Analysis of ten small glass beads found in northern Alaska has revealed that they were produced in Venice in the 15th century, pre-dating all other examples of glass trade beads in the region by several centuries, and possibly representing the earliest European material found in the Western Hemisphere, arriving several decades before Columbus landed in 1492.
Eight of the ten beads were found at Punyik Point, a site in the Brooks Range, located on ancient trade routes from the Bering Strait to the Arctic Ocean. Another was found at a site on Lake Kaiyak, 22km west of Punyik Point, and the last at Kinyiksugvik Lake, 20km north of Punyik Point. Although the beads were found across three different sites, research recently published in American Antiquity has concluded that they probably reached the arctic trading centre of Sheshalik as a single group, before being separated.
The turquoise blue, slightly translucent beads are of a type called IIa40, also known by regional names such as ‘Early Blue’ and ‘Ichtucknee Plain’, which is one of earliest varieties of drawn beads, developed in Venice in the 14th or 15th century. AMS radiocarbon dating of organic material associated with the beads in Alaska indicates that they probably arrived there between 1443 and 1488, providing important evidence that such beads were being produced and distributed across the world by the mid-15th century.
These beads are a unique find, representing the only IIa40 beads of any age found in Alaska, across the Canadian arctic, or anywhere in North America west of the Great Plains. The incredible journey that brought them to this location also makes them noteworthy. Travelling more than 17,000km along various trade routes from Venice towards China, into the Russian Far East, and then across the Bering Strait into arctic Alaska, they represent the first evidence of an overland connection between Europe and Alaska before the 16th century.