Monday, February 08, 2021

History of global trade

Long ago and far away

A recent archaeological identification from several sites in the Brooks Range of Alaska looks innocuous: a few bright blue glass beads. Beads are a routine item in European-indigenous trade, no?

Yes.  Except these blue beads are reliably dated (from organic materials attached to them) to the mid-to-late 1400s. They evidently made their way from a factory in Venice, Italy, to the Brooks Range of north-central Alaska before the first non-Viking Europeans crossed the Atlantic, let alone ventured inland.  The berry-sized beads most likely travelled the Silk Road from the Mediterranean into Asia, then north in Siberia, and then along indigenous trade routes across the Bering Strait and into Alaska.

The authors of the paper, archaeologists Michael Kunz from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Robin Mills from the Bureau of Land Management, suspect the beads were trade goods that, after passing through China’s Silk Road, eventually made their way through Siberia and eventually into Alaska via the Bering Strait. If confirmed, it would be “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,” the authors wrote in their study.

Ten examples of the beads have been found. Some of the discoveries, indeed, are more than sixty years old and are attributed to pioneering Canadian archaeologist William Irving, but were undated until recently. 

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