Ancient Footprints Push Back Date of Human Arrival in the Americas
Human footprints found in New Mexico are about 23,000 years old, a study reported, suggesting that people may have arrived long before the Ice Age’s glaciers melted.
By Carl ZimmerSept. 23, 2021Updated 2:22 p.m. ETSign up for Science Times Get stories that capture the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the human body. Get it sent to your inbox.
Ancient human footprints preserved in the ground across the White Sands National Park in New Mexico are astonishingly old, scientists reported on Thursday, dating back about 23,000 years to the Ice Age.
The results, if they hold up to scrutiny, would rejuvenate the scientific debate about how humans first spread across the Americas, implying that they did so at a time when massive glaciers covered much of their path.
Researchers who have argued for such an early arrival hailed the new study as firm proof.
“I think this is probably the biggest discovery about the peopling of America in a hundred years,” said Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico who was not involved in the work. “I don’t know what gods they prayed to, but this is a dream find.”
For decades, many archaeologists have maintained that humans spread across North and South America only at the end of the last ice age. They pointed to the oldest known tools, including spear tips, scrapers and needles, dating back about 13,000 years. The technology was known as Clovis, named for the town of Clovis, N.M., where some of these first instruments came to light.
The age of the Clovis tools lined up neatly with the retreat of the glaciers. That alignment bolstered a scenario in which Siberian hunter-gatherers moved into Alaska during the Ice Age, where they lived for generations until ice-free corridors opened and allowed them to expand southward.
But starting in the 1970s, some archaeologists began publishing older evidence of humanity’s presence in North America. Last year, Dr. Ardelean and his colleagues published a report of stone tools in a mountain cave in Mexico dating back 26,000 years.
Other experts have been skeptical of such ancient finds. Ben Potter, an archaeologist at the Arctic Studies Center at Liaocheng University in China, said that some of these supposed tools might actually be oddly shaped rocks. Dr. Potter also questioned some of the dates scientists have assigned to their finds. If a tool sinks into underlying sediment, for example, it may appear to be older than it really is.
“There are unresolved issues with every single one of them,” Dr. Potter said of the older purported sites. “None of them are unequivocal.”
The study at White Sands now adds a new line of evidence for an early arrival: Instead of tools, the researchers have found footprints.
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The footprints were first discovered in 2009 by David Bustos, the park’s resource program manager. Over the years, he has brought in an international team of scientists to help make sense of the finds.
Together, they have found thousands of human footprints across 80,000 acres of the park. One path was made by someone walking in a straight line for a mile and a half. Another shows a mother setting her baby down on the ground. Other tracks were made by children.
“The children tend to be more energetic,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at Bournemouth University in England and a co-author of the new study. “They’re a lot more playful, jumping up and down.”
Mathew Stewart, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the study, said that the evidence that humans had left the footprints was “unequivocal.”
The footprints were formed when people strode over damp, sandy ground on the margin of a lake. Later, sediments gently filled in the prints, and the ground hardened. But subsequent erosion resurfaced the prints. In some cases, the impressions are only visible when the ground is unusually wet or dry — otherwise they are invisible to the naked eye. But ground-penetrating radar can reveal their three-dimensional structure, including the heels and toes.
Mammoths, dire wolves, camels and other animals left footprints as well. One set of prints showed a giant sloth avoiding a group of people, demonstrating that they were in close company.
“What is fascinating about the study of footprints is that they present snapshots in time,” Dr. Stewart said.
The work of determining the age of the prints fell to Jeffrey Pigati and Kathleen Springer, two research geologists at the United States Geological Survey.
In 2019, they went to White Sands to get a feel for the site. Walking around some of the footprints, the researchers sometimes came across ancient seeds of ditch grass that had grown by the lake. In some spots, the abundant seeds formed thick blankets.
The researchers brought some of the seeds back to their lab and measured the carbon in them to determine their age. The results came as a shock: The ditch grass had grown thousands of years before the end of the last ice age.
Dr. Pigati and Ms. Springer knew those numbers would be controversial. So they embarked on a far more ambitious study. “The darts are going to start flying, so we better be ready for them,” Dr. Pigati recalled.
The scientists dug a trench near one cluster of human and animal footprints to get a tighter estimate of their age. On the side of the trench, they could see layer after layer of sediment. Carefully mapping the surrounding ground, they were able to trace the footprints of humans and animals to six layers in the trench, interspersed with eleven seed beds.
The researchers collected ditch grass seeds from each bed and measured their carbon. These measurements confirmed the initial results: The oldest footprints at the site — left by an adult human and a mammoth — were located below a seed bed dating back about 22,800 years.
In other words, the people who left the footprints walked around White Sands about 10,000 years before the Clovis people. The youngest footprints, the researchers estimated, dated to about 21,130 years ago. That meant that people lived or regularly visited the lake for about 2,000 years.
“This is a bombshell,” said Ruth Gruhn, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta who was not involved in the study. “On the face of it, it’s very hard to disprove.”
Dr. Potter praised the White Sands team for their care in the new study, saying that it is the strongest case yet made for people in the Americas before 16,000 years ago. But he would feel more confident in the extraordinary age of the prints, he said, if there were other lines of evidence beyond the ditch grass seeds. The seeds could have absorbed older carbon from the lake water, making them seem older than they really are.
“I’d like to see stronger data, and I don’t know if it’s possible to get stronger data from this particular site,” he said. “If it’s true, then it really has some profound implications.”
If humans were well established in New Mexico 23,000 years ago, they must have started spreading down from Alaska long before that. “That starts to wind back the clock,” said Dr. Reynolds of Bournemouth University.
Some researchers have argued that people could have spread through the Americas even when the glaciers were at their peak. Instead of traveling down the mainland, they could have moved along the coast. Alternatively, Dr. Ardelean and his colleagues have proposed that people traveled inland more than 32,000 years ago, before Ice Age glaciers reached their maximum extent and blocked off that route.
Dr. Gruhn argued that both scenarios remained possible in light of the new evidence from White Sands. It would take more work to find earlier sites that favored one of them over the other. “We’ve got a lot to do,” she said.
Mr. Bustos and his colleagues have more investigations planned at White Sands. They want to learn about the behavior of the people who left their footprints there. Did they hunt the animals around them? Did they live permanently at the lake or just pay it visits?
They must work quickly. The erosion that has revealed the footprints will erase them from the landscape in a matter of months or years. Countless footprints are disappearing before the scientists even lay eyes on them.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” Mr. Bustos said. “We’re racing to try to document what we can.”
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient humans, archeology, history, human migration, research by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
This article reports on hand prints and footprints found in Tibet, made by children, as art. Either modern humans were far from Africa that long ago or another branch – Denisovian, or Neanderthal – also created art.
Posted in Origins and tagged art, human origins by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
The urge to survive is one of the strongest forces within humans. It seems that this urge is overcome, or overridden, only when a parent’s child or close relative is in imminent danger, in which case one sacrifices oneself for another, or in combat when a soldier sacrifices himself to save his friends. Except for a blood relation or combat, though, it seems the urge to survive triumphs over all else. A few years ago someone became trapped on a cliff and cut off his own arm to escape- to survive.
In the face of a deadly pandemic most people have chosen to follow whatever steps they can to survive – isolate, wear masks, and, when finally available, become vaccinated.Yet in the case of this Covid pandemic, millions of people are choosing not to take such steps, and now, with this Delta variant, tens of thousands are dying because they have refused to take the vaccine.
This counter view, that vaccines are bad, that wearing masks is weak, is held by millions, with little change despite the very clear evidence masks and vaccines either prevent catching the virus or minimize medical consequences if people do become infected. The evidence is overwhelming that deaths caused by this virus are enormously lower if people are vaccinated. Yet, still, millions refuse to take the vaccine.
The reactions to Covid are surely tribal. Most tribes of people – groups of aligned views and interests – follow the suggestions of medical experts, believing that people who must study for eight to twelve years know more about this disease than they do. There is, however, a large and intense anti-mask and anti-vaccine group, or tribe, that, despite the clear and obvious risks, nevertheless choose to welcome their exposure to that risk. This seems to be a matter of tribal belonging, identifying with this tribe, being a member. It is almost as if the need to be tribal, surely wired into we humans for group protection in the ancient past, is stronger than the urge to survive. This seems to be the case with Covid, as it was with the Jim Jones cult years ago in South America.
While appearing, initially, illogical, it may be there is a survival mechanism at place here, in that in the distant past those who held the strongest tribal ties were able to prevail over those others without such ties. In other words, maybe in the distant past there was a selection element in favor of tribal identity overpowering even the survival urge.
It seems, whether true or not in the past, this is the case today.
Posted in Origins and tagged Covid, disease, Origins, survival by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
The article below describes in some detail the revealing of an ancient technology used to trap fish using wooden stakes, woven nets, and the tides. A very very simple concept – construct fish traps on the shore such that fish enter the traps at high tide and then are trapped in shallow pools when the tide goes out. People take the fish they need and let the rest go. The stakes and systems examined here seem to be 1300 years old, but the concept is so simple, using natural materials, it’s hard not to think humans did the same thing tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years ago. Of course, throughout most of human history the sea level was lower than today, because of the ice advances and retreats, meaning any evidence of most traps has been buried deep in the water since.
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient technology, human origins, ice ages, pacific northwest peoples, sea level by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
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I wonder if we as a species are dumbing down. Before farming (ie, dense settlements, crowds, and a need for administration) human bones we have recovered shows that skeletons were stronger and brains bigger. In fact the very recent discovery of that skull in northern China, maybe 150,000 years old, has a brain bigger than modern man’s. My guess is we had bigger brains because we needed to remember everything in order to carry forth learning and culture. We did this with stories, I am sure, stories as a way to encode memory for years, then for generations.
Then with farming, and the development of a priestly class, writing developed, first used to catalogue the administration of commerce and materials, and to document religious structure and belief. Until very very recently – as in, the last say 500 years – only a tiny percentage of we humans could read and write; needed to read and write,. Then, about 400 years ago, education in the literary arts became more widespread, and now, in the 21st century, nearly everyone can read at some level.
So for the last say four or five centuries humans began to store their memories and their data with writing and scrolls and books in levels great enough to see the broad development of libraries. Libraries, and palace records, documented what had been learned and exported all this information to ink and paper such that humans did not, any longer, have to carry everything around in their head. At the same time, of course, culture and civilization became increasingly complex, requiring great specialization in the professions and in learning itself – further requiring the use of paper and ink to hold records, instructions, historical accounts.
With the wide use of reading and writing the tremendous importance of verbal and oral histories, and teachings, began to diminish. What had been held in a person’s large brain was now stored somewhere else. This meant that the brain no longer needed to remember so much. And maybe this is why the average brain of we humans today is smaller than the brains of our ancestors who had to survive in a world filled with terrible animals, great ice, and huge swings in climate.
Now we have entered a third phase in this process, in the last half century – the development of the computer, the ability to store incredible amounts of information on chips and drives. This was something in the early years but still required the printing of thousands of pages to reveal the stored data. However, in the last 20 years the “cloud” and the Internet has created a paradigm shift – now everything is stored in the “cloud” and there are applications and programs that enable anyone on earth, using a cell phone or computer, to ask any question and receive an answer. This is called “googling.” You see it all the time, someone asks a question and someone else peers at their phone and a half minute later gives an answer, because they googled the cloud and the cloud spat back an answer.
So these days humans no longer have to remember everything with stories, as our bigger brained ancestors had to, or know enough to read a card catalogue to find data in a library – no. These days all someone has to do is be able to read and click in a question, and the “cloud” gives the answer.
If human brains shrank with the advent of writing, the first form of remote storage, won’t brains shrink even more, and faster, with this “cloud?” Why exercise your brain, train it to learn and hold information, contain it and sort it, when an external thing does it for you? All those stresses and pressures creating neurons and pathways will fall idle.
The brain will shrink.
We are making ourselves stupid.
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient hiumans, brain, Evolution, intelligence, stupidity by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
When the Kennewick Man was discovered in Washington State a great argument ensued. Native tribes demanded that the bones remain with them, as an honored ancestor of 9,000 years ago. Others – non-Natives – argued the Kennewick Man carried “Western” traits (whatever the heck that means) and might have origins from Europe. A battle ensued. Along the way, of course, DNA analysis and genetic testing has evolved rapidly, such that today there are complete genomes of ancient peoples available from both the Old and New World. Recently, as the article below describes in fascinating detail, Kennewick Man has been confirmed as a true Native American ancestor, and his remains returned. It is still the strong belief, supported by evidence, that Native American peoples came from Eurasia, mainly Siberia, some 15,000 to 24,000 years ago. We have already forgotten that just two decades ago the STRONG belief was that nobody was in the Americas until the “Clovis” people appeared 12,000 years ago. As every year passes, dramatic rethinking is being forced by new finds:
- Ancient people reached the Americas at least 20,000 years ago, and maybe much earlier;
- Ancient peoples understood maritime seafaring and wandered widely, but during a time when sea levels were much lower such that all their sites are now covered;
- Ancient patterns of trade and resource exchange were complex and widespread, often covering thousands of miles;
- All during human development the climate has changed, some times rapidly, in enormous swings, equally as dramatic then as the current concerns about global warming have people panicking today;
- There is now a begrudging acceptance that humans living in the time of the great animals were, for thousands of years, NOT the top predator, but barely able to linger in out of the way protected sites.
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient DNA, archeology, Bering Land Bridge, human origins, Kennewick Man, Native peoples by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
I built this theory that during the last ice age, thousands of years, even tens of thousands of years before the accepted time of crossing the land bridge ( less than 15,000 years ago), people might have been in the Americas, living along the coast, sheltering on islands in glacial refugia away from the great carnivorous animals and near fish and marine mammals for food. Because, then, people must have been few in number, and because even in our earliest days humans knew it was healthiest to find mates not directly related to family members, I think it is fair to guess that bands of raiders went out and sought to steal people from other groups. This behavior has often been documented even in recent memory, as for example knowledge that First Peoples from way north in British Columbia sailed their great canoes south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to capture women and slaves from Puget Sound tribes living along the shores of the strait.
Evidence exists that ancient people were tremendous seafarers, surely able to leave the sight of land for fish, for travel, and while a coastline in an ice age might have long sections bounded by cliffs of ice, I speculate travel was possible, and frequent. The structure of the ice age world revealed in the Strong Heart Series is, of course, fiction, but as true as I could make it based on the research I did. It seemed to me then, and still does, it would be a lot easier to have other people capture and steal mates from inland neighbors if you could offer something of tremendous value in exchange. In my stories, I imagined that these ancient People walked south across the Great River for razor stone – they crossed the Columbia for the obsidian available in Oregon – and then they headed toward the Bering land bridge with this razor stone to trade for wives at a meeting place somewhere midway along that land bridge.
Of course this idea contradicts accepted theory on every level – my tales took place not 12,000 years ago nearly 70,000 years ago – I suggest people could navigate their great canoes 2,000 miles along an exposed coast and survive, I argue that because of the great animals humans barely survived in out of the way and hard to reach refuges, protected by ice, by water; that humans lived and even thrived all this time along the strip of shore now buried hundreds of feet beneath a rising ocean.
This tale came to me in 2012, or the first draft did, and I thought, then, God has a sense of humor, a wicked one, and as sure as I am writing this today, at some time in the near future something will be found confirming that humans have been in the Americas far longer than 15,000, or even 20,000 or 40,000 years. It better be a damn good find because everyone with careers built the current thesis will fight to the death to protect that thesis, as even now some still fight to protect the 12,000 year “Clovis” thesis, which was debunked by the finding of a spear point in a mastodon bone in Sequim, Washington that is 13,800 years old – the oldest evidence of hunting, I think, anywhere in the Americas.
But, that razor stone, and the idea a people collected that stone for use in trade for wives with other people living far, FAR away, beyond the land bridge, was not when my story first appeared ridiculous to me, and now may be even more reasonable based on the report that obsidian – razor stone – only available in Oregon, has now been found under Lake Huron, at least 9,000 years old. The age of this find fits within current dogma about the end of the ice age, but also shows that people, even back just as the ice was melting, traded materials over thousands of miles.
We know so little….
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient humans, archeology, Bering Land Bridge, ice age, migration, obsidian, razor stone, strong heart by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
I think there has been a lack of imagination about how ancient humans lived and survived. In addition to missing, until recently, the awareness that throughout human history humans have persisted through enormous climatic changes (one ice age after another), we have also imagined how ancient humans lived by comparing them to the few remaining hunter gatherer societies remaining on earth. By the time human studies and anthropology and archeology came into being as specific fields of study (no earlier than 1850 and really not until around 1900) most hunter gatherer groups had been decimated by disease, encroachment, and crowding. When I was in graduate school in 1970 some papers appeared contradicting the belief that ancient human groups spent all their time foraging for food, or hunting, frequently starving, always desperate and stressed. Studies of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, near the Kalahari desert in Botswana, demonstrated that in fact they lived pretty well – hunting one or two days a week, gathering foods a few days a week, and spending a lot of time socializing and telling stories. Researchers were also astonished to find that, once infant and childhood deaths were accounted for, adults lived to the same age as modern humans. So the belief was either that ancient tribes struggled always, or, perhaps, actually lived a nearly suburban life.
While it may well be that ancient tribal groups lived very much as the few remaining hunter gatherers today live, what seems to be missing is that the major difference between now and then is that back then the great animals were thriving – mammoths, mastodons, and great sloths could be found nearly everywhere, as could their predators. And what predators they were – great lions larger than modern lions, huge saber tooth cats, dire wolves standing four feet at the shoulder and weighing 200 pounds, and short face bears, carnivorous bears weighing a ton, able to run 40 miles an hour, and reaching as high as 15 feet.There were big hyenas and other carrion eaters, too. In fact, attached below, a mass grave of Neanderthals was just found destroyed by what are believed to be a pack of hyenas, yet even this article misses the main point.
Where I think the lack of imagination lies is understanding how ancient humans must have responded to these animals. Humans are small, weak, and slow, though their endurance over long distances is perhaps the best of any animal on earth, and there is even one theory stating that ancients hunted big game not by attacking that game but by running it down, harrying it again and again until it collapsed with exhaustion. Whenever a human wandered the plains or forest, he or she wandered in territory used by the great predators. Yes, groups gathered together with burning firebrands might have been able to take on a pack of dire wolves, but just as surely the wolves would have had their day. Humans had to find places that were safe from these predators, and safe for long periods of time, because years were needed to raise a child to adulthood, to grow and learn what was needed for survival – at least 13-15 years, probably longer. Every time a group moved, they were vulnerable to attack. If they chose to remain in one place, say a big cave, they needed to range far and wide for game and foods, also vulnerable to attack. Life was always risky, and dangerous, and harsh, and the most dangerous elements were the great predators.
This suggests to me that early humans, all the way up to the end of this last ice age and the beginning of agriculture, must have chosen to find places to live that were, to the degree possible, isolated from easy attack yet near sufficient food for survival. The only such places I can imagine would be along the shore, the seashore or a great lake, on a nearby island, separate from the mainland but with the mainland accessible for hunts, and close, too, to marine resources such as shellfish and fish. On the mainland, such a secure place would be a cave, something with a relatively narrow entrance that could be guarded with fire and spears, but the most secure places would be nearshore islands with marine resources and access to nearby mainland game.
What does this suggest? First, that it is likely that those groups of humans living inland might often have been destroyed, again and again, over thousands of years. Second, that any groups living along the seashore on nearby islands had a better chance of long term survival, but we will never know because the places they lived, the seashore and islands, have long been buried by the rising seas as there last ice melted. And, third, and to me most important, when those groups along the shore felt the need to find new resources, they followed that shore, island to island, over the centuries, and this suggests that the first long human migrations were along coasts, not the interior.
If this is the case, and I believe it is, then throughout human history, over the many times land bridges appeared with the coming of the ice, it is highly likely that humans traversed those land bridges, including the one between Eurasia and the Americas. And, if humans lived along the shore on islands, then from their very beginnings they used boats, initially hollowed out trees to make canoes, to follow that shore wherever it led.
The first real humans, it seems, were Homo Erectus, erect man, who survived nearly two million years, maybe until nearly the present, eventually either merging with later humans or dying out (I think merging is much more likely). Slightly smaller than we humans today, with a smaller brain case, Erectus used fire and has been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Indonesia. Some believe Erectus used canoes. Later species, or subgroups, of humans, with larger brains, also used fire and boats. But during all this time, those two million years, in addition to over 20 ice ages coming and going, until the last 10,000 to 12,000 years those humans all shared the earth with the great predators. These great and terrible animals must have been the defining control on humans, the factor that kept the human groups small, distant, often unsuccessful. Only with the end of this last ice advance, as sea levels rose and agriculture emerged, and as the great animals became extinct, did humans overrun all the earth. But, for over 99 percent of our history, if this thesis is correct, humans were restricted to those isolated places that could be considered safe – islands, maybe even glacial refuges among the sheets off ice.
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient humans, canoes, dire wolves, hunting, Origins, short face bear by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
Humans arose during the last two million years, according to available fossil evidence, with so-called “modern humans” – that is, humans leaving behind evidence of culture, art, technology – emerging perhaps as recently as 70,000 years ago, or perhaps 200,000 years ago. Nobody is quite sure and a bitter argument is raging about the exact when and where, though nearly everyone agrees the first such “modern” people arose somewhere in Africa before migrating elsewhere.
This means that humans evolved coincident with the ice ages, that two million year period we call the Pleistocene within which ice has advanced and retreated on a roughly 100,000 year cycle, at least 20 times, with the most recent ice age having its “maximum” about 20,000 years ago before retreating until, maybe 12,000 years ago, the ice was mostly gone (except for some remaining caps in Canada and Eurasia). But, before that 20,000 year ago maximum, there were many rises and falls during the previous 80,000 years. It seems that even during the height of an ice age the summers could be hot, maybe as hot as today, just shorter, and of course the winters were colder. It also seems that the temperature could rise and fall over a very very short period, maybe as little as a year or two, certainly a decade. It seems likely that the way an ice age begins is not that somehow glaciers far in the north grow thicker and thicker and then march inexorably south to cover much of the land north of 40 degrees north; instead, a more likely cause is that the snows fail to melt one summer, then another, then another, until after 10 years the snow compresses to ice and after 100 years a thick glacier in place exists.
The earliest humans, as far as we know, did not farm, or grow crops. This invention, agriculture, started about 10,000 years ago, following the latest ice age, when a roughly 10,000 year period – the interglacial – began, when the weather stabilized for centuries of warmer weather. It may be, in fact I am sure it was, that humans during the ice time worked a form of “primitive” agriculture – using fire to clear underbrush so food plants could thrive, for example. The first human societies, whether modern or not, were hunter-gatherers, seeking game for meat and gathering nuts, fruits, edible plants, as well as foraging along the shore for shellfish and seafood, and of course fishing.
The ice age warm time between ice advances before the warm time we are now in occurred about 120,000 years ago. It was called the Eemian, and lasted 10,000 years. The average temperature during that interglacial was apparently warmer than even today’s warmer days, maybe as much as one or two degrees Celsius warmer, and the sea level back then was as much as 20-50 feet higher than the sea level is today. During the over 20 previous ice advances during the Pleistocene, land bridges appeared as sea levels dropped because of all the fresh water locked in ice. Sea levels dropped as much as 330 feet from sea levels today, and during the entire ice period, as the ice advanced and retreated, so did sea levels vary.
All of this serves to show that there were short periods of generally stable warm climate conditions called interglacials that lasted between 5,000 and 15,000 years (generally) with the warm period before the one we are now in – and approaching the end of according to the glacial record – happening over 100,000 years ago, maybe before the appearance of so called “modern” humans. This means that for most of human history, in fact for all of it, we lived and evolved during periods of great changes in climate, huge changes, some times happening within a year or two, and certainly within one or two lifetimes. These changes in temperature, weather, sea level, storm intensity all surely greatly influenced behavior patterns of prey animals and the location of edible plants. Along the seashore, the tide lines would rise, and fall, some times greatly, and all these changes would alter the locations and behavior of seafood clusters.
Of course, we humans have incredibly short memory spans. Who among us knows, for example, what our grandparents or great grandparents did every day to live? These days many people remember winters when the snow was much deeper, when they were children, though maybe that was because they were half their adult height. When I was a kid in the 1950s I remember vivid stories and memories of the Great Depression, seeing older men and women still carefully saving and pressing flat tin cans for reuse. Most people alive back then knew of times when electricity was scarce, even unavailable. A life without electricity today would seem unimaginable for most people alive in developed economies. Yet, a century ago, 1921, electricity was still not available for over half the U.S. population. The point here is that huge change is happening all the time these days and we forget about the change as time passes, and especially as those who lived in such different times pass on, because then instead of hearing directly from an eyewitness we hear from someone who was told by someone, and this must be the case for almost anything that happened more than 60 or 70 years ago. And, beyond that, say, back to the Civil War, the people alive then are now our great or great-great or even great-great-great grandparents, myths of imagination and memory.
So, even though during most of our history the climate has changed greatly and often, any changes occurring over, say, a century and surely over two or three centuries would not be seen in the immediate life of anyone living, not really, such that then there would be legends of warmer times, or colder times, almost myths, lost in the haze of memory and history. And this means that we humans think that what has been happening in our most recent memory – a year or several years – is what has and will always happen. We are, if nothing else, adaptive, and so we adapt, and as the climate changes, we adapt or die. We need to find new hunting grounds, or new edibles. We need to move the village because the sea now floods our shelter. The great herds upon which we depend have suddenly wandered away over newly exposed land that rose from the sea (though in fact the land emerged from the falling sea).
All of which to say, even though the climate has changed always (but changed much less during the warm times between glacial advances and retreats), within the lifetime of one person, much of the change, maybe all of it, would be impossible to see, and big changes over, say, four generations would soon be considered exaggeration or myth. What is true, though, is that the changes taking place force adaptation, learning, adjustment, flexibility, and this was surely the case everywhere on earth, even those places near the equator far from the advancing ice, because they, too, would be changing as well.
I think it was the ice ages that had much to do with making us human, maybe as much as the control of fire for the ability to build culture and learning with stories. These days many if not most among us think we face a climate crisis. What many if not most of us fail to realize is that the human condition is exactly one of adapting to climate crises, and it has always been so.
Posted in Origins and tagged adaptation, ancient humans, change, climate change, ice ages, memory, survival by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.
It seems we now have fossil evidence of at least 6500 individuals from ancient times; that is, older than, say, 10,000 years, and much of this evidence has appeared in the last 20 to 30 years. There is today a revolution taking place in the study of human origins. New technologies, new methods of dating, the ability to retrieve DNA from ancient bones and even from the dirt over which ancient people lived, is announced on a monthly basis, and as the new finds are reported new theories arise, are defended, some times accepted. We know today that there were several different types of ancient humans coexisting together and that these different types interbred and produced offspring. We know, for example, that many of us contain Neanderthal DNA, or Denisovian DNA. Yet, while the fossil record may reflect 6500 individuals, there are only about 200 fossil skulls that have been found, which suggests that, given all the effort and energy expended searching for human origins, the evidence is still very sparse.
There is another debate that occurs, as well, concerning when these ancient humans became “modern,” whatever that means. It seems that some versions of ancient humans were as large as humans today, with a brain case as large or larger than today, extending back at least 600,000 years. Yet evidence for modern behavior – burial of the dead, artwork, sculpture, sophisticated tool kits and technology – is generally agreed to only extend back into the past 70,000 years, although sites in Africa much older show red ochre as a possible decoration. This raises the question – what happened, then, that enabled humans to develop culture, technology, community as we understand it today; what was the incident or event that caused a being with a certain brain size and structure to suddenly begin leaving behind evidence of myth, dreams, narrative, and history?
It is agreed that hominids arose in Africa, and extended from Africa to the rest of the world, maybe in a couple of migrations, the first being Homo Erectus almost two million years ago and a latter migration much later about the same time as modern humans appeared. But the evidence is contested. Some argue the first modern humans were found in northeast Africa, others say the Middle East, there is even a find in eastern China that may be older still. There seems to be general agreement that humans crossed the sea to reach Australia 80,000 years ago, and it is also generally accepted that the western hemisphere, North and South America, was empty of hominids until the end of the most recent ice age when some humans crossed the Bering Land bridge and entered North America, either along the coast or inland once some ice had melted. There are disagreements about this, of course, with some arguing humans made it to the Americas about 14,000 years ago and others arguing humans arrived much earlier. There is a site in the Yukon, Old Crow, that may be 24,000 years old. A few argue that humans came to the Americas far earlier than that. However, there are hardly any archeological finds older than 14,000 years to support such an argument.
For decades the belief was that humans crossed the Land Bridge, then waited for a channel to melt in the two great ice sheets covering Canada, then raced south to fill the continent, killing all the great animals on the way. More recently another argument has emerged, arguing that humans first made it to the Americas by traveling the coast in boats or canoes, beach to beach or island to island, living off the marine resources and bypassing those places where the ice sheets met the sea. One big challenge with this thesis is that during the ice ages the sea level was as much as 330 feet below present day sea level, meaning any coastal communities or evidence lies buried beneath tons of water. The beach scene pictured above, Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington State, which is probably what that ancient shore looked like tens of thousands of years ago, was, back during the ice time, on a slope hundreds of feet above the beach below it.
We now know that ancient humans were capable of using boats or canoes and fishing offshore, and moving island to island. In Timor evidence of tuna fishing was found, 40,000 years old, and to catch such tuna one needs to travel beyond the sight of land.
Two factors seem to be missing from all these arguments, at least in the research I have done. The first applies to the animals among which these humans lived, and how their presence and behavior might have influenced human decisions and choices as to places to shelter. The second concerns the relationship between human behavior and movement and the frequent ice ages that swept across the top half of the world – one every 100,000 years for at least two million years.
Posted in Origins and tagged ancient humans, archeology, Bering Land Bridge, canoe voyage, coastal journey, entry to North America, Olympic National Park by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.