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The peopling of the Americas

There's plenty of evidence to challenge the "Beringia-first" hypothesis....

Standard ideas about the first human migrations to the Americas were originally based only upon the "Bering Strait (or Beringia) Theory."

This theory — the most sensible* — has argued that people crossed overland from Siberia to Alaska during a period when glacial ice held enough water above ground as ice that the sea-level decreased enough to allow a land bridge crossing on foot.

The theory is almost certainly true — mostly. It's incomplete.

At the extreme southern part of South America, at a dig known as Monte Verde, there is hard evidence of a human encampment from 12,500 years before present. This discovery (in 1975) was troublesome for those who believed that the Clovis point was the best evidence of the first immigrants. At Monte Verde, there is inconclusive evidence of people in the south of Chile* more than 30,000 years ago.

These days, the evidence at Monte Verde in Chile is no longer a quirk. The Bering land bridge theory may not be adequate.

Before the excavation of Monte Verde, the oldest evidence of human occupation of the Americas was the Clovis Point and associated similar stone weapon remnants found in New Mexico and around the southeast of the United States. These artifacts, about 11,500 years old, had been compared in style to the technology of the Solutreans, a people in areas of modern-day France and Spain of about 20,000 years ago who were quite advanced for the time. The Solutreans built boats and fished. There is a possibility that some of them reached the Americas, following a route along the southern edge of Ice-Age sea ice.

The Clovis-Solutrean technology link is only hypothetical. (And, you would have thought until recently, wildly so.) But there is new genetic evidence which also suggests an ancient European immigration. The so-called "Xenia clan," or Haplogroup X, is one of the seven maternal lines traceable via mitochondrial DNA, and it points to a European origin. About 3% of American Indians carry this gene, as much as 25% toward the north-northwestern part of the continent.

These genetic lines have diverged enough from the extant European X-clan that they seem to show ancient trans-Atlantic migration.

The Beringia theory is not obsolete. It's at least mostly correct — but possibly incomplete.


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* The newer date — of people occupying a camp at Monte Verde in southern Chile 12,500 years Before Present — is well-supported, with more than 700 artifacts that demonstrate the existence of a camp that was occupied by 20 to 30 people for a part of one year. The older date, 33,370 to 33,020 BP, is more speculative and is based upon a conspicuous concentration of charred wood from a meter-and-a-half deeper at the same location.

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*There are problems with the Bering Strait theory at its basis — such as questions about locations of glaciers and passable corridors, and matters of human survivability in an obviously hostile region. But, theoretical problems notwithstanding, it is clear that people did pass through this way. The new challenges to the Beringia theory do not suggest that the Bering Strait was not a major route, or even the major route; but that it was not the only one — and probably not the first one.

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*The Pacific Islanders of modern times have shown the ability to "read" the behavior of the ocean's surface and the wider environment and predict something about islands unseen over the horizon....

These people are from recent centuries, not millennia past. Hawaii was probably settled around 300 or 400 AD, and Easter Island possibly that early.

Not tens-of-thousands of years ago, true — but thousands of miles of navigation sans instrumentation, by the same species.

Return to "island-hopping."...