What Copper Found in Georgia Tells Us About Trade Among Ancient Native Americans

by AMNH on

Research posts

A copper band displayed with a ruler that shows measurement in centimeters.
A copper band found on St. Catherines Island has been traced back to the Great Lakes region, suggesting that long-distance trade occurred between ancient indigenous groups.
Matthew Sanger, et. al.

New research from Museum archaeologists has found that a band of copper discovered among 4,000-year-old cremated human remains on the Georgia coast originated in the Great Lakes region, suggesting that there was long-distance trade among indigenous groups.  

The discovery was made on St. Catherines Island, where Museum researchers have been working for nearly four decades, with support from the St. Catherines Island and Edward John Noble foundations.


Four people at work in an excavation pit, using tools and recording information.
A research team led by Museum Curator David Hurst Thomas and Research Associate Matthew Sanger found a copper band among 4,000-year-old cremated human remains in one of St. Catherines Island’s two large shell rings.

A new study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on findings from the center of one of two large rings constructed on opposite sides of the island some 5,000 years ago. These rings are thought to have been used during large-scale rituals and feasts, and researchers found the cremated remains of seven individuals that were buried along with animal bones such as a sperm whale vertebra, plants, and ceramic and copper artifacts. 

“The discovery of this cremation with associated mortuary items, including copper objects made from materials in the Great Lakes, contradicts interpretations that characterize the coastal shellfish collectors as simple, provincial groups largely disconnected from their more interior neighbors,” said Museum Curator David Hurst Thomas, who co-led the study. “Instead, the new findings imply that these beachcombers lived in social groups that included emergent elites and participated in long-distance trade.”


People gather close to a table to watch a scientist ease a piece of copper from an earth sample in a foil container.
Copper, like this fragment recovered on St. Catherines Island, is thought to be evidence of social complexity that emerged during the Archaic Period, between 3,000–8,000 years ago.
Rachel Cajigas/ © AMNH

The team, led by Thomas and Museum Research Associate Matthew Sanger, used radiometric dating to confirm that the cremated remains were from the Late Archaic period. Elemental composition analysis of the band revealed that the copper originated in the Great Lakes region, extending previously documented boundaries of Archaic Period copper by more than 600 miles. The cremation practices identified at the site were also found to resemble those native to the Great Lakes region.

St. Catherines Island is also the location of the long-lost Santa Catalina de Guale Spanish mission, which was rediscovered by Thomas and his team in 1981.