An ancient tooth uncovered in Russia is unlikely to do much to bridge Alaska’s rural-urban divide, but it does appear to indicate that Alaska Natives and the Caucasians who later followed them to North America originally came from pretty similar locations in Eurasia.
Genetic material extracted from the approximately 14,000-year-old tooth showed “a direct link with the First Americans” and “genetic interactions with western Eurasian steppe populations” during the Early Neolithic and Bronze ages, European scientists have reported in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Cell.
The new findings suggest Native Americans emerged from a population of people once inhabiting northeast Eurasia, according to the study’s authors.
Jennifer Raff, a geneticist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, told Science Magazine the new information reinforces the theory that Native Americans became genetically isolated in Beringia – a land mass now largely lost beneath the waters of the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi and Bering seas.
Beringia spanned a huge area around what was long thought of as the Bering Land Bridge linking the North American and Asian continents. During the Pleistocene Epoch a million years ago, what is now Saint Lawrence Island rose above the Beringia plains as the top of a mountain range in the south of the region.
This was the time of the Ice Age when the oceans dropped because much of the planet’s water was frozen into ice, but not all of the globe was ice.
“The human history of Beringia started when people first moved onto the land bridge in pursuit of land mammals, edible plants, and other resources for surviving the cold glacial climate,” according to the National Park Service, which now manages the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska. “These people became the first Americans, some of whom later moved south from Alaska and populated the continents now known as North and South America. However, some of these people also settled in Alaska and became the ancestors of modern Inupiat, Yupik, Unangax^, and Athabascan.”
A long separation
Over the thousands of years that followed, these emigrants out of Eurasia became isolated from their old relatives. Exactly where and when contacts resumed is unclear, but the Vikings met Paleo-Eskimo groups on what is now Canada’s Newfoundland Island more than 1,000 years ago.
Things did not go well.
“Almost as soon as the Norsemen hauled their long boats onto the beaches, fighting broke out with the local natives,” according to the website Military History Now. The Vikings eventually were reported to have established a settlement of more than 100 people, but it did not last more than a few years.
The Viking site is now the home of Canada’s “L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site,” which recognizes the first failed attempt of Europeans to colonize North America from the east sometime around 985.
Columbus wouldn’t “discover” the continent for another 500 years, and the next contact between the Eurasians from the east and the Eurasians from the west wouldn’t come for nearly 100 years after that when gold-seeking Spaniards met the newly arrived Navajo Indians in the North America Southwest.
‘The Navajo name for Spaniard is Nakai, meaning ‘those who wander around,’ referring to the various expeditions that frequently came into Navajo country,” writes Navajo historian Harold Carey Jr. at Navajo People. “That the Navajos consider themselves the aristocrats of the southwest they tacitly admit by calling themselves ‘Diné,’ the People.
“They are of Athabascan stock, and ethnologists are generally agreed that they came from the north, drifting into the area they now occupy less than a thousand years ago. In earliest historical times they were found wandering over what is now western New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and southern Utah and Colorado.”
Many Alaskans will quickly recognize the similarity between the Diné and the Dené, the common Athabascan word for “people” across Alaska and northern Canada. The linguistic similarity was what first connected the Navajo to Alaska Athabascans.
A large-scale study of the first North Americans conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008 confirmed it and added some detail. The study concluded the Navajo arrived in the Southwest sometime in the early 1500s.
Alaskans, the history now records, were escaping to the warm Southwest long before former, half-term Alaska governor and full-time polebrity Sarah Palin became the state’s most famous “snowbird” with homes in Arizona and Big Lake.
While the Athabascans were moving south, the new Europen arrivals were moving west and north. But when the first white Eurasians finally arrived in Alaska less than 300 years ago, they would come from the east in another wave of humanity.
Their roots were in much the same region of those first Beringians but now they called themselves “Russians.”
In 1763, Unangan/Eastern Aleuts destroyed four Russian vessels at Unalaska, Umnak and Unimak islands and killed more than 190 Russians. Twelve escaped to report what had happened.
But the Russians never subdued the Alaska Native population. The two sides fought off and on skirmishes until the sale of Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 complete with what the treaty of sale called Alaska’s “uncivilized tribes.”
The Americans – having arrived in North America from the east and marched west across the continent before turning their attention to the north – spent yet more years engaged in battles with their distance ancestors who came from not far away on the Eurasian continent and moved ever east and south to populate the continent.
None of it was ever easy and seldom peaceful. Even before the White Outsiders arrived in-country, the earliest occupants were engaged in their own incessant wars.
The Bow and Arrow Wars raged on the state’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for almost 300 years from 1400 to 1700. At an archeological dig about 420 miles west of Anchorage, Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has uncovered the remnants of an ancient massacre involving local tribes.
Somewhere around 1650, Knecht told Archaeology magazine, there was a horrific massacre at a site now called Nunalleq that ended with a community house being put to the torch with people and dogs inside.
“We found this burned floor with all this burned stuff on it, riddled with arrow points—absolutely riddled,” Knecht told reporter Daniel Weiss. “We also found the bodies of people who were dragged out of the house, along with the long grass ropes that were used to do so. Their skeletons are burned and kind of dismembered.
“We found this charred beam right across the middle of a dog, and it cooked him so fast, so intensely, that he was pretty well preserved.”
It is an amazing part of history that people who were blood brothers or close to it less than 20,000 years – a blip in time in the long history of the planet- managed to become bloody enemies for centuries, and to this day continue to divide themselves by the color of their skin, their place of residences, their philosophies of social organization or, increasingly in America, allegiance to a political party.
The United States of America might have been founded on high principles and fought a Civil War to put an end to the global scourge of slavery on the North American continent, the country has never been able to eliminate tribalism.
But at least Alaskans can be happy that the same people separated by centuries of history and prehistory are not shooting at each other across that much talked about urban-rural divide.