There is a great deal of interest in claims that various Asiatic peoples made early visits to the Pacific coast of Canada long before the arrival of European traders. These claims have been based on interpretations of old documents and the finding of supposed ancient Chinese and Japanese coins, ships and other objects. Inherent in the claims is the suggestion that cultural development of local Native Indian societies was altered by contact with these foreign visitors.
This article examines the existing evidence for the prehistoric diffusion of Asiatic goods to the North Pacific coast and elaborates on some of the historic, protohistoric (the period when non-native trade goods were coming into the area before foreign visitors) and prehistoric events that may be relevant to the interpretation of both present and future claims of evidence:
Do we have evidence that demonstrates the presence of Asiatic derived artifacts on the Pacific coast of North America before the first documented visits by Europeans? If so, what is the probable mechanism by which these objects could have diffused from Asia? If evidence exists for diffusion, whether of direct cultural contact by peoples, or material diffusion of objects only, its most conclusive form will be objects of undisputable Asiatic origin. One such class of artifacts, a major focus of this article, is Asiatic coins.
On the Pacific coast the debate surrounding the concept of trans-Pacific contact has focused on direct communications between the more developed cultures of the Old and New Worlds, the contacts between the Shang Dynasty of China and the Olmec or Maya cultures of Central America, or the Jomon culture of Japan and the Valdivia culture of Ecuador (see Leland 1875, Kiang Kang-Hu 1933, Ekholm 1953, 1964, Mertz 1972, Meggers 1975, Schneider 1977, McEwan and Dickson 1978, Zhongpu 1980, Carlson 1980, Jett 1983, Shao 1978, 1983, Needham and Gwei-Djen 1985, Tolstoy 1986). There also have been claims that evidence exists of Asiatic contacts with Native Indian cultures on the North Pacific coast (McKelvie 1933, 1941, 1944, 1955; Covarrubias 1954; Shao 1983; see Fitzhugh 1988). In considering these claims we need to be open to the idea that a gradual and indirect process of long-distance cultural diffusion of material objects may have occurred between Asiatic cultures and the less technologically advanced cultures of the New World.
How can we judge what constitutes evidence for this? Or, how might it be possible to distinguish between evidence for direct cultural contact between peoples of the New and Old World as opposed to the indirect diffusion of material objects? If objects of undisputable Asiatic manufacture are found in a datable prehistoric context in the New World, this will not in itself constitute evidence of significant primary intrusion into New World cultures or even minor contact with foreign people. We have to consider long-distance, indirect, diffusion around the North Pacific Rim as one explanation of the occurrence of such objects as well as, or in combination with, other forms of secondary intrusion such as ocean drift of vessels and flotsam (see Fig. 2).
A crucial requirement in assessing the evidence for possible prehistoric diffusion between cultures of Asia and cultures of the Pacific coast of North America is a better definition of what constitutes the historic period and especially the protohistoric period on the North Pacific Rim.
Objects of known European and Asiatic manufacture were already present on the northwest coast of America according to the earliest accounts of Russian, Spanish and British explorers. An established trade link between northeastern Siberia and northwestern America was in existence when the Russians first occupied Alaska (Michael 1967:100-101; Ray 1975:97-98; Vanstone 1979:63-64, 88-89; Hickey 1979:420-421; Pierce 1980:30-31). Hickey suggests that this trade system began to crystallize by the 15th century AD. (1979:411).
The evidence for prehistoric trade, however, goes back much further in time. Prehistoric trade in iron is first evident by A.D. 200-500 in the Old Bering Sea culture (Collins 1937; Rainey I941; Chard 1960; Levin and Sergeyev 1964; Dikov 1965:19), and by A.D. 350 in the Alaskan Ipiutak culture (Larsen and Rainey 1948; Bandi 1969:76; Rainey 1971). McCartney (1988:57) believes that the use of metal “was so common that Alaskan Neo-eskimos developed an epi-metallurgical technology about l,500—2,000 years prior to direct Russian contact.” In light of this, there is a need to examine closely the temporal and spatial context of late prehistoric and protohistoric Pacific Rim trade and its potential involvement in the exchange of goods of Asiatic and European manufacture. On the North Pacific coast the use of the terms pre-contact and protohistoric vary over time and space.
Contact-period dates most commonly used are associated with visits by specific individuals and range from 1595 A.D. on the northern coast of California, 1774 A.D. on the coast of British Columbia, and 1741 A.D. for southwestern Alaska. When viewed from a local regional perspective we have concrete evidence for the prehistoric use of iron.
For example, there are iron tools from the Ozette site on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State dated by dendrochronology to 1613 A.D. (Gleeson 1981:3; see Kirk and Daugherty 1974:136, 1978:96). If this iron proves by metallurgical analysis to have come from Russian sources through Siberia, or Spanish sources to the south, do we designate the context of this material as being protohistoric? If the iron proves to have come from an Asiatic source such as Japan do we use a different terminology? The main difference between the three source areas given would be the distance of the diffusion. In future we will need to examine the types and quantity of outside goods reaching a specific area before we classify the area as being inside or outside the realm of the protohistoric in the broader areal context. We need to look at how these goods have affected various cultural changes such as aspects of social organization, settlement and technological or artistic traditions.
With respect to the northern Canadian fur trade, Bishop and Ray (1976:124-125) suggest that the prehistoric period terminates when trade goods or other Euro-American influences reach a specific area. The beginning of the protohistoric period is marked by the influx of trade goods or influences such as disease. It is the time when native Indians began to travel outside their traditional territories to obtain these Euro-American goods. If we use the above definition of the protohistoric period on the North Pacific Rim we may find that it covers a much longer time than previously believed.
MacDonald (1984:74) has examined protohistoric trade networks in the Skeena River area of British Columbia. He concludes from his study that, “It now appears that metal and trade goods were converging on the Northwest Coast from three or four directions from the very beginning of the eighteenth century, three-quarters of a century before the first Europeans established direct contact. The length of the protohistoric period on this part of the coast may eventually be stretched to a full century.”
MacDonald (1984) has questioned Borden’s (1952) post-contact dating of the Chinlac village site in the northern interior of British Columbia. I agree with MacDonald that, based on the native informant’s statement given to Morice (1971:14-19), the date of about 1735 A.D. for the abandonment of the village is probably more accurate. The site would then predate the contact period. The Chinlac site contains many iron artifacts as well as a Chinese coin from the Song Dynasty given a preliminary date by Borden (1952) of 1125 A.D. I have since examined this coin and it clearly dates to the Chih Ho period, 1054-1056 A.D., of the Song Dynasty (Fig. 3).
Future research may show the need to define a series of protohistoric periods for the northwest coast of North America because of the many potential sources of European and Asiatic goods available to Indian cultures. We know, for example, that between 1565 and 1815 Spanish galleons annually crossed the Pacific between the Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. These ships passed close to the American shore and several laden with goods from Asia were known to have been lost at sea. English, Dutch and French privateers were known to have been active between 1575 and 1742 along the west coast of America (Schurz 1959; Cook 1973). Many of these vessels may have had unreported trade contacts with Indians of the North Pacific coast. In some areas, native traditions tell of visits by white men before those of the established trade periods. The father of a Clatsop Indian, Mrs. Solomon Smith, (born about 1810) was a witness to a shipwreck with survivors at Point Adams, Oregon, about 1750. From this ship came “pieces of money, having a square hole through the center” (Gibbs 1877: 236-237). This is probably the same incident reported to Boas (1894:275-278, also see Beals 1980:61).