Monday, September 12, 2016

Pacific America and the Wider World before 1700

Scholars tend to take for granted the profound isolation of the pre-Columbian New World from the Old. After the last migrations across the Bering Strait, circa 1000 BCE, and apart from sporadic contact between the Norse and the Inuit after 1000 CE, the peoples of the Americas lived lives wholly separate from those of the rest of humanity. Or so we usually think. Actually, the corridor that ancestral Native Americans used to colonize the Western Hemisphere never completely closed. Rising sea levels inundated the Bering land bridge, but several groups of migrants (Athabascan, Inuit, Aleut) crossed the strait by boat, and no practical barrier subsequently prohibited other northeastern Asians from traveling to Alaska and points south, or prevented Native Americans from communicating with Siberia.

Archaeologists from Purdue University have now confirmed that cross-Bering communication did occur in the relatively recent past. H. Cory Cooper reports that Inuit of the Thule Culture buried artifacts of bronze, an alloy no New World culture ever produced, on Cape Espenberg, Alaska. The bronze artifacts were buried between 1200 and 1500 CE, but their creators made them much earlier, perhaps a thousand years earlier, in northern China. They passed hand to hand from their place of manufacture to eastern Siberia and America. The Thule Inuit incorporated the Chinese bronze wares into a toolkit that already included beaten-copper points, like fish hooks and needles. They surely recognized that the bronze beads and buckles they had received in trade were exotic, but did not consider metal itself foreign and weird. It is instead modern scholars who should consider these tools usefully strange: they prove that medieval-era Inuit were either trading with Native Siberian travelers or crossing into the Chukchi Peninsula to do so themselves.

An additional conduit that brought both metal wares and people to Pacific America has been known for some time, though I myself discovered it only recently in the notes to Paul Mapp's Elusive West (North Carolina, 2010). During the Tokugawa regime in Japan, when the shogunate prohibited nearly all foreign contact, a large (60-plus) number of coastal cargo ships lost their rudders or masts in storms and blew out to sea. The Kuroshio and North Pacific currents then carried them north or east to regions inhabited by Native Americans, but within the ambit of record-keeping Europeans. These ships had small crews and usually carried cargoes of rice and other foodstuffs, which allowed at least some of their crew members to survive long periods at sea if they could acquire (through rainfall) enough drinking water.

Charles Brooks studied over thirty of these "sea drifters" from the period 1600-1870. Half were rescued at sea by European mariners, but the others washed up on the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and northwestern North America. Mike Dash, in a 2010 blog post on the storm-tossed Japanese mariners, provides some remarkable stories of Japanese sailors who peregrinated about the Atlantic and Pacific for years before finally returning home. It seems likely, however, that some of the sea drifters crossed the Pacific unrecorded by Europeans, leaving their bodies (live or dead) and the cargo and fittings of their ships in the hands of Aleutians, Tlingits, and other coastal Native American groups. Dash suspects that some of these crossings predate the start of Brooks's study in 1600.

Add to these discoveries the likelihood of contact between South America and Polynesia, evidenced by the westward spread of sweet potatoes, and we can see that there was a nascent "Pacific World" of sorts before the nineteenth century. While we generally consider Indian-European contact to have begun on the eastern coast of North America, it appears that, thanks to Inuit and Japanese and Polynesian mariners, pre-Columbian western North America was less isolated from the wider world than the Atlantic seaboard.

(Above image of Japanese junk via


Gorges Smythe said...

Interesting! I've also read rather convincing theories that Pacific Rim sailors, Egyptians and Phoenicians all reached South America long ago. Add to that a few old maps of Antarctica's LAND mass, and it would seem that ancient cultures were much more traveled than the "experts" would admit.

Dave Nichols said...

Thank you for your comment. I don't know the source material, but the Phoenicians allegedly circumnavigated Africa about 2800 years ago.