How did humans reach the Americas?

The article below continues a series of findings and speculations that humans arrived in the Americas long before the end of the last ice age. For decades the prevailing view was that humans made it to the Americas by crossing the exposed Bering land bridge and then racing south to the rest of the Americas when the ice began to melt 14,000 years ago. However, recent discoveries have pushed those dates back.

The oldest human remains found to date anywhere in the Americas are perhaps 14,000 years old, in a Mexican cave. The oldest clear evidence of human hunting anywhere in the Americas was discovered in Sequim Washington, at the foothills of the Olympic mountains – a spear point was discovered in a mastodon skeleton shoulder bone. This was dated to 13,800 years ago, and can be seen today in a little museum in the center of Sequim with the mastodon skeleton. However, within the last year fossilized human footprints were found in New Mexico that were 23,000 years old – the height of the great ice time. Additional sites are suggesting humans arrived in the Americas at least 33,000 years ago.

Dogma held that ancient humans could only travel over land. Only relatively recently has the field of human origins accepted that perhaps ancient humans were capable seafarers, able to transit long distances over the ocean, island to island or along the coast. There was evidence found in Timor of deep-sea fishing for tuna 40,000 years ago – a fish found far from land. As long as 80,000 years ago humans crossed to Australia over a strait 60 miles wide, requiring sailors to be able to navigate the open ocean out of sight of land.

For most of human history – nearly 2 million years – sea levels were lower than today, mainly because during those 2 million years we have suffered an ice age every 100,000 years which has lasted 80,000 to 90,000 years, and during which time the weather was colder worldwide and sea levels lower, often much lower. The Bering land bridge has been exposed and then buried many times during this period.

Also, for most of human history, we shared the planet with huge mammals, the so-called megafauna. The wooly mammoth and mastodon may be the most familiar, but it was the predators – dire wolves, saber tooth cats, huge hyenas, and short face bears – that are of concern here. These were meat eaters, huge, and the apex predator – not humans. The short face bear, for example, stood 12 feet high and could reach 15 feet. How high is 15 feet? If you go to a Costco gas area, the roof stretching over the pump stations is 15 feet high. Next time you’re there, take a look and then imagine a bear, weighing up to a ton, standing and reaching that high. Short face bears only ate meat, and could run 40 miles an hour.

The idea that humans wandered across the landscape anywhere on earth, or between melting ice sheets to reach the rest of the Americas, seems totally inconsistent with their ability to survive attacks from these animals during the tens, even hundreds, of thousands of years these predators were ascendant. More likely, it seems, our ancestors back in those times were few, scattered, and always choosing places to live and hunt as secure as possible from attack, suggesting that they lived on islands off the mainland, or in glacial refuges guarded by thick ice. It also seems logical that humans back then would choose to live along the coast, taking seafood for food – fish, shellfish, clams – and able to stay away from the great predators by choosing islands for safety.

We may never know, of course, mainly because all those coastal sites were located on a shore now buried beneath as much as 200 feet of water, and all evidence of their settlement, anywhere on earth, is vanished, gone, buried, forever.

Here is a speculation – humans learned to use canoes and skin covered boats and other craft long, long ago, maybe even before we became “modern” 70,000 to 100,000 years go (whatever that may mean) and we followed every coast, living off the sea and sheltered as best we could from the great predators, from our earliest existence and memory. Humans reached the Americas along the coast, not over land. This could have happened whenever the Bering land bridge was exposed – 14,000 years ago, 30,000 years ago, 80,000 years ago or, even, 130,000 years ago at the end of the ice age before this last one from which we emerged 12,000 years ago. (Interestingly, during the warm interglacial between that ice age – the Eemian – and the latest ice age, for a period of 10,000 years, it was warmer than it is today and sea levels were 20-50 feet higher than today.) We don’t know.

The absence of evidence does not mean there is no evidence, it simply means evidence may not have yet been found. Yes, there are no human remains found in the Americas older than 14,000 years, but does this mean no humans were here before then? Maybe. However, logic suggest that humans first travelled using water and the coasts, relying on seafood, staying as far as they could from the great predators who ruled the upland. Logic suggests early humans lived in small groups and frequently were wiped out by those animals or other great disasters, like glacial floods, earthquakes, volcanoes. All the evidence for the earliest human living spaces lies buried beneath the rising seas. And this is how things were until, this last time the earth warmed, the great predators were finally overcome either by human hunters or climate change or disease.

Author: Charlie Sheldon

Charlie Sheldon studied at Yale University (American Studies) and the University of Massachusetts (Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and Resource Management). He then went to sea as a commercial fisherman off New England, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster, red crab, squid, and swordfish. Active in the fight for the 200-mile Fisheries Conservation Zone, he later worked as a consultant for Fishery Management Councils, developing fishery management plans and conducting gear development projects to develop more selective fisheries. He spent 28 years working for seaports (New York, Seattle, and Bellingham) as a project and construction manager and later as an executive. In addition to overseeing habitat cleanup projects, he worked with Puget Sound Tribes establish a system whereby tribal fishing could coexist with commercial shipping in Seattle Harbor and Elliot Bay. Then, nearly ancient, he returned to sea, shipping out with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, and Bosun. Starting with commercial container vessels, on the New York to Singapore run, he finished his career aboard naval ships for Military Sealift Command. His last gig was as bosun aboard USNS Shughart, New Orleans to New York, in 2016. Always a writer, he published Fat Chance with Felony and Mayhem Press in 2005. He began working on ideas for Strong Heart long, long ago and began serious research in 2010. These days he hikes in the Olympics whenever he can, cooks for his wife, and continues to write tales in Ballard, Washington.

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