By Land or Sea? The Heated Debate on the Peopling of the Americas Continues…
Researchers should always be ready for the next big discovery, they never know where it may come from. Having an open mind and questioning peculiar finds is what sets things in motion. Take for example the increasingly common perspective that the first people in the Americas came by boat. For one researcher, it all started with a bathroom break and an unlikely discovery on Cedros Island in Mexico.
According to the magazine Science, Matthew Des Lauriers was a graduate student at the University of California in 2004 when he came across some stone tools and shells that didn’t fit in with the other artifacts scattered about the landscape of the mountainous island believed to have been inhabited for the past 1500 years. Scooping up some shells and charcoal, he sent a sample of the out of place items for radiocarbon dating – and it came back with an unexpected date - from 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Matthew Des Lauriers turns a beach cobble into a stone tool like one used by people who lived on Cedros Island nearly 13,000 years ago. (Lizzie Wade)
While it used to be common thought that the first travelers into the Americas crossed over the Bering Strait on foot, more and more studies are questioning that idea. The emerging view now suggests that ancient maritime travelers set out from Beringia about 16,000 years ago, and within just 1500 years their followers had ended up all the way down the Pacific coast to modern day Chile.
- Did first Americans make a 10,000-Year Pit Stop on Beringian land bridge?
- Skull Analysis Concludes the Americas Were Settled by More than One Wave of Migrants
Although the discoveries Des Lauriers and others have made in the recent past show that people were already settled along the coast soon after the (mostly) agreed upon date for the first peopling of the Americas, they are not believed to have provided enough proof for the trip beginning by boat –critics, such as David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, say it simply suggests boats were used after crossing the land bridge.
The Beringia Land Bridge. Did the earliest people entering the Americas trek this or pass by it in their boats? (CC BY SA 3.0)
Where could that cold, hard proof (possibly) be found? Along the Alaskan and Canadian coast. As David Meltzer has said, "All eyes are on the coast." So now researchers are searching for evidence along, and under, the waters at ‘the gateway to the Americas.’
The belief in big game hunters and Clovis-first that were so prominent are now falling by the wayside as recent discoveries and improved dating techniques show time and again that the old picture doesn’t quite fit with the new information.
For example, a recent analysis of human skulls provides evidence that the Americas were not just populated by one wave of migration – in fact, researchers have said that it took several migrations of ancient Asians and possibly Australian or Polynesian people to populate the Americas thousands of years ago.
Even more surprising, research presented in April 2017 about an Ice Age site in San Diego, California proposes people were already in the Americas 130,000 years ago. The evidence for that extreme date comes from a trove of ancient bones that were apparently modified by early humans.
- Fuente Magna, the Controversial Rosetta Stone of the Americas
- Stone tool unearthed in Oregon may date back 15,800 years or more
If that’s not enough, other researchers are continually pressing that the whole Bering Strait, people spreading down from North America belief is just not right. They sometimes present evidence in the form of unconventional dates for sites and artifacts or surprising inscriptions to support the belief that it may not have started up north.
Others say that the mainstream theory of how the Americas were populated is downright biologically unviable.
Rock paintings at Pedra Furada, Brazil. (CC BY SA 4.0) Many alternative researchers have looked to South America for the peopling of the Americas. Could it be true?
There are obviously still many missing pieces to this puzzle. The story of the first people in the Americas is always transforming and little by little we seem to be getting closer to the real story. While some ideas are certainly more controversial than others, that doesn’t mean researchers should take the easy route…our prehistoric ancestors almost certainly did not.
Top image: Native Americans traveling by boat (public domain)