SMU Research Partnership Rewriting History of Pre-Contact North American Copper Trade

Press Release

May 17, 2021

A Saint Mary’s University research partnership with the Nova Scotia Museum has uncovered evidence that may rewrite North American understanding of the pre-contact trade of copper across the continent.

The lead Saint Mary’s researcher on this project, Dr. Jacob Hanley, is a geologist who studies ore deposits and is a member of Algonquins of Greater Golden Lake First Nation in Ontario, Canada. After an exciting discussion with a colleague regarding prehistory in Atlantic Canada, Dr. Hanley began to take an interest in where the Indigenous people of Atlantic Canada sourced their pre-contact metals.

“One of the most important metals to the Indigenous population of North America was copper. It was an essential material for toolmaking and working that also held a spiritual significance,” says Hanley. “The prevailing understanding of copper in North America during the Late Archaic Period to Early Woodland Period, that is to say, is 4,500 years ago to 500 A.D, is that the copper originated from deposits from Lake Superior, the Lake Superior Basin, and Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. Our findings strongly suggest this is not the case and that a site in the Bay of Fundy played a much bigger role in history.”

The lead Nova Scotia Museum researcher is Dr. Katie Cottreau-Robins, Curator of Archaeology. Additional project collaborators include Roger Lewis, Curator of Mi’kmaq Cultural Heritage, Nova Scotia Museum, and the New Brunswick Archaeological Services Branch. The project itself would not have been possible without the permission and participation of the Metepenagiag First Nation and Mainland Mi’kmaq Grand Council members who allowed the team to examine significant cultural artifacts.

“This copper comes from Cape d’Or, located in the Bay of Fundy, a place of extreme significance in terms of the history of Mi’kma’ki,” says Lewis. “To get to these outcrops, you can only approach from the water or climb down the cliffs. We hope to support more research to examine whether the act of gathering the copper itself may have had an additional cultural significance due to the danger and the level of skill required to gather it successfully.”

Unlike traditional methods of analyzing artifacts, the team uses a new method usually reserved for finding ore deposits for mining purposes. This new to archeology method is non-invasive and more accurately reads the chemical make-up of the copper while leaving the artifacts completely intact.

“Our data suggests that Cape d’Or and the Bay of Fundy was the main source of copper for the Mi’kmaq people and beyond,” says Cottreau-Robins. “All the artifacts we have examined, and initially described as having come from the Lake Superior region, actually originated in the Bay of Fundy. This suggests that much of the copper artifact collection in the northeastern region, believed to have come from the Lake Superior area, may have an Atlantic origin. The implications of this are huge, as it means reshaping our understanding of pre-contact trade across Atlantic Canada, Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States and re-examining the role copper played cultural in the history of Atlantic Canada’s Indigenous peoples.”

This project recognizes the importance of the artifacts they are working with to the Metepenagiag First Nation and have ensured that they are analyzed in New Brunswick, so they remain in their province of origin and can be returned swiftly.

“Saint Mary’s University takes pride in doing world-class research that creates new knowledge and disseminates it to the world,” says Dr. Malcolm Butler, Vice-President, Academic and Research. “The work of Dr. Jacob Hanley and his team is an exemplar of this commitment and takes community-based research collaboration to a new level. We are proud to be a part of this collaboration across provinces and with the Metepenagiag First Nation.”

Hanley and Cottreau-Robins have written about their research findings in a chapter of the upcoming anthology Far Northeast 3000BP to Contact, which can be found here.


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