One if by land, two if by sea

June 25, 2008

Atlantic Ocean

The ocean blue.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Matti Mattila

When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and finally set foot on the shores of the New World, there were people there to greet him. Roughly 500 years before Columbus, when the Vikings sailed across the North Atlantic and reached what is now Newfoundland, there were people there too. In the latter case, the encounter did not work out too well for the Vikings.

In both of these cases, we know that there was an existing population. This is not late breaking news. What might be news is a renewed interest in sea travel by the earliest settlers of the Americas.

Notice the word “renewed.” A review of hypotheses pertaining to the arrival of the First Americans confirms the old adage of “nothing new under the sun.” In general terms, two hypotheses have been put forward to account for the arrival of early inhabitants; a coastal route and a migration across land, better known as the Bering Land Bridge.

The idea of a coastal migration route is not new and predates the Bering Land Bridge idea. The discovery of early sites (known to us as Clovis sites) well in the interior of North America once supported the notion that perhaps people came across land and marched into the interior, instead of following the shorelines of Ancient America.

This view reinforced the important role the Bering Land Bridge must have played. While the land bridge connecting Siberia with Alaska was enormous, there remained one problem that needed an explanation. At the time of the land migration, Ice Age glaciers covered a huge swath of North America. How would these first Americans have been able to cross such a formidable barrier?

Creative Commons License photo credit: chadmagiera

A solution was suggested in 1935, when Ernst Antev came up with the concept of an ice-free corridor. This corridor was thought to have been substantially wide, at least from a human’s perspective, and no less than 1,500 miles long. According to Antev, it connected Alaska with the ice free portions of the US.

This hypothesis was accepted, or at least considered, by the archaeological community for quite a while. It was a bold statement to make, especially since, in the 1930s, our understanding of the geology of that part of the Americas was limited. Basic topographic mapping of the area from Northern Yukon to Northern Montana was not completed until the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that systematic geology mapping  was completed for this region.

At this point we need to step back a little. While ideas and hypotheses can be great and mind-blowing, there is something that occasionally will upend even the most elegant mental constructions: actual data.

So here we are, at the beginning of the 21st century, slowly coming to grips that this so-called ice-free corridor may not have existed after all when the earliest settlers were supposed to have migrated through it on their way south. The pendulum was moving again in favor of the coastal route hypothesis, causing archaeologists to again wonder: what evidence do we have that people came over by boat?

One argument used by both supporters and detractors of the coastal route hypothesis  is that such evidence is currently covered by hundreds of feet of water. Therefore, at first glance, it would appear to be very difficult to prove or disprove the existence of such a migration route, because any artifacts left behind are out of reach.

Or are they?

rising sun
Earlt human artifacts have been found
along the North American coastline.
Creative Commons License photo credit: sun dazed

In the late 1990s, researchers working off the Pacific Coast of Canada set out to find locations where people may have stopped on their way south. Such locations might be river valleys (now submerged) or beaches (equally submerged).  In 1998 a Canadian research team did find an artifact at a depth of 53 meters off the Coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It was eventually dated at 10,200 years ago. Such a find is the archaeological equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. It has led to more extensive underwater probes elsewhere.

What can we say about prehistoric travel across water? How was it done? Aside from looking under water for any remains of prehistoric water craft, we could also look at other ways to prove that prehistoric peoples had the ability to cross substantial bodies of water. Here are some pointers.

Greater Australia was colonized by humans about 50,000 years ago. At that time, there was no land bridge connecting Australia to Southeast Asia. People crossed the water into Australia and became the people we now know as the Aborigines. A second pointer is obsidian recovered at a site south of Tokyo, was sourced back to Kozushima Island, a feat which required deep water crossing. This happened around 32,000 years ago. Thirdly, the first known settlers arrived in New Britain and New Ireland between 20,000 – 15,000 years ago. This feat also required travel across water. 

What these examples show is that prehistoric people did have the ability to cover substantial distances across water. Because of this, one should not rule out a similar undertaking by the first migrants into the Americas. Indeed, the discovery of the stone tool mentioned earlier points in that direction.

As time goes by, and more discoveries are made by underwater archaeologists, we should get a better handle on this still murky issue.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

One response to “One if by land, two if by sea”

  1. Jo says:

    This is a really interesting article. It’s amazing that people that far back could travel such extensive distances. There’s one ancient American record, the Book of Mormon, that records that sea voyages were undertaken from Asia to the Americas as early as the Tower of Babel era, as well as the years just previous to Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. It doesn’t seem so unusual in light of this article.

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