These beads predate Christopher Columbus’ arrival: controversial study

These beads predate Christopher Columbus’ arrival: controversial study

02/16/2021

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Christopher Columbus’ status as a trailblazing explorer is in question — again.

A handful of bright blue beads have thrust historians and archaeologists into debate over a new study that may challenge the story that Columbus was the first European to colonize the New World in the late 15th century.

The azure glass baubles dug up in Alaska may have Venetian origins, according to a report in the journal American Antiquity, and presumably traveled 10,500 miles from Italy across Eurasia and into Arctic Alaskan territory, on just the other side of the Bering Strait land bridge that once connected North America and Siberia.

Radiocarbon dating of the twine found attached to the beads, likely made from shrub willow bark, indicates the bangle could date back to the 14th or 15th centuries, potentially predating Columbus’ 1492 voyage. However, the margin of possibility also suggests origins as late as the 16th or 17th centuries.

“We were astounded, because that was before Columbus had ever even discovered the New World, by several decades,” University of Alaska researcher Michael Kunz, told Live Science.

If the researchers’ hypotheses are true, the beads would be the oldest known European artifacts to have made their way into North America.

However, critics argue the style of glass bead, called “drawn” beads, are not consistent with the 14th-to-15th-century range, as all previous research has indicated that this type was not manufactured before the 16th century.

“These beads cannot be pre-Columbian, because Europeans weren’t making beads of this type that early,” said University of Alabama anthropologist Elliot Blair, who was not involved in the study. He told Live Science that, even without the pre-Columbian aspect, the results suggest a “really cool story.”

“Even with this later dating, an early 17th-century date for these beads is still much earlier than first documented contact between Alaska Natives and Europeans.”

Kunz acknowledged his study is “going against the grain” by claiming that drawn beads had perhaps come about centuries earlier than we previously thought. “But we have good solid scientific evidence — radiocarbon dating, instrumental neutron activation analysis — that stands behind what we’re saying,” he said.

Regardless of the beads’ exact age, bead expert and historian Karlis Karklins, who also spoke to the science outlet, said the study authors can be confident in their claims that these beads are indeed the oldest European products ever found in Alaska.

“How they got to distant Alaska from western Europe in the latter part of the 16th or early 17th century is quite a mystery in itself,” Karklins said. “That really invites serious investigation.”

It is well known that Leif Erikson led a crew of Norwegian Vikings to Canada and Greenland, arriving in the Great White North more than 500 years before Columbus. Nevertheless, historians continue to hold an understanding that Columbus’ landing in the West Indies was the impetus for systemic colonization by a number of European countries, including Italy, Spain, France, England and Netherlands.

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