26. Shared Physical Materials, Domesticated Animals, and Diseases
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26 Shared Physical Materials, Domesticated Animals, and Diseases How many goodly creatures are there here! . . . O brave new world. —William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611), V.I.II (182) Let’s Get Physical: Natural Materials Distantly transported natural items and substances compose one category of noncultural phenomena. A professional skeptic concerning diffusionism, the archaeologist Kenneth L. Feder, acknowledged that “a nonnative raw material found in firm archaeological context anywhere in the New World in an undisturbed stratigraphic layer dated to before Columbus’s voyages would represent convincing archaeological evidence of contact between native New World people and explorers or settlers from the Old World.”1 The instance of seeming Cape Verde Islands cowry shells found in a Mississippian mound in Ala­ bama is an intriguing (and, as yet, unexplained), transoceanic case in point.2 Certain inorganic materials and fossilized organic substances (for example, amber) are particularly suitable for such study, because their different sources exhibit different suites and proportions of trace elements and/or because their natural occurrences are geographically very limited (for example, lapis lazuli). Among mineral materials is turquoise, although this striking stone has not yet received much attention in transoceanic-­ contact studies. Neither has obsidian, but this volcanic glass is very frequently used in more regional investigations; once chemical-­ compositional studies have been made of the vari­ ous potential source deposits, one can identify the geographic origins of particular archaeo­ logi­ cal finds of the material. Obsidian analy­ sis has demonstrated early, very long distance trading in the Indo-­ Pacific region (see chapter 15), and obsidian from Oklahoma’s Spiro Mounds has been sourced to the state of Hidalgo in east-­central Mexico. On the basis of chemical analy­ sis, too, archaeologists have determined that the natural occurrences of the material of some red jasper artifacts found at the 286 / Chapter 26 circa AD 1000 Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, are in west­ern Greenland and Iceland. At the same time, a Labrador/Newfoundland-­ style arrow point made of Canadian chert was found in an old Greenland churchyard, probably brought back embedded in the flesh of an unfortunate Norseman.3 Too, a quartz microblade core, similar to 3,000-­ year-­ old North Ameri­ can ones, was discovered in Iceland. A European Paleolithic-­ style stone knife unearthed in 1971 beneath a seventeenth-­ century Virginia chimney (mentioned in chapter 10) is made of north­ west­ ern French chert.4 One group of substances proposed for study in the context of the transoceanic-­ contacts controversy is jade, a highly important and revered material in both East Asia and Mesoamerica, a material charged with similar cultural meanings and practices in the two regions. An excellent example of cultural correlates, which has been noted in the introduction, is the placement of a red-­ painted, sometimes cicada-­ shaped amulet in the mouth of a corpse being prepared for burial.5 Chemically, jades are highly variable in their compositions. Although there are a great many distinctive varieties among the different jades, the most basic distinction is between nephrite (true jade) and jadeite. Until relatively mod­ ern times, Chinese jades generally came from nephrite sources and Mesoamerican ones from jadeite sources. Still, beginning with Frederick W. Putnam in 1886,6 it has been speculated that jade, being a low-­ bulk, high-­ value material , could have been involved in transpacific trade, and attention might profitably be paid to jade objects, especially in China, with this in mind. But to date, there has been little serious or sophisticated study of this sort, and those few results that have been obtained have been less than definitive. Should such evidence eventually be forthcoming, extracontinental specimens of this highly refractory material (6.0–7.0 on the Mohs scale) would constitute the hardest of “hard” evidence.7 Somewhat similar to the sourcing of stone, trace-­ element and lead-­ isotope analy­ sis of the composition of (especially, unalloyed) metal objects can now of­ ten be employed to assign an area of origin. As has been described in chapter 10, a bracelet unearthed from the pre-­ Contact Bat Creek Mound in Tennessee was found to be of brass, an alloy produced, before Colonial times, only in the Old World.8 One may also briefly mention the puzzling very old remains of the mining of native copper in Michigan’s Isle Royale and Keweenaw Peninsula, along with Old World–style copper weapons and tools, some socketed, found archaeo­ logi­ cally in the region. Far more copper appears to have been mined...