Archaeologists Have A Lot Of Wrong Dates For Native North American History – But We’re Using New Techniques To Get It Right


Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. Other Europeans had made the trip before, but the century from then until 1609 marks the creation of the modern globalized world.

This period brought extraordinary riches to Europe, as well as genocides and disease to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The dates and personalities of the European installation are known from the texts and sometimes illustrations, to use the stranded colony on what was then Roanoke Island in Virginia as an example.

But one thing is missing. What about indigenous history throughout this traumatic era? Until now, the standard chronology has inevitably derived from European conquerors, even when scholars try to present an indigenous perspective.

This all happened only 400 to 500 years ago – how wrong could the conventional chronology of Indigenous settlements be? Quite wrong, it turns out, based on radiocarbon dating my collaborators and I have performed at several Iroquoian sites in Ontario and New York State. We challenge existing – and rather colonialist – assumptions and plot the correct timelines for when indigenous peoples were active in these places.

Meets Samantha Sanft, a member of the Iroquoia Project, digging in White Springs, New York.
Samantha Sanft and Kurt Jordan, CC BY-ND

Refining dates based on European products

Archaeologists estimate when a given indigenous colony was active based on the absence or presence of certain types of European goods, such as metal and glass beads. It was always rough, but it has become conventional history.

Since the first known the fur trade missions were in the 1580s, archaeologists date the first regular appearances of scattered European goods to 1580-1600. They call these two decades the Glass Bead Period 1. We know that some trade took place before this, however, since the Cartier indigenous peoples first met in the 1530s. had already met Europeans and were ready to trade with him.

16th century European copper alloy beads from two sites in the Mohawk Valley.
New York State Museum, CC BY-ND

Archaeologists defined Glass Bead Period 2 from 1600 to 1630. During this time, new types of glass beads and finished metal products were introduced and trade was more frequent.

The dating logic based on the absence or presence of such objects would make sense if all communities had equal access to, and desire to have, such objects. But these key assumptions have not been proven.

This is why the Iroquoia Dating Project exist. Comprised of researchers from Cornell University, the University of Georgia and the New York State Museum, we used radiocarbon dating and statistical modeling to date of organic matter directly associated with Iroquoian sites in The Mohawk Valley in New York and Ontario in Canada.

We first looked at two sites in Ontario: Warminster and Ball. It has long been claimed that they had direct links with Europeans. For example, Samuel Champlain probably stayed at Warminster site in 1615-1616. Archaeologists have found a large number of commercial goods at both sites.

Age-old corn sample, ready to be radiocarbon dated.
eva savage, CC BY-ND

When my colleagues and I examined radiocarbon dated plant remains (corn, bean, plum) and a wooden pole, the calendar ages we obtained are quite consistent with historical estimates and the chronology of the glass beads. . The three dating methods were consistent, placing Ball around 1565-1590 and Warminster around 1590-1620.

However, the picture was quite different on several other major Iroquois sites that do not have such close European ties. Our radiocarbon tests resulted in significantly different date ranges from previous estimates which were based on the presence or absence of various European products.

For example, Jean-Baptiste Lainé, or Coat, location northeast of Toronto is currently the largest and most complex Iroquoian village excavated in Ontario. Excavated between 2003-2005, archaeologists have dated the site to 1500-1530 because it lacks most of the commercial goods and contained only three metal objects from European sources. But our radiocarbon dating places it now between circa 1586 and 1623, probably 1599-1614. This means that the previous dates were shifted by 50 to 100 years.

Other sites belonging to this same ancestral Wendat community are also more recent than previously assumed. For example, a site called Draper was traditionally dated to the second half of the 1400s, but radiocarbon dating places it at least 50 years later, between 1521 and 1557. Several other Iroquoian sites in Ontario lack large commercial assemblages. vary according to several decades to about fifty years from conventional dates based on our work.

Sturt Manning examines a sample in the Cornell Tree Ring lab.
Chris Kitchen / Cornell University, CC BY-ND

My colleagues and I also investigated a number of sites in the Mohawk Valley, New York State. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Mohawk and Hudson rivers were a key transportation route from the Atlantic coast to the inland for Europeans and their goods. Again, we have found that radiocarbon dating calls into question the contractual deadline assigned to several sites in the region.

Bias that led to erroneous deadlines

Why was part of the previous timeline wrong?

The answer seems to be that the researchers looked at the subject through a pervasive colonial lens. The researchers mistakenly assumed that commercial goods were also available and desired across the region, and viewed all indigenous groups as the same.

On the contrary, it was the Wendat custom, for example, that the lineage whose members discovered for the first time a trade route which claimed the rights to it. Such a “property” could be a source of power and status. Thus, it would be logical to see unequal distributions of certain commercial goods, as mediated by control groups. Some people were “in”, with access, and others may have been “out”.

Ethno-historical documents indicate cases of indigenous groups refusing contact with Europeans and their property. For example, Jesuit missionaries described a the whole village no longer uses French kettles because the foreigners and their property were blamed for the disease.

Meets Megan Conger, a member of the Iroquoia Project, digging in White Springs, New York. Some places have been under-explored, so far, by archaeologists.
Megan Conger, Kurt Jordan, CC BY-ND

There are other reasons why European objects appear or do not appear in archaeological records. The proximity or distance of a place to transport routes and local politics, both within and between groups, could play a role. Whether Europeans establish direct contact or there are only indirect links, this can affect availability. Objects used and kept in settlements might also differ from those intentionally buried in cemeteries.

Above all, most sites are at best only partially investigated, some are still unknown. And unfortunately, the archaeological record is affected by the looting and destruction of the sites.

Only a direct dating approach removes the Eurocentric and historical focus, allowing an independent time frame for past sites and accounts.

Effects of re-dating indigenous history

In addition to changing the dates of textbooks and museum exhibits, the re-dating of a number of Iroquoian sites raises major questions about the social, political and economic history of Indigenous communities.

For example, conventionally, researchers place the start of a shift towards larger, fortified communities, and evidence of increasing conflict, in the mid-15th century.

However, our radiocarbon dates reveal that some of the key sites date back to a century later, dating to the mid-16th to early 17th centuries. The timing raises the question of whether and how early contacts with Europeans played a role or not. This period was also during the height of what is called the Little Ice Age, perhaps indicating that changes in Indigenous settlements have some association with the climate challenge.

Our new radiocarbon dates indicate the correct timing; they ask, but do not answer, many other remaining questions.

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