting events. The exotic copper and cremated remains are unique in coastal South Carolina and Georgia where Archaic-age cremations are conspicuously absent and no other Archaic copper objects have been reported. Elemental data produced through laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry shows the copper originated from the Great Lakes, effectively extending Archaic copper exchange almost 1,000 km beyond its traditional boundaries. Similarities in mortuary practices and the presence of copper originating from the Great Lakes reveal the presence of long-distance exchange relations spanning vast portions of the eastern United States and suggest an unexpected level of societal complexity at shell ring localities. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that elite actors solidified their positions through ritual gatherings and the long-distance exchange of exotic objects during the Archaic.

Long-distance exchange of prestige goods is an important factor in the emergence of expansive and more complex social relations spanning diverse communities. Within North America, the exchange of copper during the Archaic Period (ca. 8000–3000 cal B.P.) is a notable example of long-distance trade and nascent social complexity. Originating from the Great Lakes, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Appalachian Mountains, Archaic Period copper tools and objects were produced as early as 7500 cal B.P.. By the Late Archaic (ca. 5000–3000 cal B.P.), the production of utilitarian items, such as projectile points, was giving way to the creation of smaller, often decorative items, which were traded in significant numbers as far south as Tennessee and in isolated locales as distant as Poverty Point, LA.

The creation of copper objects and the expansion of their exchange have been directly tied to rising sociopolitical complexity during the Late Archaic. As mobility decreased and population levels and densities increased, interactions between Late Archaic groups in the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley, Midwest, and Northeast grew in importance, scale, and permanence. Exchange of objects was an important aspect of intergroup interactions, perhaps as a method of maintaining and reaffirming alliances. Exchange networks likely included both “down-the-line” relations located within the community and networks in which individuals or small groups of entrepreneurs traveled outside their region on trading missions. Copper objects, along with shells, raw lithic materials, and effigy beads were highly valued, and the control over their distribution provided opportunities for emergent elites to gain status, acquire debt, and cement relationships.

Other social practices (e.g., cremation) also traveled along trade routes. The co-occurrence of copper and crematory practices across the Great Lakes region, northeastern United States, and the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys suggests the presence of trade partnerships and shared mortuary practices across North America. The Late Archaic Period is characterized by a broad, interconnected social landscape, although it is unclear if this constellation of interrelated communities was formed or sustained through elite trade networks, alliances built on marriages, large-scale ritual gatherings, or a mixture of practices.

While large portions of the eastern United States are tied together through copper exchange and shared mortuary patterns, there is little evidence for linkages with communities living in the American Southeast where Archaic-age copper is virtually absent, apart from Poverty Point, a massive earthen mound complex in Louisiana, and an associated shell ring. The presence of copper at Poverty Point provides further evidence that the site was a major trade center and likely was a stage for large-scale ritual gatherings. Cremations are likewise extremely rare in the Archaic American Southeast, where burials are more often placed within shell middens, in ponds, or as flexed or seated interments in pits. The closest instances of cremation to the Southeast are also the closest instances of Archaic-age copper finds, including a few individuals in the southern Ohio Valley and a small cluster of burials in the Tennessee River Valley.

This paper provides evidence that Archaic Period networks were far more expansive than traditionally assumed and that peoples living along the southeastern Atlantic coast, often thought to be disconnected from trading partnerships found inland, were instead deeply imbricated in the broader eastern exchange network. Excavations on St. Catherines Island, located off the Georgia (USA) coast, revealed cremated remains of at least seven individuals placed in a pit alongside a copper band and associated copper fragments, all sourced to the Great Lakes region. Radiometric dating demonstrates the cremains are Late Archaic in age and are contemporaneous with a ring midden that encircles the burial pit and associated plaza. More than 50 similar circular middens, known as Late Archaic shell rings, have been found across the southeastern US coast.

Late Archaic Shell Rings More than 50 shell rings have been located along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts between South Carolina and Mississippi. Dating to the Late Archaic Period (ca. 5000–3000 cal B.P.), shell rings consist of large, arcing middens made up of mollusk shells (primarily oysters with lesser numbers of clams, mussels, and other bivalves) that encircle plazas typically devoid of shell deposits.

Recent research from the McQueen Shell Ring and its contemporaneous neighbor, the St. Catherines Shell Ring, has provided evidence of subterranean food storage, including tree nuts, further strengthening the hypothesis that ring residents may have included emergent elites. Food storage is often considered a critical factor in the emergence of more complex hunter-gatherer societies, as accumulated resources can be controlled and deployed by aspiring elites to acquire and solidify social relations that promote their own status.

The discovery of storage pits within shell rings is important not only because it suggests the presence of a food surplus but also because it shows ring residents and contemporaneous residents of nearby river valleys were likely in direct contact with one another, as they both created nearly identical pits that were distributed in very similar patterns. Additional evidence that ring residents were in contact and perhaps trading with other distant groups comes from lithic analyses that demonstrate that a small but significant portion of stone found at the McQueen Shell Ring originated at least 100 km away, with some samples coming from locales at least 300 km away.

The discovery of exotic copper in the center of the McQueen Shell Ring is the strongest evidence that long-distance exchange networks connected ring builders to distant neighbors and that power imbalances were emerging and solidifying at the shell rings.

Radiometric analyses of the human cremains show they are contemporaneous with the formation of the shell ring.

Elemental Study of Copper Objects We conducted two sets of analyses to verify that the copper objects originated from the Great Lakes. In both studies, the McQueen Shell Ring copper was most consistent with Lake Superior sources; while there is a small level of variability between each of the fragments, they all were found to trace their highest probability of association to the Minong Mine on Isle Royale.

Sources from the Canadian Maritimes and central Appalachians show minimal similarity to the McQueen copper. These results strongly suggest that copper from the Great Lakes region, specifically the Isle Royale deposit, is the likely source for the McQueen Shell Ring copper.

Osteological Analysis the McQueen site contains the remains of at least seven people who died on or near St. Catherines Island during the Late Archaic Period. The first to be interred was probably a young female adult who suffered an injury that became infected. Her body was cremated, and the remains were buried at the center of the McQueen Shell Ring. At some point not long thereafter, six other individuals died and were cremated and interred. They may have been interred in one or more events. The interred people had suffered some minor ailments during their lives, including evidence that at least one individual suffered an injury. Their remains were interred at the center of a shell ring, along with faunal remains, especially from fish and deer, and lithic, ceramic, and copper artifacts. Analysis of zooarchaeological materials is ongoing, but along with the more common taxa mentioned above, preliminary results include the identification of animals rarely encountered in Late Archaic deposits, such as pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) and eagle ray (Myliobatidae), as well as high proportions of bird and alligator remains.

Discussion/Conclusion Our findings are consistent with hypotheses that characterize ring residents as both living in social groups that included emergent elites and participating in long-distance trade. Prior research suggests that aspiring elites could have utilized marine and terrestrial resources, including tree nuts, to host large-scale gatherings during the winter months.

We suggest that long-distance exchange played a key role in helping aspiring elites attain, display, and share social capital. The copper object originating from the Great Lakes is likely part of a larger pattern in which ring residents participated in long-distance exchange networks trading raw materials and objects. Considering that a copper object was emplaced alongside cremated human and nonhuman remains, we propose that long-distance exchange practices were intertwined with ritual events.

The act of cremating the dead has virtually no precedent in the American Southeast, but it is common in the Great Lakes region where the copper band originated. This suggests the band travelled not as a lone object but rather as a material reflection of a potential line of communication through which objects and ideas flowed.

(Source: “Early metal use and crematory practices in the American Southeast”, by  Matthew C. Sanger et al.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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