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Bering Strait Theory

Two obvious possibilities existed for the origins of aboriginal peoples in North America. One possible explanation is a passage by boat from somewhere humans had resided before the Americas were peopled. The other possibility is a passage by land. The most obvious location for a land passage is across the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, where scientists know that at one point there was a land bridge (which they call Beringia) between Asia and North America. The notion of a Siberian origin for aboriginal Americans gained credence from a variety of corroborative evidence, such as similarities of blood types and dental structure between American aboriginals and northern Siberians. Linguistic evidence also pointed to a similar pattern. Gradually a theory emerged, which gained strength by its seeming ability to explain all that a host of scientists— chiefly geologists, archaeologists, and climatologists—had discovered and were discovering about both the land and its people.

It is an axiom of science that the simplest explanation fitting the known facts is usually the most accurate one, and this theory was elegant in its relative simplicity, which was one of the greatest arguments in its favor. The theory was that sometime around fifteen thousand years ago, when Beringia provided a land connection between Asia and North America, human sojourners crossed into North America in search of food. The passage was not an easy one, and it probably took a long time for any individual or party to complete. Although the environment of the land bridge was relatively favorable to human life, the glaciers that then covered the northwestern part of the American continent were not. Some of the new arrivals headed north into the Arctic regions. Others straggled southward along a gap between the glacial ice sheets, making their way into the southwestern part of the continent (which was not covered with glaciers), where the earliest evidence of human presence has been detected. As the ice retreated and the climate changed in the northern part of the continent, more and more people were able to move into the southern regions and began to travel eastward across the continent, following the game animals.

The land bridge theory seemed appropriate for dealing with virtually all of the existing evidence. To explain relatively similar dates for surviving artifacts from one coast to the other, the theory had to postulate an extremely rapid extension of humankind across the continent in the postglacial period. Gradually the theory hardened into conventional wisdom. Although there were many skeptics and people who preferred other explanations, their arguments were hampered by the absence of any hard evidence that contradicted the standard view, particularly by the lack of indisputable evidence of an earlier occupation of the continent or of an alternate time sequence. Most mainstream scientists insisted that all hard evidence of human habitation from this period (as opposed to such "soft" evidence as linguistic theory or literary legends) comes in the form of stone artifacts that cannot be dated earlier than 12,000 years. These scientists refused to entertain alternate theories so long as the "12,000-year barrier" remained intact. The mainstreamers were particularly scathing in their criticism of those who advocated acceptance of one or more of the alternate theories of peopling, whether by refugees from the continent of Atlantis or by ancient space travelers.

Despite its elegance, the Beringian theory has in recent years come under increasing attack. Much of the critique has come from those who find it unlikely that the Americas could have remained free of any human habitation until only 12,000 years ago, especially given the increasingly great antiquity being uncovered for human/humanoid development elsewhere in the world (Stengel, 2000). There are also other arguments against the standard view of human arrival. One is that very few early human remains have been found in the northwestern part of the continent, where the first immigrants supposedly entered from Siberia, while many more remains, which are extremely old, have been uncovered on Canada's east coast, more than 4,000 miles from Beringia. Moreover, the few examples of early humans found in the northwest are not Mongoloid in appearance, as people from Siberia would have been at that time. This was notably the case for Kennewick Man, found in Washington State in 1996. Another problem comes in terms of the development of languages, chiefly an insistence that twelve thousand years is simply not sufficient to produce the levels of linguistic diversity found in the Americas (Greenberg, 1987). (Language complexities do not necessarily coincide with social complexities and can exist independently of them.) Recent studies of blood types and teeth across the Americas also suggest that a simple explanation of origin in Siberia will not work. The notion has recently gained ground that travel along the coasts by boat makes more sense than inland movement alongside glaciers (Gruhn, 1988).

There have long been alternative stories for the peopling of America (Sorensen and Raish, 1996). Perhaps more importantly, over the past few years there have been a number of archaeological finds that simply do not fit the standard pattern. Some finds in Chile, for example, have produced artifacts that date older than the Clovis find, an obvious conundrum for those who support the Beringia theory (Dillehay, 2001). A recent find in South Carolina has been uncovered that archaeologists say predates the most recent Ice Age, which ended about ten thousand years ago. What are we to make of the mounting evidence of scattered early human activity in the Americas? At this stage, it is unlikely that the Beringia theory will be totally overturned. There is simply too much genetic and linguistic evidence to support the view that America's "Indians" are mainly descended from Asian peoples. But there are clearly anomalies. It may be possible that this main wave of Siberians traveling swiftly across the Americas was entering a place previously settled by people who had reached their habitations from different places via different routes or who had perhaps come from Siberia in a far earlier period than the present model allows. And it is also possible that new discoveries will force a paradigm shift for the archaeologists. Like most academic disciplines, archaeology is riddled with feuds and petty grievances that have been elevated over time into hardened ideologies.

More than academic reputations are at stake in the Beringia controversy. Because of the huge sums of money involved in litigation over compensation for tribal lands taken by European nation-states, the ancient human history of the continent before European arrival is of new interest and takes on a high political significance. A North American continent on which aboriginal groups migrated constantly and took over the lands of neighbors, often by force, or on which the Native inhabitants hunted birds and mammals to extinction, was hardly an Eden-like paradise of peace and respect for the environment. If it could be established that people of European origin had arrived on the continent long before 1492 and were displaced or absorbed by later cultures, this would add further weight to the notion that the European intrusion after 1500 was simply a continuation of developments occurring in all parts of the world—and certainly in America—since the world's human beginnings. At least one Canadian newspaper has already used recent academic revisionism as a basis to editorialize in opposition to any moral claim of Native groups to "massive transfer payments and expensive government programs" (National Post, 2001, A19).

The sources for information about the early history of humans on the northern part of the North American continent (now the Dominion of Canada) are simultaneously extensive and limited. Material evidence consists chiefly of human artifacts—mainly of stone, which survives better than leather or wood—usually dug out of the ground by archaeologists. Dating these materials typically involves associating the artifacts with the geological remains in which they are found, a process that often does a better job of outlining a sequence of events than it does of providing precise dates for them. Scientific analysis such as radiocarbon dating can provide a rough notion of the date of an artifact. Given the absence of written records kept by any of the early inhabitants of northern North America, virtually the only way modern scientists can make human memory contribute to the record is by using the oral traditions and the languages of the various peoples. For many years, these oral traditions and linguistic remains were treated with considerable suspicion. They are now regarded as quite useful, but they extend only so far back in time.

John M. Bumsted

Further Reading
National Post. 2001. June 12: A19.; Dillehay, Thomas D. 1989. Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement in Chile, Vol. II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Dillehay, Thomas D. 2001. The Settlement of the Americas: New Prehistory. New York: Basic Books.; Greenberg, Joseph. 1987. Language in the Americas. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.; Gruhn, Ruth. 1988. "Linguistic Evidence in Support of the Coastal Route of Earliest Entry into the New World." Man 23: 22–100.; Sorensen, John, and Martin Raish, eds. 1996. Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans, rev. ed. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.; Stengel, Mark K. 2000. "The Diffusionists Have Landed." Atlantic Monthly 285, no. 1 (January): 33–43.

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