Native Americans Traded Trans-Atlantic Glass Beads Independently Of Europeans

Native Americans Traded Trans-Atlantic Glass Beads Independently Of Europeans

Indigenous Americans played a more active role in shaping early trans-Atlantic trade than they are given credit for. Typically, European colonizers are seen as the main drivers of these ancient exchange networks, yet a new analysis of 370-year-old glass beads indicates that Native communities were conducting their own business transactions independently of any Old World influence.

Produced in places like Venice, Paris, Amsterdam and Rouen, glass beads played a major role in shaping the interactions between early European settlers and the Indigenous communities that inhabited North America during the colonial period. However, after analyzing more than 1,000 of these European-made beads from the Western Great Lakes region, the authors of the new study found that many of these predated the arrival of the first missionaries in the area.

Furthermore, chemical similarities between these beads and those found hundreds of kilometers away in Ontario indicate that they were traded between the Indigenous peoples of these two regions with no input from Europeans. More specifically, members of the Wendat Confederacy appear to have sold beads to the Anishinaabe and other First Nations around the Western Great Lakes prior to 1650, with the first Europeans arriving around 1670.

Originally based in Ontario, the Wendat – or Wyandot – Confederacy saw some of its members relocate to the Western Great Lakes shortly after 1650. Beads uncovered from several Wendat sites prior this move were found to contain high levels of trace elements such as zirconium, hafnium and niobium, indicating that they were probably produced in Rouen.

Tellingly, beads from pre-1650 sites in the Western Great Lakes region display this same chemical composition, which means they must have been traded to these communities by members of the Wendat Confederacy when they still lived in Ontario – or Wendake, as their territory was known.

“In the Western Great Lakes, bead chemistry indicates connections to Wendake at sites that pre-date the AD 1650 westward Wyandot movements, suggesting down-the-line exchange” between these areas prior to the arrival of the first French-speaking missionaries, write the researchers. “In this way, our work provides new supporting evidence for relationships among different communities and Nations […] highlighting Indigenous participation in emergent global trade,” they add.

Commenting on these insights in a statement sent to IFLScience, study author Dr Heather Walder explained that “glass beads can show how Indigenous people maintained social relationships and actively moved as strategies of resilience and resistance during the 17th century in the North American Great Lakes Region.”

“In short, beads are not (just) clocks! Unlocking their chemical composition using high-tech methods can help us tell stories of the relationships among communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean,” she said.

The study is published in the journal Antiquity.

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