These Renaissance-Era Italian Beads Found In Alaska Traveled To America Long Before Columbus Did

The Venetian glass beads dating back to 1440-80 found in Alaska’s Brooks Range. Image courtesy of M. L. Kunz et al., 2021, American Antiquity

It’s time to re-write the history books again folks, although if you’re still reading that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, you need to buy a whole new history book. Renessaisance-era Venetian glass beads discovered at multiple archaeological sites in Alaska suggest they pre-date Columbus’s arrival by decades, making them the earliest known European goods in the Americas. This means Indigenous North Americans had contact with people who had either been to Italy or traded with people who had long before Columbus rocked up.

By now, it’s commonly accepted that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot on continental North America. Leif Erikkson, a Norse explorer from Iceland, led the first European expedition in search of the “New World” nearly 500 years before Columbus, with the oldest known Norse settlement discovered in Newfoundland, Canada dating to 1000 CE.

Now, it looks like Columbus has been pushed further back in line, as Venetian blue glass beads discovered at three archaeological sites in Alaska date back to the mid to late 15th century. These blue glass “trade beads” have been found in North America before, as well as the Caribbean and east coast of Central America, but they dated between 1550 and 1750. Using mass spectrometry carbon-dating, two archaeologists have revealed these beads date to sometime between 1440 and 1480.

What were mid-15th-century glass beads from Venice’s Murano Island – still famous for its glasswork today – doing halfway across the world on a continent Europeans didn’t know existed, and how did they get there?  

Detailing their findings in the journal American Antiquity, authors Michael Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin Mills from the Bureau of Land Management suggest these beads were brought to Alaska by traders who traveled China’s Silk Road, through Siberia, and eventually crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska.

This, the authors write, makes them “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 beads and copper jewelry found at Punyik Point. Image courtesy of M. L. Kunz et al., 2021, American Antiquity

The glass beads were found at three archaeological sites in Alaska's Brooks Range: Punyik Point, a known seasonal site for Inuit peoples, Lake Kaiyak House, and Kinyiksugvik, which all date to the Late Prehistoric indigenous period. Glass beads had been found at these sites before in the 1950s and '60s, but when Kunz and Mills found more, alongside some bronze jewelry and – importantly – twine they had a way of dating these items that previous archaeologists didn't: mass spectrometry carbon-dating.

Along with the beads, they found some copper bangles, some flat metal shaped sheets that could be hoop earrings, and what may have been parts of a necklace or bracelet. Wrapped around a copper bangle, they found some twine made of some sort of plant fiber, possibly the bark of a willow shrub, that incredibly had survived. They sent the twine off for carbon dating and were shocked at the results a few months later. 

“We almost fell over backwards,” Kunz told the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s. It was like, Wow!”

This result, backed up by the dating of charcoal and other objects found near the beads at all three of the sites suggests North America needs a new timeline.  

In the 1400s, Venice was Europe's elite glass-making center and craftspeople were known to trade Murano glass – already famous – with people throughout Asia and the Ottoman Empire. The beads may have been bought and sold in Venice, traveled by horse-drawn cart along the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that connected Europe and the Mediterranean to Asia, arrived in the Russian Far East, and ultimately to the Bering Strait – a known point of entry to the Americas.

It's unlikely this was a regular trade route, but these beads represent the earliest evidence of an overland connection between Europe and Alaska long before Christopher Columbus and the European colonialists in 1492 sailed across the ocean blue to discover this long-existing "New World".

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