Archeologists in Idaho appear to have put another nail in the coffin of the long-held but rapidly dying theory that the first humans to arrive in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge connecting Asia and Alaska and kept hiking south.
Scientists working the Cooper’s Landing archeological site on Friday published a paper in Science reporting they had radiocarbon-dated projectile points there to sometime between 16,560 and 15,280 years before present.
That would make the artifacts the oldest to be accurately dated in North America, but more importantly, they precede the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers that for a time blocked travel south of the region now called Beringia.
“Humans therefore arrived in the Americas before an inland ice-free corridor had opened, so a Pacific coastal route was the probable entry route,” wrote the team of scientists from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan. “The stemmed projectile points closely resemble those found in Upper Paleolithic Japan, also supporting the hypothesis of a coastal route.”
The thinking is the ancestors of the earliest inhabitants of what is now the Lower 48 U.S. states followed the Pacific coast south to the mouth of the Columbia River and then followed it upstream to where it swings north near the confluence with the Snake River. There they would have turned east to follow the Snake to the Salmon River, the so-called “River of No Return” draining central Idaho.
Cooper’s Landing is near the confluence of the Salmon and Rock Creek. The Nez Perce Indians believe it is the site of a long-gone village site called Nipe’che.
The idea that the first Americas arrived in the Americas in the same way Europeans later arrived – by boat – has been gaining momentum for decades.
A radio-carbon date for a dig at Monte Verde, Chile in 1979 put human occupation there at 14,000 years before present – 1,000 years before the Clovis culture with its unique projectile points showed up in North America.
For years, few wanted to believe the find.
“To have people living in Chile 14,000 years ago would have meant that people arrived in the Americas earlier than 13,000 years ago,” Kambiz Kamrani wrote at Anthropology in 2008. “Lots of people rejected the radiocarbon dating because it challenged the Clovis theory. It wasn’t until 1997 that archaeologists reviewed the evidence, visited the Monte Verde site, and approved of the date.”
That fueled a lot of discussion about how people got to Chile so long ago. Boats seemed the only possibility. The result was the coastal migration hypothesis which has only gathered steam since its inception.
“Most archaeologists (now) think the first Americans arrived by boat,” Science headlined in 2017, but the story below noted the difficulty in finding evidence to support the theory.
“The evidence that might settle the question has been mostly out of reach,” observed reporter Lizzie Wade. “As the glaciers melted starting about 16,500 years ago, global sea level rose by about 120 meters, drowning many coasts and any settlements they held.”
The evidence has, however, been slowly increasing, and Cooper’s Landing adds a big piece to the puzzle.
Not that the 49th state has been cut out of the picture. Its role as an access point has simply changed from an upland point of contact to a marine jumping off point.
“….Most researchers today think the first inhabitants came by sea,” Wade wrote. “In this view, maritime explorers voyaged by boat out of Beringia – the ancient land now partially submerged under the waters of the Bering Strait – about 16,000 years ago and quickly moved down the Pacific coast, reaching Chile by at least 14,500 years ago.”
Humans appear to have been traveling by boat long before that. Cave paintings on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi have been dated to 35,000 years before present.
The oldest boat discovered to date goes back only about 10,000 years, but given that prehistoric boats were made of wood or skin it would take a unique set of circumstances for it to be preserved. But such is not impossible.
Who knows what could be hiding beneath the Bering Sea today in what was once Beringia.
As mapped by Jeffrey Bond with the Yukon Geological Survey in Canada, the region was 16,000 years ago a giant, Alaska-size oasis between glaciers to the south, east and west.
The Yukon Beringia Interpretative Center describes it as “home to a diverse, and yet unique, mix of strange and familiar animals. During the cold glacial times, icons like the woolly mammoth, steppe bison and scimitar cat roamed the treeless plains alongside caribou, muskox and grizzly bears. In still older times, where temperatures were similar to today, giant beavers, mastodons and camels browsed the interglacial forests.”
Though the wildlife would have supported human hunters, it is clear that then as now people moved south looking for warmer climates or maybe just some winter sun.