The blue glass beads discovered by archaeologists in Punyik Point, Alaska are only the size of blueberries. On the other hand, their importance weighs much more heavily: they are the oldest European products to date that have been found in North America.
At least ten of these pearls survived for more than five centuries in the cold earth on the edge of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Like the researchers in theirs recently published study write, the tiny glass beads come from Venice (Italy). They could have traveled more than 15,000 kilometers to the Bering Strait, protected in a seafarer’s pocket. Long before Columbus arrived in the “New World”.
Glass beads as an early form of money
Mike Kunz, study author and archaeologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North at Fairbanks, visited Punyik Point several times. The site is about 1 mile from the continental divide in the Brooks Range. Today the place is uninhabited, but this was not always the case.
Punyik Point was on old trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean. It was also likely a reliable place to hunt caribou, explains Kunz in a press release. “And if for whatever reason the caribou didn’t move through the place where you were, there were excellent lake trout and large shrubbery willows at Punyik Point,” adds the archaeologist.
Archaeologists have been digging at Punyik Point for a long time. Here William Irving from the University of Wisconsin discovered two blue glass beads in the 1950s and 1960s. More than 40 years later, Kunz and his colleagues discovered three more pearls and copper jewelry nearby.
Researchers often discover “trade pearls” at Native American archaeological sites. The traders created glass beads using technology that did not exist in the indigenous cultures. When the explorers finally met indigenous people, they used these pearls to trade with them. For example, the Dutchman Peter Minuit is said to have concluded his business with the island of Manhattan in 1626 using trading pearls.
Does Columbus have a problem?
But only the age of the pearls made the find a sensation. Kunz and Mills had access to a technology that Irving did not have in the 1960s: carbon dating.
Glass beads themselves cannot be dated using the C14 method, only organic material such as plant fibers, charcoal, etc. If archaeologists discover organic material in addition to finds such as glass beads, these can be dated indirectly. Provided that both materials got into the ground at the same time.
Fortunately for the researchers, plant fibers in the form of a cord were retained on the metal jewelry found nearby. The researchers were able to send in these, probably made from the inner bark of a bush willow, for a radiocarbon test. A few months later the sensation.
“We almost fell backwards,” said Kunz. “[Das Ergebnis] came back and dated sometime in the 1400s. ”The glass beads arrived on the continent long before Columbus discovered America in 1492.
Glass pearl trail leads to Venice
The researchers ruled out one mistake. Further dating of other surrounding objects later confirms this result. The blueberry-sized glass beads tell an important story for archaeologists. “This is the earliest appearance of undoubtedly European material in the New World by overland transportation,” said Kunz.
The pearls from the tundra in northern Alaska also came from Venice – half a world away. The researchers came to this conclusion after intensive studies of the history of glass bead production in the city of Venice.
Along with the radiocarbon dating, the archaeologists determined that the pearls arrived at Punyik Point sometime between 1440 and 1480. Years before Columbus even thought of his trip.
But how did the pearls get from the canals of Venice to a site west of the Rocky Mountains?
Next stop: China, Siberia, Alaska
In the 1400s, the Venetians traded with people all over Asia. The pearls could therefore first have reached China in a wagon along the Silk Road eastwards. From there, “these early Venetian pearls found their way into the hinterland of the indigenous people, with some reaching as far as the Russian Far East,” the authors write in their study.
After this long journey, a trader might have stowed the pearls in his boat on the western bank of the Bering Sea. Then he dipped his paddle and set off for the New World, today’s Alaska. At its narrowest point, the Bering Strait is about 85 kilometers across the open ocean.
Kunz and Mills believe the pearls likely arrived at an old trading center called Shashalik, north of modern-day Kotzebue and a little west of Noatak. From there they were probably carried deep into the Brooks range by people on foot.
Someone at Punyik Point could have strung the exotic blue pearls into a necklace and lost or left them behind. A secret that archaeologists rediscovered centuries later.
(With material from the University of Alaska Fairbanks)
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