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More Reasons to Doubt the Bering Strait Migration Theory

Recently newspapers have trumpeted new scientific discoveries that lead some scientists to conclude that early American Indians lived in the area of the Bering Strait, known as Beringia, for more than 10,000 years before colonizing the Americas around about 15,000 years ago. Headlines such as “First Americans May Have Been Stuck in Beringia for Millennia” from NBC News, and “On Way to New World, First Americans Made a 10,000-Year Pit Stop” from National Geographic have once again brought attention to a long-held, scientifically entrenched theory–but one that is still highly controversial–that the ancestors of American Indians walked across a land bridge from Asia to settle in the Americas.

The media attention stems from an article in the February 28 issue Science magazine authored by paleoecologists from three universities and entitled “Out of Beringia?” Digging up sediment cores from that region dated to between 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, they found in the spores of shrubs and other plants, “evidence that central Beringia supported a shrub tundra region with some trees during the last glacial maximum and was characterized by surprisingly mild temperatures, given the high latitude.” During that time (the “last glacial maximum” or LGM as it is known), the massive ice sheets over North America and Europe lowered the ocean levels by hundreds of feet, making Beringia a large vast plain that connected the two continents.

Beringia was left uncovered by the ice because of the dryness of the region, which produced little snowfall despite the cold. The assumption is that the region could have supported a large population of ancient Indians. As one of the co-authors, Scott Elias of the University of London explained,"We believe that these ancestors survived on the shrub tundra of the Bering Land Bridge because this was the only region of the Arctic where any woody plants were growing. They needed the wood for fuel to make campfires in this bitterly cold region of the world."

The idea that Paleoindians (Ancient Indians) made a long pit stop, known scientifically as the “Beringian Standstill,” is by no means new, it was first proposed in 1997 by the geneticists Sandro L. Bonatto and Francisco M. Salzano. This new study merely proposes that the plant life that existed there might have made it possible for humans to inhabit this region during this time. But another co-author of this study, John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado takes this assumption further, flatly stating that “There is now solid evidence for humans in Beringia before the last glacial maximum, as geneticists first predicted in 1997.”

But not all are convinced the evidence is so solid. As a review in Past Horizons, an archeology magazine, noted, “the weakest link to the Out of Beringia theory is the lack of archaeological evidence.” There is absolutely no sign that humans lived in this region during this time. In addition, although the study showed that the area had “surprisingly mild temperatures” during the summer (for an ice age), it was still cooler than the area is now, which is not particularly hospitable.

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Indeed, if anything, the study findings set the Beringian Standstill theory back. According to a review in Scientific American, “This kind of vegetation would not have supported the large, grazing animals – woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, Pleistocene horses, camels, and bison.” It had previously been presumed that Beringia was covered in grass, and that the large animals were what the Paloeindians had lived on, but the shrub tundra would have only supported small mammals, “perhaps some bighorn sheep,” and possibly elk.

The Beringian Standstill theory is in itself an attempt to reconcile conflicting evidence that has made the Bering Strait Theory, as it has been understood for the past century, untenable. Archeologists have generally not conceded any dates of campsites, hunting sites, or other signs of human habitation older than 13,000 years in North America, and thus have long argued that Indians must have arrived before 15,000 years ago. The reason for this date is that before 15,000 years ago, a massive ice sheet over a mile in height covered much of eastern Alaska, all of Canada, and parts of the northern United States, blocking any land passage from Asia into the Americas. Otherwise Indians, if they walked from Asia, would have had to have arrived more than 30,000 years ago, but this is generally not acceptable to archeologists.

Since the early 1990s, however, the genetic evidence indicates that Indians, as a distinct peoples, are at least 30,000 years old, and likely much older. Linguistic evidence has also pointed to Indians being at least 35,000 years old, and possibly 50,000 years old. The Beringian Standstill theory thus allows the archeologists and the geneticists to have their cake and eat it too, as it gives the time for the Paloeindians to develop unique genetic and linguistic characteristics, while at the same time, it keeps them out of the Americas.

But like the Bering Strait theory, the Beringian Standstill theory requires some unusual circumstances to make it work, the most important of which is that the Paleoindians who lived in Beringia were completely isolated from any other humans for more than 10,000 years and maybe up to 20,000 years, to prevent genetic and linguistic mixing. Rather than confirming that Paleoindians lived in Beringia, the new study seems to be anther example of “science by press release,” where the conclusions are hyped well beyond what the actual findings show. New evidence, especially from South America, is rapidly changing our understanding of the ancient past, making it hopeful that a century and a half of long-held dogma may be overturned, and other views about Indian origins will finally see the light.

Alexander Ewen, a member of the Purepecha Nation, holds a B.A. in history from the University of Virginia. He has written numerous articles, chapters, and papers about Native American issues. He lives in New York.