Today's blog is highly unusual, because it took the place of the original blog I had in mind today. It's a last minute replacement blog, because when I read the story I knew I had to talk about it, so I moved today's original blog to tomorrow, so that I could do this "last minute" blog about a fascinating story that K.M. spotted and shared (a big thank you!). And to be completely honest, this is a fun story, because it has me thinking. The story was published by the Anchorage Daily News a couple of days ago, and it's one of those stories that makes you scratch your head. Why? Well, because blue glass beads made sometime around the 15th or 16th centuries in the Most Serene (ha! that's a laugh!) Republic (another hearty belly laugh) of Venice were found in the Alaskan tundra:
Now before you head to the Doge's Palace to drop your secret denunciations of the Anchorage Daily News to the Council of Ten into the lion's mouths, check this out:
Glass beads the size of blueberries found by archaeologists in a Brooks Range house-pit might be the first European item ever to arrive in North America, predating the arrival of Columbus by a few decades.
Made in Venice, Italy, the tiny blue beads might have traveled more than 10,000 miles in the skin pockets of aboriginal adventurers to reach Bering Strait. There, someone ferried them across the ocean to Alaska.
At least 10 of the beads survived a few centuries in the cold dirt of three locations in northern Alaska. Archaeologists recently unraveled the mystery of the beads in a paper published in the journal American Antiquity.
Mike Kunz, one of the authors, is an archaeologist with the UA Museum of the North. He retired in 2012 from the Bureau of Land Management after three decades as an expert on ancient people of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. Working for BLM, he visited Punyik Point several times.
Punyik Point, a mile from the Continental Divide in the Brooks Range, is unoccupied today. It was a seasonal camp for generations of inland Eskimos.
Punyik Point was on ancient trade routes from the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean, and was probably a dependable place to hunt caribou as the animals moved in fall and spring, Kunz said.
How in the name of sense did Venetian beads make it all the way to Alaska?!? True enough, Venice conducted commerce with just about everyone, including China. The article says as much:
In the 1400s, craftsmen in the city-state of Venice traded with people throughout Asia. The beads might have traveled in a horse-drawn cart along the “Silk Road” eastward toward China. From there, “these early Venetian beads found their way into the aboriginal hinterlands, with some moving to the Russian Far East,” the authors wrote in their recent paper.
After that great journey, a trader may have tucked the beads into his kayak on the western shore of the Bering Sea. He then dipped his paddle and made passage to the New World, today’s Alaska. The crossing of Bering Strait at its narrowest is about 52 miles of open ocean.
Kunz and Mills think the beads found at Punyik Point and two other sites probably arrived at an ancient trading center called Shashalik, north of today’s Kotzebue and just west of Noatak. From there, people on foot, maybe traveling with a few dogs, carried them deep into the Brooks Range.
There you have it: it's the latest variation on the old Bering Strait story. And it's plausible.
But as readers of my book The Financial Vipers of Venice might guess, I have some high octane speculation to advance concerning this story. In that book I outlined the case that the claimed Venetian voyage to the New World by the Zeno brothers in the fourteenth century, fully a century before Columbus, may have been part of a much older Venetian pattern of New World knowledge perhaps acquired due to Venice's long association with the Templars. In short, I think the story of Nicholas and Antonio Zeno's voyage to the New World ca. 1380 is true and perhaps just a component of a wider (and secret) pattern of Templar-Venetian involvement in the New World long before it's official discovery by Christopher Columbus (an agent of Ferdinand and Isabella, and himself from Venice's long time rival, Genoa). For the reasons why I think that, I refer the reader to my book The Financial Vipers of Venice, because the details of this story date all the way back to Venice's role in the Fourth Crusade under the famous "'Blind' Doge" Enrico Dandolo, and are much too complicated to review here. What this boils down to is that an entirely different trade route might be involved than the route proposed in the Anchorage Daily News article, a route not through eastern Siberia and the Bering Strait, but rather, overland and sea from eastern Canada.
However, there's another possibility as well, and we can summarize that possibility in one word: China. And with that word, there's no need to invoke overland routes to the Bering Sea, and then across the Bering Sea, for China conducted commerce by sea over a wide swath of the western Pacific, and there is a strong case to be made that China conducted expeditions to the New World via the Pacific. Alaska, for such wide-ranging Chinese explorers, would be "right next door" so to speak. Indeed, there's even a case to be made that Marco Polo - a Venetian - actually accompanied the Chinese during one of these voyage to the New World. Of course, when Polo returned to Europe he was eventually captured and imprisoned by... (drum roll please)... Genoa.
What all this adds up to is (as I argued in Financial Vipers of Venice) is that there is a "hidden history" of western Europe's involvement in the New World that ante-dates the Columbus expedition, and that history has much to do with bulli0n, trade, banking, and Templars... and China. Just how far flung that trade may be - if these beads are any indication - remains to be seen.
But lurking in the background of all of this high octane speculation is a question: What possibly could Alaskan Indians have that Venice (or China, or both) would want to trade for beads? We could give the usual response: blubber, furs, fish and so on. But I suspect there is something else entirely in play, something worth the price of a few beads: information... perhaps Venice (and its Templar) allies, and perhaps even the Chinese, were looking for something that they suspected was in the New World...
See you on the flip side...