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It Looks Like America’s First People Were Island Hoppers

It Looks Like America’s First People Were Island Hoppers

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Standing right beside the question “are we alone in the universe” is “when and by whom was America first populated.” Now that question might finally be answered as a team of researchers propose a step-by-step plan for how America’s first people crossed over from Asia, on giant oceanic ‘steppingstones’ - or islands.

The new study into how America’s first people “arrived” did not consider bones or artifacts. Instead, the scientists applied a method of analysis called “retrospective sea-level mapping.” The researchers provide a fascinating digital palaeotopographic reconstruction of a “Bering Transitory Archipelago,” which they claim was about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) long and likely existed between 30,000 to 8000 years ago.

The study looks at the Bering Transitory Archipelago in relation to the most popular traditional population models. These models or theories include the Clovis-first, Ice-free (deglaciation) Corridor, Kelp Highway theories, and the Beringian Standstill hypothesis.

The new “Stepping-Stones” hypothesis suggests “scores of islands” in the Bering Sea region would have enabled populations to migrate from Asia, and the researchers even present evidence of “an isolated sanctuary” where Beringians became genetically distinct over thousands of years.

Here, the researchers of the latest theory on the migration of America’s first people show what the Bering Strait would have looked like 25,000 years ago (lower map). (Comptes Rendus, Géoscience)

Here, the researchers of the latest theory on the migration of America’s first people show what the Bering Strait would have looked like 25,000 years ago (lower map). (Comptes Rendus, Géoscience)

America’s First People Migrated East From Island to Island

For as long as science has existed researchers have debated, and often argued, as to when, where, and how America’s first people arrived on the continent and moved south from there to South America.

The most conventional theory was that the first migrants who populated the North American continent arrived across an ancient land bridge from Asia after the enormous Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets receded. This event created a navigable corridor nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) long that emerged east of the Rocky Mountains in present-day Canada.

Since the early 1930s, the Clovis-first theory has maintained the first Asians came into the Americas via an ice-free corridor about 13,000 BC. However, over the last 20 years several major archaeological sites have been dated to thousands of years before the Clovis people arrived in North America.

The new study proposes a “Bering Transitory Archipelago,” which the scientist claims “is profound.” The new “Stepping-Stones” hypothesis presents the latest theory for the first pathway to America.

This theory essentially claims that rather than having trekked across a harsh overland passage over the Bering landmass, America’s first people hopped across a string of islands, which had an abundance of resources compared with the Bering Strait land bridge.

The latest hypothesis claims that there were many islands in the Bering Strait (25,000 to 8,000 years ago) that could have been used to hop east. Here the Aleutian islands. (Oleksii Fadieiev / Adobe Stock)

The Latest Hypothesis Doesn’t Eliminate Other Theories

The new island-hopping hypothesis is said to “satisfy all four requirements for a viable hypothesis about the first human crossing to America.”

These criteria are listed in the paper as:

“a source population in Asia with a pathway loaded with abundant sustenance, settlements in North America soon after but not before, and an isolated sanctuary.”

The paper concludes that sometime between 30,000 to 8000 ago a facilitative corridor did exist, and it was “far better than the interior deglaciation corridor that dominated scientific debate for eight decades.”

Two population theories that benefit from the existence of a previously uncharted archipelago are the “Kelp Highway” and “Beringian Standstill” hypotheses.

The “Kelp highway” is described as having started as “a linear pattern of nearshore biomes associated with coasts, islands, and shallow seas stretching beside the advancing and retreating shores.”

The new archipelago theory implies a far greater expanse of such biomes surrounding many islands, while still clinging to mainland coasts. The “highway” would have advanced seaward from 30,000 to 20,500 ago, and then retreated landward beginning 20,000 years ago.

The “Beringian Standstill” hypothesis maintains that migration remained static for thousands of years before America’s first people moved on to North America.

The island-hopping theory also includes the idea of a “sanctuary” where Beringians might have swapped DNA “with little contribution from Asia while they became a separate people.”

The “kya” (thousands of years ago) numbers on this map indicate when “humans” first migrated from Africa and then steadily east to North America. (Dbachmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The “kya” (thousands of years ago) numbers on this map indicate when “humans” first migrated from Africa and then steadily east to North America. (Dbachmann / CC BY-SA 4.0)

With ‘How’ Satisfied, What About ‘When’ And ‘Where’?

The researchers have clearly presented their latest theory of how America’s first people reached the mainland between 30,000 and 20,500 BC. But their theory still has to explain verified material evidence gathered from Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt in southern Chile.

For the longest time this site has threatened to reshape the way archaeologists think about the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. This is based on believing that Professor Mario Pino’s controversial radio-carbon dating is accepted as being accurate.

Charcoal discovered at a lower layer of the Monte Verde site was radiocarbon dated to no later than 14,800 ago, and possibly as early as “33,000” years ago.

If this dating is correct, Monte Verde is the hands-down oldest-known site of human habitation in the Americas. The Monte Verde people were active about 3,000 years before the “first people” timeline presented in the new paper.

Lead archaeologist at the Monte Verde dig, Professor Tom Dillehay, was skeptical of his colleague’s dating results.

And as of 2007, Professor Mario Pino’s carbon dating results have not been formally accepted by the scientific community.

However, with sites dating to 25,000 years old popping up across the Americas it is surely only a matter of time before archaeologists smash the 30,000-year barrier.

Top image: An aerial view of the Bering Strait as it looks today. The latest paper on the migration of America's first people suggest that the strait was full of islands that allowed people from Asia to hop east to the mainland.         Source: Anton Balazh / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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