The existence of three distinct regions within northwest North America (central Arctic, western Subarctic, and Northwest Coast) with sources of native copper and evidence for its prehistoric use provides the opportunity for a comparative study of technological change related to the innovation of a single material among socio-politically diverse groups of hunter-gatherers. A collaborative interdisciplinary team with backgrounds in northern archaeology and ethnography, geology, and materials science will undertake a three-year program of research investigating native copper innovation, and its relationship to emergent social complexity (i.e., the development of hereditary rank), among northwest North American hunter-gatherers. Naturally occurring pure native copper was used by indigenous groups throughout the region for tools, weapons, and objects of personal adornment. This latter use has been traditionally viewed by archaeologists as attempts to display wealth using prestige goods (prestige technology) and as a result, and similar to discussions of prehistoric metallurgy in general, the use of native copper in these regions has been associated with emergent social complexity.

Intra- and inter-regional spatial analysis of sources and artifacts, compositional analysis of artifacts in museum collections, detailed experimental studies of copper-working manufacturing, and oral history collected in collaboration with the Ahtna community, will provide quantitative and qualitative data on native copper innovation. These data will be integrated using a design theory framework that will provide a holistic multi-scalar understanding of the benefits and constraints associated with the adoption of this technology by hunter-gatherers in different social and environmental contexts. Though focused on innovation surrounding the use of a specific material among hunter-gatherers, this project will contribute to more general anthropological discussions of innovation and will generate data for use in developing models of technological innovation for future testing. Additionally, the project includes significant opportunities for interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate education, training, and hands-on research, and opportunities for multi-generational engagement with the Ahtna community.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Anna Kerttula de Echave
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Purdue University
West Lafayette
United States
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