by Hermann Trappman
Time is simply an arbitrary measure, describing the elapse of an event. We figure time based on the rotation of our planet and its orbit around the sun. The arrival of the first human beings into the Americas was a powerful event, forever changing the landscape of our planet. It’s natural for us to search for that moment, that beginning, because all the other events we are describing, springs out from it.
The argument over the first Americans is not science, it’s not philosophy. It’s politics, and that makes it extremely suspect.
Scholars should not force evidence into the mold of their favorite theory. They shouldn’t rob sites of funding just because the evidence doesn’t agree with their point of view. In particular, the views of many North America’s scholars are jaundiced by racism and their constant battle for hierarchy within their profession. I have lost respect for many who call themselves authorities. I have watched good men and women succumb to political and academic pressure. Careers are constantly threatened.
This is one of those problems where the scientific method does not apply. To the question of when the first humans arrived in the Americas, good science would reply, “We don’t know when the first people arrived, but, the evidence, at this time, points to a wide window, somewhere around 28,000 years ago.”
Can we work on narrowing that conclusion? I believe that it is possible to get a lot closer. But, because of all the infighting in North America, I have a tendency to look toward South America as the location that will provide answers. I expect French and Spanish researchers, to have the integrity, to offer it with honesty. They seem to have far less fear from evidence and they do not seem as mean-spirited. Some European scholars still hold onto some of the old principals of doing the right thing. They understand that when science leans toward philosophy, a shrug and a smile is preferable to a rigid response.
As for you and I, we can use our minds and hearts. Why our hearts, as well as, our minds? Because, we are leaving the world of the absolutely knowable. Using our best tools of observation and reason, we will be exploring the possibilities and results surrounding the arrival of the first Americans. It’s a study which cultivates an awareness of geography, human behavior, and history. It’s a story that desires a keen appreciation of economic models, anthropological studies of similar cultures, archaeological research, environmental studies, and finally, experimental models. In the end, we must turn to our compassion and common humanity, and that’s why our hearts are so important. The coming of the first Americans, was a human event, and open to all the uncertainties and pitfalls humans are capable of.
First, we need to view population density as part of the equation. Remember that population pressure causes humans to explore new horizons. It’s the way we have spread around the globe. When population pressure reduced the productivity of a strictly hunting and gathering society, humans either move on to less desirable environments or discover agriculture and animal husbandry. That applies to people throughout the world. Of course, because the need differs through time and place, it means that the development of agriculture happens at various times. It has nothing to do with one race being superior over another.
Much recent thought points towards a location termed the “ice-free corridor,” as the passageway that people used to enter the Americas from Eurasia. Northern climates had been locked in the Wisconsin Glaciation for over 70,000 years. It caused sea levels to drop 300 feet. The Bering Strait was dry and mostly without ice in those days. I have always been taught that the terrain bordering the great glaciers was desert-like tundra, an inhospitable place, blasted by Artic winds. So, when I considered population pressure urging people on to discover Australia around 50,000 years ago, I naturally looked for more recent dates in the far north. It’s odd then, that northeastern Asia should attract so many animals. Along the western edge of Siberia, melt-water from mountains of glacial ice produced huge freshwater lakes. Ice fields from Europe and western Russia funneled life into a vast Siberian countryside of knotted hills, mountains, sprawling valleys, and wide steppes. Huge herds of wooly mammoth roamed that landscape along with reindeer, saiga antelopes, bison and horse. Hunting along the ice margins may have been extremely productive. That challenging northern climate could have attracted people even before the gentle climes of Australia. It was a temptation that hunters couldn’t resist.
No one will ever know how the first people came to the Americas or when. But, it is fitting that they came out of a world of ice and fire. Did they wander across the Bering Strait or come in boats, following the glacial margins, along the Aleutian Islands? I believe that they took the southern, the earlier route, skipping from island to island. We are most often shown the Bering Strait route. The problem was, it passed through a corridor between two immense Glacial fronts, the Cordilleran and the Laurentide ice-sheets. When ice melts, it leaves water behind, and that’s exactly what happened. The two glacial masses didn’t disappear, they melted, leaving enormous freshwater lakes stretching across the environment. Lake Agassiz was more than five times the size of lake superior. Why would ancestral people build boats in a treeless landscape to cross a lake so wide that the other side isn’t remotely visible? Violent storms and calving glacial cliffs would have been a constant threat. Certainly they weren’t following herds of caribou across lakes that broad. In fact the evidence suggests that they stalled there. They couldn’t get through. The “ice free corridor” has never provided evidence of the forerunners of the Clovis Culture, because, there is none.
Coastal zones are often the easiest place to find abundant food. The eggs of nesting birds can be plentiful for a critter that can climb steep hills. People, living along the east coast of Kamchatka witnessed a world of marine riches every day. Just beyond their reach, Stellar sea cows grazed on kelp. Seals and sea otters, whales and dolphin abounded along the coast. It was an endlessly inviting target. Sea cows were slow moving, easy prey. Seals crowded the rocks just off the shore. The incentive was there. I imagine early experiments with skin boats. We often make the mistake of visualizing people as primitive back then, cave men. They were human, the same as you and I. The clothing worn by Aleutians is anything but primitive. Aleutian and Inuit people were once lumped together with other polar people that we called Eskimos. Eskimo was a term that didn’t recognize social or even language differences. The Aleutian and Inuit people crafted carefully designed, wonderfully sown clothing, which protected body warmth from the polar elements of wet and extreme cold. They were far ahead of western society in the use of insulating layers. Women had been sewing skins and seal intestines together in watertight fashion for centuries by the time we discovered them. Those ancient people didn’t dress like we imagine cave men to dress. In order to keep the extremes of cold out, they dressed in well considered, and carefully constructed clothing. The idea of a skin boat was not a foolish dream.
Of course, Aleutians and Inuit’s are modern people. Their culture may go back only 3,000 years. But, there is evidence of earlier cultures living in the Arctic. Recent finds in northern Siberia, near the Yana River, push the dates of human activity back 30,000 years. Ust’-Ishm, an inhabitant of western Siberia, has produced an age of around 45,000 years ago. From Central Russia, on a promontory called Markina Gora, on the south bank of the River Don, the skeleton of Kostenki 14 was found, buried in a strongly flexed position. Sprinkled with red ocher, the skeleton is dated to more than 36,200 years ago. These are some of the earliest dates of our kind, in Eurasia. As more investigations target that landscape, I expect more dates form that very early time. They could demonstrate our (Homo Sapiens) earliest migrations into Siberia and toward the Americas.
Throughout their journey, toward the northern portion of Eastern Siberia, the ancestors of the American Indians were not alone. There were people with far more ancient roots living in the country along the way. Apparently, they dallied along the path, for a little loving. They would carry a hint of that liaison to the Americas with them, in their genes.
But first, getting to the Kamchatka Peninsula requires wandering a maze, through some breathtakingly beautiful and extremely craggy country. The North American plate actually cuts across the Bering Strait, taking a big bite out of Siberia. It turns south, running down the coast toward China. It seems odd, but the terrible earthquake and tsunami, which devastated the northern end of Japan in 2011, was actually a lurch in the Pacific Plate as it pressed down beneath the North American Plate. That part of the North American Plate is located in Northeast Asia. The epicenter was just off the north coast of the Main Island of Japan. That collision zone between Eurasia, the Pacific Plate, and North American is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, lots of volcanoes. Steep mountain slopes, etched with snows, run down into deep valleys, cut by crystalline streams. A scattering of pines dot the valley floors. The skies above, are often a strong blue, smeared with high clouds. Between the mountains, rusty hills of red earth or ocher yellow, plunge into ice cold lakes. The Okhotsk Sea (pronounced O-khot-sk) squats between the Siberian coastline and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The neck of the Peninsula is a broken mountainous landscape. The coastal zone is more easily traversed. Once on the Peninsula, beautiful, almost perfectly cone shaped mountains rise up, their summits cloaked in clouds or steam. There were at least 160 volcanoes. Today, 29 of them are still active.
On those long ago nights, when the ancestors of the American Indians camped along coastal valleys, they could watch the tops of those cones spew red-hot stone into the air. Surely those amazing peaks were the homes of some powerful forces. Earthquakes ripple along those mountains, sending a rattle of rocks down their sides. The world that those people knew, definitely, was alive.
In season, the streams were choked with salmon and on hillsides there were rookeries where millions of birds nested. Reindeer and moose wandered the valleys, while snow sheep clatter across the rocky heights. The coasts, were a jumble of seals. It’s a rich environment, and that’s why humans were drawn to it, along with plenty of grizzly bears and Siberian tigers. It was good to be wary, well armed, and never alone. Their intelligence and skill is the inheritance of all of us.
On the Island of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea, quartz hand-axes, three-sided picks, and stone cleavers have been recovered that date back about 170,000 years ago. They are absolute evidence, that Neanderthals found their way there. That was in what is termed the Illinioian or Saalian Glaciation. Along that border, the Anatolian plate collides with the African Plate shoving its edges up. The shelf between Crete and Mainland Greece was mostly out of water. It was a landscape broken by inlets and hills made form the shattered rubble of earthquakes and volcanoes. There would have been several narrow straits to cross. If somehow, Neanderthals were moving across those narrow strips of water 170 thousand years ago, it shouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination, to allow the ancestors of the American Indians to do the same around 130,000 years later.
Folks with a landlubbers perspective can’t imagine the draw of the sea. When I look at human history I can’t help but recognize its allure. Egypt was built along the Nile River. Palestine and Greece were both made on the economies that boats bring. The Vikings knew that sea lanes were the roads to riches. England forged an empire on it and so did Holland. There’s something absolutely natural about certain humans and water.
Humans, like most critters only need incentive. There in Kamchatka, camping in the shelter of an eastern valley on summer nights, they may have looked out into the eastern darkness and noticed the faint glow of a far distant volcano. They lived in the shadow of mountains like that. It was a familiar sign.
Perhaps, at first, they made seasonal journeys out to the Commander Islands. With the ocean being 300 feet lower than today, it was one big island, covered with a thick carpet of low Alpine foliage, and fabulous in food. The women foraged for edible roots, berries, and other edible wild plants, while their menfolk went hunting. As their comfort developed, they looked eastward, toward the red glow in the night sky. I don’t believe that it was a straightforward process, human endeavors rarely are. Nobody said, “let’s go discover America.” It would have been slow, within the comfort zone of little lives on a great wide ocean, surrounded by fire and ice. The Aleutian Islands were like stepping stones, like the islands of the Aegean Sea, leading the Ancient Greeks across to the Anatolian Peninsula.
Those early Homo sapiens were, most likely, all a darker skinned people. The quantity of food, and the exercise needed to harvest it, would have produced an athletic looking population, with good teeth and strong hands. Living in an extremely cold climate, they may have been a little shorter and stockier than their cousins to the south. It’s a stature, which conserves body heat. Did they have a hint of the oriental appearance that some American Indians have? Those specialized traits had been the in human mix for thousands of years already.
Humans are amazing creatures, intelligent and inventive, as well as strong. We have a long history of overcoming challenges. The initial journey into America was anything but easy, and you know, they were carrying entire families with them. Take the time to look at the landscape they came through. Today, ocean currents drop down out of the Artic Ocean, sweeping past the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Rising from the south, powerful currents, rolling north, collide with them, along the southern edge of the Aleutian Islands. The ocean currents turn east, heading for Alaska and the coast of British Columbia, Canada. The winds do a similar thing. Polar easterlies collide with the Westerlies, rising from the Ferrel cell. The struggles between strong fronts often cloak the Aleutian Islands in heavy fog. Glaciers couldn’t get a solid grip there because of the warming current from the south. For the entire course, the Aleutians had open rocky beaches and lots of marine mammals.
Eventually, population pressure and competition for the resources along the coast of Kamchatka pushed them on. In a century or so, they could have found themselves on the Alaskan Peninsula. In order to escape the coastal glaciers, they still faced a long journey south. But those glaciers were channeled through mountain valleys. The western side of the Cordilleran glaciation is mountain based. A more Alpine style ice flow, the mountain glaciers spread out and joined further inland. On the coast, they were often funneled into valleys. That broken coast stretched from the west coast of the Alaskan Peninsula through British Columbia and as far south as Washington State. Tucked between the glacial outflow, there was a rocky shoreline warmed by the Pacific Current. The hunting along the coast was still great.
It’s all gone now, 300 feet down beneath the waves. Finding camp sites would be like looking for a needle in a hay stack, while wearing a blindfold. It takes a lot of money to fund that kind of research, and the odds of finding the evidence, isn’t good. Many modern American citizens have a tense relationship with science. Money for archaeology is extremely scarce.
I firmly believe, that the folks who arrived here, were a coastal people. They preferred the food that they were familiar with, and as long as it was abundant they stayed with what they knew. There is a reason, that there are no distinctly Clovis artifacts found in Siberia. The Clovis culture was an American invention. It’s so obvious. Long after the coastal zones were populated, people began needing to exploit inland resources. I imagine that they traveled up the rivers. It was a dangerous landscape. The American lion was bigger than the African Lion. There were saber-toothed cats, cheetah-like cats, jaguars, and puma. Wolves came in a much larger size, as well as the ones we are familiar with. There was a huge short-faced bear. Excellent human hunters, with excellent tools, were a must, just to keep up.
By 13,000 years ago, the Clovis Culture, and all the American Indians were already expert at being Americans. There is no evidence of a learning curve in manufacturing Clovis like artifacts, found in Alaska. The States where the most Clovis artifacts are found are Alabama and Florida. That makes sense, if they became the Clovis Culture. It was a homegrown tradition.
I don’t feel that the exclusive Aleutian transit lasted too long. As the Wisconsin Glaciation broke down, Beringia increased in importance, as a trackway into the Americas. Geneticists suggest that there were three migrations of different Asiatic cultures into the Americas. Don’t let that confuse you with the notion that there were three migrations. There may have been hundreds of migrations of the same genetic type. Eventually three differing genetic markers made it over, the last being the Inuit. Geneticists are good researchers and I hope they keep on studying this puzzle.
The truly beautiful thing was that the Aleutian Island stepping stones and Beringia were bottlenecks. Although, it isn’t impossible to get through, it is a difficult environment. For most people, it’s not inviting. But, that said, there are people living up there, and not just a few of them.
But, and that’s a big but, we shouldn’t be so quick to leave our considerations about Bering Strait and the Aleutian Arc. At its narrowest, the Bering Strait is fifty miles wide. There are two islands located about half way across—Big Diomede and Little Diomede Islands. When the Bering Sea freezes in winter, people can walk from Russia to Alaska or visa versa. Traditionally, the indigenous peoples in the area had routinely crossed the border back and forth for visits, seasonal festivals, and trade. Many had family spread across that border. In 1948, the Cold War prevented them from continuing this practice. The border became known as the “Ice Curtain”. It was completely closed, and there was no regular air or boat traffic. In 1987, American swimmer, Lynne Cox, eased tensions between the two super powers by swimming across the border. In 1998, Russian adventurer Dmitry Shparo and his son Matvey made a crossing of the frozen Bering Strait on skis. Then on March 2006, Briton, Karl Bushby and French-American adventurer Dimitri Kieffer crossed the strait on foot, walking across a frozen 56 mile section in 15 days. They were arrested for not entering Russia through a border control. They were released and returned to the U.S.
Basically, what I’m getting at is that, Columbus didn’t discover the Americas. For the people living close by, in Asia, America was never a “lost continent,” and the traffic wasn’t even in one direction. In fact, I believe that as time went by, it became less and less lost. The problem remained in the remoteness of its passage. It seems reasonable that those ancient immigrants continued to enter the Americas, in small groups, over many thousands of years. There seems to be clear genetic markers for the migrations of three independent human types. The second and third human types from Siberia, are thought to have generated the Athabaskan, Aleut, Inuit, and Yupik peoples. Apparently, they never reached farther than Canada and the southern United States. The continents were well occupied and territories were established by then.
It would be insane to suggest that later, fishermen from China, Japan, and Korea, didn’t visit the Americas. The North Pacific current carries floating objects toward Alaska and Canada. The prevailing westerly winds do the same. I would find it hard to believe that northern Asia was ever out of contact with the Americas. How many stories of Asian fishermen, lost in the fog near the Aleutian Islands, ended up in the Americas? The European invasion wiped out any hint of those stories long ago.
Some American Indians say that they have always been here. Certainly this is their land. But, “always having been here,” denies a wondrous and powerful inheritance. Without ever knowing it, the first Americans became truly something extraordinary, for the only time in human history, they had the opportunity to reinvent the human experience. Once they were here, they saw animals and geography that no other humans had ever seen before. For the most part, they left Eurasian/African ideas far behind. A coastal people, I imagine that for thousands of years they exploited the environments they knew best. Slowly, over thousands of years, they became uniquely American. Populations, like the Clovis Culture, would have naturally come about when the needs of increasing coastal populations forced some to roam inland looking for other resources. By the time of the Clovis people, America had been peopled for many millennia. But, we must recognize, that human culture, changes slowly. I listened to one academic describe how the first American Indians looked around with an intense appetite and wondered if everything was good to eat. Peering around, they rubbed their hands and smacked their lips. I puzzle that he is so unobservant regarding all the ethnic foods that make up the modern American landscape. People prefer food that they are most familiar with. All the stuff they saw would have been background noise to the food they favored. What they learned in this new and incredible environment was to be very observant. Slowly, carefully, over time they soaked in this new landscape, introducing new foods and resources to their store of information. They were truly human in their purpose, and many of their culture concepts deserve our genuine respect.
For a thousand years, the original people wandered along without ever running into an unknown person of their own species. Their trials, terrors, and joys didn’t echo through a larger population, they were on their own. I think we can get a fairly certain date of when their populations began to compete with each other for food resources. Around 10,000 years ago they began developing agriculture. Some Central American researchers suggest that agriculture started with cassava in southern Brazil. (Evidence on the origin of cassava: Phylogeography of Manihot esculenta, by Kenneth M. Olsen and Barbara A. Schaal)
American Indians are a really special and a spectacular part of our human story. In Europe’s haste to conquer and destroy them, we lost a magnificent portion of our humanity. My interest in the Calusa and Tocobaga people of Florida, has helped me regain some portion of that wonder of this landscape.
The Calusa and the Tocobaga cultures were a response to their environment. They may have carried a cultural identity down the Mississippi River, but that affiliation was further molded by this very unique environment. Florida is a mysterious and wonderful area. It’s one of those distinct geographical places that planet Earth rarely produces.
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