It was a simple story, and probably – probably – too good to be true.
Two great vast continents standing open, uninhabited, alone, separated from the rest of the world by two enormous oceans, until the glaciers came, and drew down the sea level hundreds of feet, and so exposed a bridge, a wide corridor of land stretching between and connecting Siberia and Alaska. And no mere footpath – this now-submerged land, Beringia, was hundreds of miles wide, steppe country, treeless, covered with grasses, and sedges, and dwarf willows. Huge clouds of mosquitos swirled over the ponds and streams that ran across the land, but they were not sufficient to bother the great herds that walked that land – the reindeer, the caribou, the horses, and bison, and mammoths, and mastodons.
And where the game went, the story goes, the people followed. Up and up, north and east into the shining sun, in the long, long days, following the herds. North and east, ever on, until those people were no longer in Siberia, but now, in Beringia, and sometime later, in Alaska. And then Canada, and the land stood open, and they came in, and so peopled North America. Following the game across the land.
A simple story and a beautiful one.
This is the theory that has dominated thinking about the peopling of the Americas for decades. These first Americans, so the theory goes, were associated with a specific type of spear point, called a Clovis point, after the town in New Mexico where the ancient points were first discovered. And they arrived in North America sometime – roughly – no one knows for sure – between 11,500 and 13,500 years ago.
But – Is the story true? Was that how and when people came to the Americas? And if true, still other questions remain – was that the only way that they came here? And was that the only time?
Because there are anomalies. There are doubts. There are questions.
There are, in short, other theories, and tantalizing hints of evidence to support them.
From the lack of any fossil evidence whatsoever, it is reasonable to conclude that until quite recently both North and South America were entirely uninhabited. And humans didn’t evolve here. Yet when Columbus arrived, he found people here; earlier, when the Norsemen came, they found the skraelings – human beings. So somehow, at some point, humans made their way here, into the Americas. But how? And when?
There are really only five ways they could have come. When the glaciers were in full flower, the ocean level was so low that that land bridge, Beringia – hundreds of miles wide – formed between Siberia and Alaska. Maybe, following the game, bands of people came through that way, and then down through Canada.
Two: Maybe they sailed along the coast between Siberia and Alaska, and then on down the coast.
Three – maybe some people – maybe – sailed along the edges of the glaciers from Europe to Iceland, then Greenland, and island hopped along the Canadian coast and down into north America.
Four – maybe bold sailors sailed right across the Pacific.
Five – maybe equally bold sailors sailed right across the Atlantic.
Maybe they came in different ways at different times. And maybe they came in waves. The problem is, we just don’t know.
But there is tantalizing evidence that suggests that the Clovis model is overly simplistic, and probably not entirely accurate. This is not to say that people didn’t come over the land bridge we call Beringia – they probably did. But when they came, and whether that was the only was they got here, remain unsettled. The questions remain:
When did people first come to the Americas? How?
Over the next several entries, these are the questions I’ll be looking at.