This summer, we recovered three copper artifacts from the Klein Site, including a beautiful copper awl recovered in situ by the meticulous Emma Creamer. Copper is associated with the Athabascan transition and I was very excited to have evidence of copper use at the Klein Site. When we returned to Fairbanks for supplies and showers every weekend, I would delight at letting locals know about our copper artifacts and show off photos. Almost all had the same response: people used to make and use copper tools here? Where did it come from? How old is it?
As an Alaskan myself, I can relate to these questions. When we learn about Alaska's history, it's often divided into the peopling of Beringia and the New World, and the history of European colonization and mining, with little attention given to the people in Alaska between these two periods.
In fact, Alaskans used copper and other metals for likely the last two thousand years, well before European colonization and well after the first people settled in this vast region. Kory Cooper, a professor at Purdue University, has dedicated his career to tracking the sources and use of copper in Alaska. His research applies X-Ray Fluorescence, a technique that measures the elemental composition of materials and can discriminate between different geological sources. Essentially, Dr. Cooper tracks past trade networks through these x-rays and has found that copper was traded between Ahtna in the Wrangell-St. Elias Range in Alaska's Southeast, Tanana Athabascans in central Alaska, and even into the Yukon Territory.
Why did Ahtna and Tanana Athabascans start using and trading copper? That question is much more difficult to answer but identifying copper in archaeological assemblages like the Klein Site can improve our understanding of the timing and cause of this important transition. I hope to work towards the answer to this question with my future research to share Athabascan history and knowledge with all Alaskans.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.