By Traci Watson
Blackened and irregular, the prehistoric beads found in a centuries-old Illinois grave don’t look like anything special. But the latest analysis1 shows that they were fashioned from an exotic material: the shards of a meteorite that fell to Earth more than 700 kilometres from where the beads were found.
The link between the Anoka meteorite, which landed in central Minnesota, and the Illinois beads confirms that “2,000 years ago, goods and ideas were moved hundreds of miles across eastern North America”, says Timothy McCoy, co-author of the analysis and curator-in-charge of meteorites at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
The beads were made by people of the Hopewell culture, which flourished in the US Midwest from 100 bc to 400 ad — spreading from its epicentre in Ohio to as far as Mississippi. The culture is known for sprawling ceremonial earthworks and for objects made of non-local materials such as mica. The iron beads were discovered in 1945 in a Hopewell grave near Havana, Illinois, alongside more than 1,000 shell and pearl beads. Together, they indicate that the grave’s occupant was of high rank, says archaeologist Bret Ruby of the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, Ohio, who was not involved with the analysis. “You’ve got to open a lot of clams to find 1,000 pearl beads.”
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