transported the small spheres from Italy to northern Alaska in the
Crafted in Venice, these
blue beads traveled all the way to northern Alaska in the
mid-15th century. (M. L. Kunz et al. / American Antiquity)
More than five centuries ago, a handful of blueberry-sized blue
beads made an astonishing journey.
Crafted by glassmakers in Venice, the small spheres were carried
east along Silk Road trade networks before being ferried north,
into the hinterlands of Eurasia and across the Bering Strait, where
they were deposited in the icy ground of northern Alaska.
Archaeologists dug the beads up in the late 20th and early 21st
centuries. Now, a new study published in the journal American
Antiquity asserts that the glass objects are among the oldest
European-made items ever discovered in North America.
Per the paper, Michael
Kunz of the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin
Mills of the Bureau of Land Management studied ten glass beads
found at three sites along Alaskas Brooks
Range. The researchers used mass spectrometry carbon-dating
to analyze trace amounts of twine discovered alongside three of
the beads and date the artifacts creation to between roughly
1397 and 1488.
Unlike glass, twine is made from organic materialin this
case, plant fibersand can therefore be carbon dated, notes
Jack Guy for CNN.
The twine used to date the beads was found on copper bangles buried
nearby, leading the researchers to posit that the beads and copper
jewelry were once used as earrings or bracelets.
When the archaeologists realized how old the beads were, [w]e
almost fell over backwards, says Kunz in statement.
It came back saying [the plant was alive at] some time during
the 1400s. It was like, Wow!
As the authors note in the paper, trade beads such
as these have been found in North America before, including in the
eastern Great Lakes region and the Caribbean. But those beads dated
to between 1550 and 1750, according to Gizmodos George Dvorsky.
This is 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, add the authors.
Glass beads and other
bits of metal jewelry discovered in northern Alaska
A possible route that
the small glass beads might have traveled between the city-state
of Venice and northern Alaska
The discovery indicates the wide reach of 15th-century trade
networks. Per CNN, Kunz and Mills theorize that the beads were
carried along East Asian trade routes to the trading post of Shashalik
and then on to Punyik
Point, an ancient Alaskan settlement en route from the Arctic
Ocean to the Bering Sea. Someone would have had to carry the beads
across the Bering Straita journey of about 52 miles of open
ocean, likely traversed in a kayak.
Punyik Point was a site well-suited to caribou hunting, says Kunz
in the statement.
And, if for some reason the caribou didnt migrate through
where you were, Punyik Point had excellent lake trout and large
shrub-willow patches, he adds.
The beads discovered at Punyik Point were likely strung into a
necklace and later dropped near the entrance to an underground house.
If confirmed, the scientists discovery would indicate that
Indigenous North Americans trading in northern Alaska wore European
jewelry decades before Christopher Columbus 1492 landing in
the Bahamas. In the centuries after Columbus arrival, European
colonizers waged war on Indigenous people for their land and resources,
introduced deadly diseases, and initiated the mass enslavement of
Potter, an archaeologist at the Arctic Studies Center at Liaocheng
University in China who was not involved in the study, tells Gizmodo
that the findings are very cool.
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, Potter says. 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
In another example of the surprising interconnectedness of the
medieval world, a metal detectorist recently found a Northern
Song Dynasty coin in a field in Hampshire, England. Dated to
between 1008 and 1016, the copper-alloy token was the second medieval
Chinese coin discovered in England since 2018, per the Independents
Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work
has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston
Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times
and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.