Archaeologists have discovered Venetian glass beads dating back to the pre-colonial period in three Indigenous sites in arctic Alaska. The artifacts may be the first documented instance of European materials in prehistoric areas in the Western Hemisphere.
The cerulean-blue beads likely traveled from present-day Venice, Italy, to northwestern Alaska across Eurasia and over the Bering Strait after passing through China’s Silk Road — a roughly 10,500-mile journey. In an article for the journal American Antiquity, Michael L. Kunz of the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks and Robin O. Mills of the Bureau of Land Management describe their findings.
“Venice was a major force in trade with Asia,” the authors wrote. “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.”
These beads varities, known as “Early Blue” and “Ichtucknee Plain,” have been previously identified in the Caribbean, the eastern coast of Central and North America, and the eastern Great Lakes region, but they are commonly found in areas dating between approximately AD 1550 and 1750. The more recent discovery of 10 beads in Alaska’s Brooks Range was dated to the mid-to-late 15th century, predating Columbus’s landfall in Central America.
Kunz and Mills first came upon the beads while excavating at Punyik Point, a former camp of inland Inuit peoples and a stopping point on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Using mass spectrometry, they were able to carbon-date remnants of twine wound around metal bangles found near the beads. When the results came back from the lab, Kunz said, they “almost fell over backwards.”
“It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s,” he told the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It was like, Wow!” Kunz and Mills later uncovered another cluster of beads at two more sites in the Brooks Range, Lake Kaiyak House and Kinyiksugvik.
“This was the earliest that indubitably European materials show up in the New World by overland transport,” Kunz added.