Archaeology

The First Americans Didn't Come Over a Land Bridge

Did you ever hear the story of the first people to come to the Americas? No, not Christopher Columbus. Not Leif Erikson, either. We're talking about the first people, the ones who crossed the land bridge — wait, what's that? Oh, ok, apparently there were people before them, too.

The First Americans

There really were people that (we're pretty sure) crossed the Bering Strait land bridge that used to connect Alaska and Russia. They're called the Clovis people, and they pop up in the archaeological record about 13,500 years ago. They hunted mammoths, crafted fine stone blades, and they had much in common genetically with modern Native Americans. In short, the Clovis people comprised basically everything we knew about prehistoric humans in the Americas.

Except that the remains that modern archaeologists unearthed didn't always jibe with the little we knew about the Clovis people. And in November 2017, a group of prominent archaeologists declared the Clovis-first theory dead in Science Magazine.

The evidence of pre-Clovis people is undeniable. In Florida, a mastodon was killed by humans and a pack of dogs about 14,550 years ago. A site in Buttermilk Creek, Texas, yielded non-Clovis spear tips from 15,500 years ago – 2,000 years before the Clovis people could have set foot on the land bridge. And perhaps most astonishingly, Pedra Furada in Brazil contains artifacts that have variously been dated at 10 thousand, 15 thousand, and 50 thousand years old, although it's worth mentioning that some of those dates are rather contentious.

There are still a lot of questions to be resolved. Did all of these ancient peoples come together? Are the Pre-Clovis people the ancestors of the Clovis people, or were they also the first people to be displaced from this continent? And how on Earth did people navigate to the Americas before the glaciers had cleared the land bridge? Good news: we have an answer for that last one.

Headin' Down the Highway

They call it the "kelp highway," and it could explain what drove the Pre-Clovis people across the ocean in the first place. Bear in mind, people colonized Australia about 50,000 years ago, and that means braving the ocean on Stone Age boats. Roughly 30,000 years later, the Ainu were accomplished at fishing the northern Pacific Rim. Even when glaciers would have rendered the land bridge itself impassable, the rich kelp forests that followed the coastline would have been full of delicious crab and fish. Perhaps that would be enough to spur expeditions farther and farther into this strange new continent, the adventurous sailors fishing during the day and camping on the coastal beaches at night.

The main problem with this theory is that there isn't a lot of archaeological evidence for it — but there wouldn't be. See, the oceans are a lot higher now than they were 20,000 years ago. Any sites of permanent residence or even just temporary campsites are deep underwater at this point. But hope isn't lost. Now that they have a clear idea of what they're looking for, archaeologists are seeking the ancient caves and rock shelters that would have survived 20,000 years in search of some clue of an ancient passerby.

There's one bit of circumstantial evidence that's just too good to pass up: the bottle gourd. This humble little pumpkin is native to southern Africa and has been with us since almost the beginning. Botanists think it's been domesticated three separate times, but the point is that where you find humans, you find bottle gourds. And when both Lief and Chris made it over to the Americas, the bottle gourd had beat them to it. It used to be that the only explanation for the bottle gourd's ancient roots in America was that seeds somehow floated all the way across the ocean to find purchase on the shores. But if there were people here way back then, they could have just been bringing their gourds along for a little taste of home. We definitely prefer the latter story.

Humans' First Appearance in the Americas: Challenging Clovis

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 14, 2017