Venetian glass beads from Italy archeologists uncovered along an old trading route in the Alaskan Arctic indicate what the Alaska Native Iñupiat, who have occupied the land since time immemorial, have always known: their existence long predated Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America.

Arctic archeologists Mike Kunz and Robert Mills last month published a study on the beads they in part helped excavate and analyze from three different sites in the Brooks Range of the Alaskan Arctic. Though the beads were recovered throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 2000s, technology was not yet able to clearly timestamp the artifacts. 

Recently, using carbon dating technology, plant fibers surrounding the buried beads told the scientists the relics arrived in Alaska sometime between 1440 and 1480, at least a decade before Columbus made landfall in what is now the Bahamas. Further study of the craftsmanship of Venetian glassmaking in that time period ascribed the type of beads –– pea-sized, blue glass balls –– to Venice, Italy.

“This is the first documented instance of the presence of indubitable European materials in pre-contact sites in the Western Hemisphere as the result of overland transport across the Eurasian continent,” the study reads.

But according to longtime Arctic archeologist and resident of Utqiagvik. Alaska, Anne Jensen, the beads are more interesting than they are earth shattering.

“It’s not earthshaking in that sense and I think we already knew that there was trade,” Jensen told Native News Online. “It does demonstrate that people weren't sitting in little boxes and not moving around, even... thousands of years ago.”

Throughout the 1400s, craftsmen in Venice traded with people throughout Asia. The beads –– which archaeologists agree were likely worn on jewelry –– travelled more than 10,000 miles to make it to present-day Alaska, though Jensen said they likely did not come in the hands of one person.

“I don't think Venetians came to the Books Range and I don't think Iñupiat people went to them, but what probably happened with almost 100 percent likelihood is those beads got traded along with all other kinds of other stuff along the Silk Road,” Jensen said. On the Silk Road eastward towards China, the beads probably changed hands in Russia, and were eventually paddled across the Bering Strait to present day Alaska. 

Jensen said the blue color made the beads unique in that time period, in an area naturally devoid of that specific color. 

“But the blue had got to be just like, ‘wow, this is very special,’ because there's nothing other than a few flowers that are blue,” Jensen said. “You can't make blue things.” 

Kunz and Mills write that they think the beads found likely were introduced from an ancient trading center called Sisaulik, north of present day Kotzebue, and then carried on foot into the Brooks Range.

“This just shows the world is not nearly as separated as people imagined, and the new world, so to speak, wasn't actually all that cut off from the old world,” Jensen said. “It was just that the trade was going out across the Bering Strait, which is as close as they get.”

CORRECTION, Feb. 17, 2021: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Christopher Columbus had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1492. In fact, Columbus first landed in Central America. We regret the error. 

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna Kunze
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.