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Ancient beads

Posted 8:50 a.m. Thursday, June 6, 2024

Archaeologists Heather Walder, UWL assistant teaching professor, helped uncover evidence that glass beads reached the Western Great Lakes region before European settlers arrived around 1670. Photo courtesy of Tyrel Iron Eyes.

Study uncovers Indigenous trade networks before European arrival

Recent research from UW-La Crosse and the University of Toronto Mississauga challenges the long-held belief that bead exchange networks across the Atlantic Ocean were primarily driven by European colonization. This significant study offers new insights into the active participation of Indigenous Americans in shaping early trans-Atlantic trade. 

Archaeologists Heather Walder, UWL assistant teaching professor, and Alicia L. Hawkins, University of Toronto Mississauga associate professor, have uncovered evidence that glass beads reached the Western Great Lakes region before European settlers arrived around 1670. 

By analyzing the chemical composition of 1,000, European-made glass beads from the 17th century, the researchers were able to trace their origins. Glass from different European glassmaking centers is distinguishable by its unique trace elements, allowing the team to pinpoint where the beads were produced. 

Their findings revealed that glass beads in the pre-1650 Western Great Lakes region shared sources with those from Wendat villages in Ontario, hundreds of kilometers away. This suggests that the Wendat, a confederation of four First Nations bands, were trading beads with the region’s inhabitants, the Anishinaabe and other Nations, long before European settlers arrived.  

17th century European-made glass beads found in the Great Lakes region of North America.

The study, recently published in the journal “Antiquity,” provides compelling evidence of Indigenous influence and control in early trans-Atlantic exchange networks. This demonstrates that Indigenous Americans were not passive recipients of European goods but were actively shaping trade dynamics and maintaining extensive social networks. 

Their research examines beads in a new way, not simply to understand the timing of site occupations of the 16th and 17th centuries, but to answer questions related to interactions, exchange, and community-level relationships among Indigenous peoples, explains Walder. 

“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,” she says. 

Their study also highlighted how Indigenous preferences influenced European bead production. Initially white and blue beads were the most common, but later examples are predominantly red; a color favored by the Wendat. This indicates that Indigenous Americans were not only incorporating glass beads into their exchange networks, but also influencing bead production trends in Europe. 

A history of glass beads and trade 

Map of archaeological site locations in the Western Great Lakes and visualization of the distribution of Wendat or Wyandot-style objects.

Glass beads are often seen as symbols of European colonization, produced in Europe and traded extensively between Europeans and Indigenous Americans during early interactions between the two continents. The Wendat Confederacy, a group of four Iroquoian-speaking bands based in southern Ontario until around 1650, played a key role in these trade networks. Around 1650, Wendat people migrated to the Western Great Lakes region, continuing their trading activities. 

The study's results clearly indicate that European glass beads were reaching areas outside of European influence, since significant numbers of French colonizers did not reach the Western Great Lakes region until at least 1670.  

Read the full report: “Tracking glass beads: communities and exchange relationships across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century” - Heather Walder & Alicia L. Hawkins 

About Cambridge Journals

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About Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press is part of the University of Cambridge. It furthers the university’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 350 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing. Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.   

About Antiquity

Antiquity is an international peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, published six times a year and edited by Dr. Robert Witcher. The journal was founded by O.G.S. Crawford in 1927 and is currently edited in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University (head: Professor Tom Moore). The journal is published in partnership with Cambridge University Press. 


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