Researchers last week announced that new archaeological and DNA evidence suggests that as early humans from the Ice Age made their way across Asia and onto the North American continent, they likely paused in journey, surviving in incredibly daunting arctic conditions for about 10,000 years before making their way to warmer climes.
As part of a recent news release from last week, scientists have discovered that the territory known as the Bering Land Bridge, which once linked Siberia to Alaska, was the permanent home to generations of Ice Age peoples, according to fossil evidence which shows that shrubby lowlands that once thrived in that region could have been enough to support human habitation. The findings have been corroborated with DNA data derived from ancestors of those people, which can still be found in the modern Native American population.
The theory is that as many as several thousand people lived in the Land Bridge territory, which is now completely under water, as part of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. About 25,000 years ago, however, Native American people arrived at this arctic locale only to find a crossable section of land, which they are purported to have inhabited for almost 10,000 years before continuing their nomadic migration into the North American continent, which many groups eventually making it down as far as South America.
“It’s staggering when you think about people living in temporary shelters – probably something like a tent — in the Arctic, especially in winter,” paleoecologist Scott Elias of Royal Holloway, University of London said in a phone interview to Reuters. “These are extremely rugged people. I’m sure they were very well adapted to living in the cold in terms of their physique, their physiology, their ability to withstand temperatures that would make most of us be absolutely miserable or die,” he said.
Dr. Elias’ perspectives are supported by a wide range of DNA discoveries over the past decades that reveal a marked genetic departure among the ancestors of Native Americans compared to other humans, most likely as a result of the group becoming isolated from the rest of the human race for so long during their multi-continental trek. The result, which spans tens of thousands of evolutionary years, led them to acquire their own distinctive genetic blueprint. It is for this reason that most Native Americans have genetic traits that cannot be accounted for in the Asian populations.
Specifically, Dr. Elias and two of his colleagues, archaeologist John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado and anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke of the University of Utah, recently published in the journal Science that the Land Bridge itself was responsible for this genetic diversion. Their findings suggest that these Ice Age humans were able to depart Asia by way of the land bridge, which was a massive expanse of land created as a result of much-lower sea levels. However, it is also believed that, while these people were to traverse the land bridge, their pause in traveling into North America was most likely the result of huge ice sheets that stood as impassible walls into modern-day Alaska and Canada. Over the 10,000 years that humans settled on the Land Bridge, the planet began to warm, enough so that these ice ramparts slowly melted away, thus opening a path to North America. As the walls diminished, sea levels rose, thus nudging the native people off of the land bridge and into North America.
In this way, the land bridge was something akin to a lock, encouraging the nomadic travelers of Asia to cross it, remain on it for ten millenniums, and then enter into the new world.
By and large, the land bridge has been regarded as a harsh, arctic landscape, unable to sustain human life for such a long period of time. However, Elias and colleagues believe that they have found compelling evidence under the water to suggest otherwise. While early man crossing the land bridge were most likely genetically well-adapted for the harsh conditions, new evidence, which began to be unearthed by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1970s and 1980s while drilling into the seafloor to search for oil and gas deposits, uncovered core samples that included the surface of the submerged land bridge. What researchers found was a surprisingly fertile environment, considering its geological placement: fossil pollen, plant, and insect material were all present in those samples, suggesting that the land bridge was more like a tundra environment with some trees and hearty plants, such as birch, willow and alder. The wood, combined with the burning of mammoth bones, would have served as a key element for survival, both as fuel for cooking food and keeping warm, as well as the creation of shelters.
For as much as the environment in and around the land bridge was indeed a harsh one some 20,000 years ago, there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that the territory was indeed sustaining enough for humans to live there for a long period of time, thus providing an even more compelling picture of the inspired journey that led to human civilization on the American continents.