Archaeologists have found Venetian glass trade beads at three prehistoric Inuit sites in Alaska. In the absence of trans-Atlantic communication, the most likely route these artifacts traveled from Europe to northwestern Alaska is across Eurasia and over the Bering Strait. 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.
Archaeologists often find ‘trade beads’ at archaeological sites dating between 1550 and 1750 CE throughout the Caribbean, the eastern coast of Central and North America, and the eastern Great Lakes region.
Europeans and others created glass beads using technology that didn’t exist in Native cultures.
Explorers carried them to trade with aboriginal people they encountered. Dutchman Peter Minuit included trade beads in his deal for Manhattan Island in 1626.
Dr. Mike Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Dr. Robin Mills found at least ten glass trade beads at Punyik Point and two other archaeological sites in Alaska.
“Punyik Point, a mile from the Continental Divide in the Brooks Range, is unoccupied today. It was a seasonal camp for generations of inland Inuits,” Dr. Kunz said.
“Punyik Point was on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean, and was probably a dependable place to hunt caribou as the animals moved in fall and spring.”
“And, if for some reason the caribou didn’t migrate through where you were, Punyik Point had excellent lake trout and large shrub-willow patches.”
Along with the radiocarbon dating of the Alaska twine and charcoal found near the beads, the researchers figured the glass beads arrived at Punyik Point sometime between 1440 and 1480.
“How did the beads make their way from the canals of Venice to a plateau in the Brooks Range?” they said.
“In the 1400s, craftsmen in the city-state of Venice traded with people throughout Asia. The beads might have traveled in a horse-drawn cart along the Silk Road eastward toward China.”
“From there, these early Venetian beads found their way into the aboriginal hinterlands, with some moving to the Far East.”
“After that great journey, a trader may have tucked the beads into his kayak on the western shore of the Bering Sea. He then dipped his paddle and made passage to the New World, today’s Alaska. The crossing of Bering Strait at its narrowest is about 84 km (52 miles) of open ocean.”
The scientists think the beads found in Alaska probably arrived at an ancient trading center called Shashalik, north of today’s Kotzebue and just west of Noatak.
“From there, people on foot, maybe traveling with a few dogs, carried them deep into the Brooks Range,” they said.
“Someone at Punyik Point might have strung the exotic blue beads in a necklace, which they lost or left behind as they walked away.”
“The tiny blue spheres rested for centuries at the entrance to an underground house north of the Arctic Circle, waiting to be found.”