Christopher Columbus may have sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but some tiny blue beads beat him to it, reaching North America a few decades sooner, to become possibly the earliest European-made objects on the continent.
The beads, about the size of blueberries, were made in Venice, Italy, and found by archeologists working at three locations in northern Alaska, the University of Alaska Fairbanks said in a press release published Thursday.
The team found three beads at Punyik Point, a famous archeological site that sat on ancient trade routes from the Arctic Ocean to the Bering Sea, during digs in 2004 and 2005, along with some plant fibers.
The presence of organic matter meant they could use accelerator mass spectrometry carbon dating to find out when the plants were alive.
Study co-author Mike Kunz, an archeologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, said he was amazed by the results.
“We almost fell over backwards. It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s. It was like, Wow!” Kunz said in the release.
Tests on objects found near beads discovered at two other sites provided more evidence, and the archeologists think the beads arrived at Punyik Point between 1440 and 1480.
“This was the earliest that indubitably European materials show up in the New World by overland transport,” said Kunz.
In comparison, Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492.
Researchers then pinpointed the provenance of the beads by studying the history of glass-making in Venice, according to the press release. These kinds of beads had never before been found west of the Rocky Mountains.
Venice maintained trade routes with civilizations throughout Asia during the 1400s, and the beads could have been taken along the Silk Road toward China before ending up in the Russian Far East, the university said.
From there, a trader may have paddled the beads across the Bering Strait in a kayak. The researchers think they were probably taken to Shashalik, an ancient trading center, before they were carried to Punyik Point.
Researchers say they may have been strung onto a necklace that was lost or left behind.
The study was published January 20 in the journal American Antiquity.