Found in Alaska, These Blue Beads Could Be the Oldest Evidence of European Goods in North America

Found in Alaska, These Blue Beads Could Be the Oldest Evidence of European Goods in North America

European-crafted glass beads found at three different indigenous sites in northern Alaska date back to the pre-colonial period of North America, in what is an intriguing archaeological discovery.

Somehow, these blueberry-sized beads made their way from what is now Venice, Italy, to the Brooks range mountains of Alaska at some point during the mid-to-late 15th century, according to new research published in American Antiquity.

The authors of the paper, archaeologists Michael Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin Mills from the Bureau of Land Management, suspect the beads were trade goods that, after passing through China’s Silk Road, eventually made their way through Siberia and eventually into Alaska via the Bering Strait. If confirmed, it would be “the first documented instance of the presence of indubitable European materials in prehistoric sites in the Western Hemisphere as the result of overland transport across the Eurasian continent,” the authors wrote in their study.

No biggie, right? In other words, indigenous North Americans had their hands on Renaissance jewellery prior to the arrival of European colonists, if this interpretation is correct. Mind blown.

These glass beads, with regional names like “Early Blue” and “Ichtucknee Plain” and scientifically known as the “IIa40” variety, have been found in North America before, including the Caribbean, the eastern coast of Central and North America, and the eastern Great Lakes region, but those finds date back to between 1550 and 1750. In case you flunked grade 2 history, Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492. Dating these beads to the pre-colonial era is thus very significant.

The glass beads, of which 10 were recovered, were found at three different archaeological sites in Alaska’s Brooks Range. One of these sites, called Punyik Point, used to be a seasonal camp for inland Inuit peoples, as well as a stopping point along an ancient trade route. The other sites, Lake Kaiyak House and Kinyiksugvik, also date back to the Late Prehistoric indigenous period.

Some of the IIa40 beads analysed in the study were found more than 60 years ago, but the archaeologist responsible for these discoveries, William Irving, “did not recognise them as such,” the authors wrote.

Back in 2004 and 2005, Kunz and Mills visited Punyik Point to evaluate the site and collect additional archaeological information. The scientists found three glass beads of the IIa40 variety, along with a trove of metal artifacts, including a copper bracelet and bangle.

Metal artifacts and glass beads analysed in the study.  (Image: M. L. Kunz et al., 2021/American Antiquity)
Metal artifacts and glass beads analysed in the study. (Image: M. L. Kunz et al., 2021/American Antiquity)

Using mass spectrometry carbon-dating, the scientists were able to date twine, made from plant fibres, associated with the beads (inorganic items cannot be carbon dated). The twine was found wrapped around the bangle, which was found next to the beads and probably used as an earring or bracelet. Kunz and Mills sent the twine to a lab for carbon dating and were suitably shocked by the results.

“We almost fell over backwards,” said Kunz, as reported by Ned Rozell, a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. “It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s. It was like, Wow!”

As the authors wrote in the paper, “we conservatively date the beads at Punyik Point to the age range provided by the twine date from the bead cluster: 1397– 1488.” This date range was subsequently affirmed through the testing of charcoal and caribou bones found at the three sites.

As the study points out, European glassmaking originated in Venice around 700 CE, and the first record of glass beads from the city dates back to 1268 CE. Most bead researchers “agree that any drawn bead [the type analysed in the study] produced in fifteenth century Europe was made in Venice,” the authors wrote. The presence of these beads in Alaska is thus a surprise, as indigenous peoples living in North America at the time did not manufacture such items.

As to how the beads got to Alaska, that’s not known, but the authors posited a plausible scenario:

…prior to and during much of the Renaissance period, Venice was a major force in trade with Asia. Venetian goods moved along various maritime and overland trade routes, including the so-called Silk Road, which connected Europe and the Middle East with India and China via Central Asia. Along such eastbound routes, these early Venetian beads found their way into the aboriginal hinterlands, with some moving to the Russian Far East and, ultimately, to the Bering Strait region and into Alaska. A growing body of evidence from the Bering Strait region indicates that the movement of non-native materials from northeast Asia to northwest Alaska has been occurring via undefined routes since the first millennium AD, if not longer.

That’s a journey of 17,000 km, including the 84 km trek of open ocean that separates the two continents via the Bering Strait.

Ben Potter, an archaeologist from the Arctic Studies Centre at Liaocheng University in China who’s not involved with the new study, said it’s a “very cool” discovery.

“The data and arguments are persuasive, and I believe their interpretation of movement of the beads through trade from East Asia to the Bering Strait makes sense,” he wrote in an email. “There are other examples of bronze making its way into Alaska early as well, so I think the idea of long-distance movement of items, particularly prestige [small, portable, and valuable items] moving long distances is understandable.”

To which Potter added: “I think the main takeaway is that there are often much longer-distance cultural connections in the past that we tend to be unaware of in the present,” he said. “Much of the public imagines Columbus as the only (or first) connection between the old and new worlds, yet there are many instances of cultural connectivity in the Bering Straits region — and this is one.”

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