Did these European pearls found in Alaska arrive before Christopher Columbus?

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A controversial new study reports the discovery of several blue pearls native to Europe in Alaska. According to the authors, these jewels could have been transported before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World.

It all started in the 1960s, with the discovery in Alaska of the first of these blue pearls by an American archaeologist. Since then, ten of them have been found on three indigenous sites. Archaeologists also found other artifacts on site, including copper bracelets, iron pendants, but also organic material such as string (shrub willow bark), animal bones and charcoal. .

Pre-Columbian exchanges?

Where it gets interesting is that these famous pearls were not created in Alaska, but in Europe, according to the authors. A radiocarbon dating of one of the strings found, around which several of these beads were strung, also suggests that the string dates probably from 1397 to 1488.

The team also examined five of these beads by neutron activation analysis. Concretely, the idea consists in bombarding the samples with radioactivity, then measuring the radioactive decay through the gamma rays emitted, unique to each element. In this way, researchers can identify the chemical composition of each sample. The results of this study showed that the beads in question consist of soda glass, “typical of 15th century Venetian manufacture, and later European“, Write the authors.

Based on this observation, the authors suggest that these beads could have been made in Venice in the 15th century, before being transported east through Eurasia, then across the Bering Strait to Alaska. This affirmation is important, insofar as it involves the first exchanges between Europeans and North American natives. before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Three of the pearls (each shown at two angles) found near Kaiyak Lake (left), Kinyiksugvik Lake (center), and Punyik Point in Alaska. Credits: Lester Ross; Charles Adkins
A possible route. Credits: Boreal imagery

A controversial study

However, other archaeologists dispute these findings, claiming that while these pearls are old, they are not older than “the 1492 deadline”. “These pearls cannot be pre-Columbian, because Europeans did not make this type of pearl so early“, Maintains Elliot Blair, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama.

Instead, historical and archaeological evidence of drawn beads suggests that these glass beads were produced at the end of the 16th or early 17th century. And while the analysis shows that the string was probably created in the 15th century, it also shows that a date in the early 17th century, while less likely, is also possible.

Furthermore, it is not even known if these pearls actually came from Venice, as the researchers suggest. According to Karlis Karklins, independent pearl researcher and editor of the Society of Bead Researchers, it is even highly likely that the pearls are from France.

Pearls of this type were indeed found on several sites, in Rouen, at the beginning of the 17th century. “I don’t know if such pearls have ever been recovered in archaeological contexts in or around Venice“.

For Elliot Blair, however, the discovery remains very interesting. “Even with this later dating it remains much earlier than the first documented contacts between the natives of Alaska and Europeans“. Until now, it was believed that the first modern European to come into contact with natives of Alaska was none other than Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer, in 1741.

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