Glass beads made in Venice, found by archaeologists in northern Alaska, got there before Columbus

(ORDO NEWS) — Blueberry-sized glass beads found by archaeologists at the Brooks Range excavation site may be the first European item to ever arrive in North America, decades before Columbus.

Made in Venice, Italy, the tiny blue beads could travel over 10,000 miles in the pockets of adventurers to reach the Bering Strait. There they were transported across the ocean to Alaska.

At least 10 beads have survived for several centuries in the cold mud of three places in northern Alaska. Archaeologists recently uncovered the mystery of the beads in an article published in American Antiquity magazine.

Mike Koontz, one of the authors, is an archaeologist from the UA Museum of the North. He retired in 2012 from the Bureau of Land Management after three decades as an expert on the ancient people of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. While working for BLM, he visited Punick Point several times.

Punyac Point, a mile from the Brooks Ridge Continental Divide, is empty today. It was a seasonal camp for generations of Eskimos.

Cape Punik was on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean, according to Kunz, and was likely a safe hunting ground for caribou as the animals moved around in the fall and spring.

“And if for some reason the caribou didn’t migrate to where you were, Punyac Point had some great lake trout and large tracts of bush and willow,” he said.

Archaeologists have been excavating Punick Point for a long time. Here, William Irving of the University of Wisconsin found two turquoise beads in the 1950s and 1960s, each with a hole in the center.

In 2004 and 2005, Koontz, BLM archaeologist Robin Mills, and other seasoned scientists returned to Punyac Point, using funding for sites that may be at risk of extinction. There, they found three more beads next to some copper bracelets – metal jewelry that resembled flat hoop earrings – and other metal pieces that could have been part of a necklace or bracelet.

Archaeologists often find “trade beads” in Native American archaeological sites. Europeans and other people created glass beads using technologies that were not found in indigenous cultures. Explorers carried them to trade with the indigenous peoples they met. Dutchman Peter Minuit included the trade beads in the Manhattan Island deal in 1626.

Koontz and Mills do not often find beads on Alaska prehistoric sites. They knew of similar beads that Irving had found decades ago, but they had a tool that Irving did not use: accelerator-assisted mass spectrometry dating.

Koontz and Mills also found a carbon-based life form that they could apply the test to. One of the metal bracelets was wrapped around a strand of plant fibers left over from years of burial a few inches above the ground.

They sent twine, probably the inner bark of a bush willow, for radiocarbon testing. The results came back after a few months.

“We nearly fell,” said Koontz. “They came back and the result was tacos, they were created sometime in the 1400s. It was like “Wow!”

With this result, later confirmed by similar dating of objects found near the same beads in two other Arctic territories of Alaska, archaeologists saw that these pea-sized objects tell a bigger story.

“Undoubtedly, these European materials arrived in the New World by land transport,” said Koontz.

The beads in the tundra of northern Alaska came from Venice, on the Adriatic Sea, on the other side of the world. Koontz and Mills found this out by studying the history of glass bead making in Venice.

Along with radiocarbon dating of twine in Alaska and charcoal found next to the beads, they found that the beads arrived at Punic Point sometime between 1440 and 1480, years before Columbus even conceived of his travels.

How did the beads, which are not found in any other archaeological site west of the Rocky Mountains, end up from the canals of Venice to the plateau in the Brooks Ridge?

In the 1400s, craftsmen in Venice traded people across Asia. The beads could travel in a horse-drawn cart along the Silk Road east towards China. From there, “these early Venetian beads ended up in the indigenous interior regions, and some moved to the Russian Far East,” the authors write in their recent article.

After this long voyage, the merchant may have stuffed the beads into his kayak on the western shore of the Bering Sea. Then he dipped the paddle and went to the New World, to today’s Alaska. Crossing the Bering Strait at its narrowest point is about 52 miles of open ocean.

Koontz and Mills believe that the beads found at Cape Punik and two other locations probably arrived at an ancient trading center called Shashalik, north of today’s Kotzebue and west of Noatak. From there, people on foot, possibly traveling with several dogs, carried them into the Brooks Ridge.

Someone in Punic Point might have strung exotic blue beads on a necklace that they lost or left behind when they left. Tiny blue spheres have rested for centuries at the entrance to an underground house north of the Arctic Circle, waiting to be found.


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