Not only did the first Americans arrive on the continent earlier than scientists thought, but they may have also traveled by sea instead of a land bridge.
People of the Kwakiutl in canoes [Photo by Edward S. Curtis]
According to a widely-accepted theory on how the Americas were populated, people from northeastern Asia with Siberian ancestry traveled over a land bridge across the Bering Strait and into North America. This likely occurred during the last ice age, which took place about 13,500 years ago. The people that crossed the Bering Strait formed what is now known as the Clovis culture, named after Clovis, New Mexico, where their first cultural artifacts were found.
These artifacts, excavated in 1932, mostly consisted of stone tools. Some human remains from the Clovis culture have also been found. One set of remains found in a Clovis burial site in Montana belonged to a baby boy named Anzick-1. Genetic analysis revealed that the boy had genetic ties to modern Native American populations.
Is this the "kelp highway"? [Image by J. You and N. Cary/Science]
This “Clovis-first” theory was generally accepted by archaeologists in the 20th century. However, some scientists disagreed that the people of the Clovis culture came from north Asia. There is no genetic evidence to support a genetic link between the ancient peoples of north Asia and modern Native Americans.
However, what scientists generally agree upon is that the Clovis culture did exist. What’s now under contention is whether or not these people were the first Americans. Researchers have found evidence that shows that there were earlier arrivals to the Americas 17,000 to 20,000 years ago, way before the Clovis people ever arrived.
A new study now suggests the “kelp highway hypothesis”. According to this hypothesis, the first people to populate the Americas came over by boat, not by crossing a land bridge. They may have traveled from northeast Asia to the Americas by tracing the coasts of the Pacific Rim, all the way to their destination. According to the researchers, these travelers survived their long journey by taking food from the very biodiverse kelp forests lining the coasts.
Todd Braje, one of the researchers, also thinks that submerged continental shelves, which the first settlers of the Americas likely utilized, need to be explored in order to find more evidence for the kelp highway theory.
It may be difficult to find archaeological evidence of these first settlers, since they probably came in a small group and the lands they utilized are likely underwater now. However, finding evidence isn’t impossible. After all, archaeologists have already found the 14,500-year-old butchered remains of a mastodon as well as some stone tools at the bottom of the Aucilla River in Florida.
Individuals that may not have been Homo sapiens had likely butchered the animal for a meal about a thousand years before the Clovis people arrived. More evidence like this may come up in places like shorelines that haven’t changed much in the past 20,000 years, caves, and rock shelters.
Though the Clovis-first hypothesis on the origins of the first Americans had seemed quite solid at the time it was formulated, we now have more questions than ever before due to newer findings.
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