These blue glass beads are now considered the oldest European goods in America. Credit: (M. L. Kunz et al. / American Antiquity)

Decades Before Columbus, Europe Traded With America

Archaeologists talked about the journey of blue glass beads from Venice through Eurasia and the Bering Sea - right to the Alaska Ridge. And all this happened around the middle of the 15th century, when the future discoverer of America Christopher Columbus was just born.

During excavations in the tundra of Alaska, archaeologists from the University of Alaska discovered several blue Venetian glass beads – probably the first item from Europe imported into North America several decades before Christopher Columbus arrived there.

As suggested by Michael Kunz, one of the authors of the work, the tiny glass beads from Europe traveled more than 16 thousand kilometers. For hundreds of years, they rested in the frozen ground of Punyik Point near Brooks Ridge: it was once a seasonal camp for several generations of a group of indigenous peoples – the Eskimos.

They came to Punyik Point in autumn and spring to hunt caribou (reindeer) and fish for trout. In addition, this area, most likely, was part of the trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean, experts say.

Artifacts from the excavations at Punyik Point. Credit: ML Kunz et al., 2021, American Antiquity
Artifacts from the excavations at Punyik Point. Credit: ML Kunz et al., 2021, American Antiquity

Excavations at Punyik Point have been going on for a long time: back in the 1950s and 1960s, two turquoise beads were discovered there, each with a hole in the center. In the early 2000s, Kunz and his colleagues returned to the promontory and found three more glass beads lying next to copper bracelets, a willow bark rope, and fragments of other jewelry dating from the mid-late 15th century.

Analysis of the glass beads

Such beads were created by Europeans using technologies that the indigenous cultures of America certainly did not have: similar beads, among other things, helped the Dutch to buy the island of Manhattan from the Indian tribes in 1626.

Scientists used comparative neutron activation analysis to confirm the actual variety of the beads. In the past, such have been found at sites throughout the Americas but never in Alaska.

Even more surprisingly, the analysis showed that the glass beads were from the period of 1397 – 1488. What this means is that these may be the earliest European goods in North America and their period of origin also means that they were transported there years before Columbus arrived.

Road to America

Travel route of Venetian beads to America. Credit: American Antiquity
Travel route of Venetian beads to America. Credit: American Antiquity

But how did beads, not found elsewhere west of the Rocky Mountains, get from Venice to the Brooks Ridge Plateau? In the 1400s, craftsmen from Venice must have maintained good relationships with traders from Asia. That is, the glass beads could have traveled in a horse-drawn cart along the Great Silk Road to the east, towards China. Then they ended up in the interior regions, and some, apparently, were taken to the Russian Far East.

That is, in the absence of a transatlantic connection, the most likely route for the beads to come from Europe to northwest Alaska was through Eurasia and the Bering Strait. Probably some merchant sailed with them along the western shore of the Bering Sea, and then went to the New World.

Crossing the Bering Strait at its narrowest point is about 83 kilometers across the open ocean. The authors of the study assume that the glass beads found first arrived at an ancient trading center called Shashalik, located north of the city of Kotzebue in Alaska. And from there they were transferred deep into the ridge.


If you are interested in reading everything about the discovery, the scientific paper was published in the journal American Antiquity.


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Sources:

Avery, D. (2021, February 10). Blue glass beads from Venice discovered in Alaska date to THE MID-15TH CENTURY.
Guy, J. (2021, February 08). These blue beads found in Alaska may be the first EUROPEAN items in North America.
Kunz, M., & Mills, R. (2021, January 20). A precolumbian presence of Venetian Glass Trade beads in Arctic Alaska: AMERICAN ANTIQUITY.
McGreevy, N. (2021, February 10). Venetian glass Beads may be Oldest European artifacts found in North America.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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