Precious Aglets

Precious Aglets

You've probably never even thought about the little tubes on the ends of your shoelaces. Chances are, neither did Christopher Columbus—until the native Cubans he met wanted to trade gold for them.


Trading gold for shoelace tags. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

At a five-hundred-year-old Cuban burial ground, local archaeologists and their colleagues from University College London have found opulent jewelry made from surprisingly humble materials. They were brass shoelace tags called aglets, manufactured in Europe and traded to the indigenous Cuban people for gold.

That may sound like a bum deal. But field director Jago Cooper explains that back then, gold in Cuba was abundant and not very valuable. Instead, the social elites decked themselves in a copper-based alloy called guanín.

Jago Cooper:

And when the Europeans turned up, the brass objects which they brought with them were quite similar to guanín, and also represented a high social status.

Caught off guard, the first Europeans traded away whatever brass trinkets they happened to have on hand—or in this case, on foot. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

We think of gold as being universally valuable, but in reality, it's only valuable because a lot of people want it. It's the simple principle of supply and demand: if gold were to suddenly go out of fashion worldwide, or if it became much more plentiful, the price would drop. In fact, the exact market value of gold changes every day, due to changes in supply and demand.

Cuba before Columbus simply demonstrates a more extreme example. Unlike 15th century Europeans, the native Cubans (known as the Taíno) had plenty of gold at their disposal, thanks to rich natural gold reserves. And while they did use it in jewelry and other crafts, they didn't consider it to be especially valuable. As Cooper said, the more precious metal in 15th century Cuba was guanín, an alloy (mixture) of gold and copper. Adding copper to the gold gave it a distinctive smell and colorful glow that the Taíno people considered beautiful, sacred, and even supernatural.

Because brass also contains copper (along with zinc and other trace metals), it would have resembled guanín in these important ways. However, brass wasn't made in Cuba before Columbus. Yet Cooper's team found ceremonial jewelry at the Taíno burial site made with brass items, including aglets. By analyzing the chemistry of the brass, the archaeologists determined that the brass had come from Germany. Although Columbus' crew was Spanish, the German brass could easily have reached Spain through normal European trade routes.

You can imagine the Spanish explorers' surprise when the Taíno people eagerly offered them gold for their brass aglets, buttons, and other ordinary items. They probably stripped their clothing and all their possessions of whatever brass they could find, thinking they were getting the bargain of the century. But it's important to remember that the Taíno people felt the same way. They probably couldn't believe that the Europeans were willing to part with such beautiful brass for something as common and boring as gold.

In a sense, then, both parties got a great deal—at least in the short term. Unfortunately, as more and more settlers came to the Americas, they quickly drained Cuba's gold reserves. That left the native Cubans without economic power as the Europeans, and their gold-based currency, steadily took over the globe. Had the native Americans become dominant instead, we might be giving out brass medals to first-place Olympic winners today.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why was gold less valuable to the Taíno people than to the Europeans?
  2. How did the researchers establish that the brass found at the burial site came from Europe?
  3. If gold had been rare in Cuba before Columbus, do you think the Taíno would have valued it more? Do you think they still would have traded it for brass? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think certain metals have been valued by so many cultures throughout history?

You may want to check out the November 1, 2006, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Kids on caffeine, prairie dogs in love, trading shoelace tags for gold in 15th century Cuba, how aspirin shrinks tumors, and a boy who can play video games with his mind.

For Educators

The website of New York City's El Museo del Barrio features a section on the Taino people and culture called Taino.

The EconEdLink lesson I'll Trade You a Bag of Chips, Two Cookies, and $60,000 For Your Tuna Fish Sandwich students explore the concept of supply and demand through an examination of the tuna industry. Students compare ordinary, sandwich-type albacore tuna to the bluefin tuna, a Japanese delicacy that sells for $70,000 a fish in Tokyo.

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