An island grave site hints at far-flung ties among ancient Americans

Ancient North American hunter-gatherers had direct contacts with people living halfway across the continent, researchers say.

A ceremonial copper object and related burial practices at a roughly 4,000-year-old human grave site encircled by a massive ring of seashells in what’s now the southeastern United States closely correspond to those previously found at hunter-gatherer sites near the Great Lakes.

Because the object and practices appear together, emissaries, traders or perhaps even religious pilgrims must have traveled most or all of the more than 1,500 kilometers from the Upper Midwest to St. Catherines Island, off Georgia’s coast, the researchers conclude September 2 in American Antiquity.

Until now, “there was no clear evidence for direct, long-distance exchange among ancient hunter-gatherers in eastern North America,” says anthropologist Matthew Sanger of Binghamton University in New York. Finds at the McQueen shell ring on St. Catherines Island suggest that such exchanges involved objects and ideas that had spiritual significance, such as how to bury the dead.