Did the First Americans Arrive Via A Kelp Highway?

By Gemma Tarlach | November 2, 2017 1:00 pm
The First Americans may have followed a "kelp highway" of marine resources available on a coastal route from Siberia to the New World. Nutrient-rich kelp beds such as these near Crook Point on the Oregon coast. (Credit Roy W. Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The First Americans may have followed a “kelp highway” of marine resources via a coastal route from Siberia to the New World. Nutrient-rich kelp beds such as these, near Crook Point on the Oregon coast, attract salmon and other sea life that would have sustained the early explorers. (Credit Roy W. Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The average person’s idea of how — and when — the first people arrived in the Americas needs a serious revision, say researchers: The First Americans arrived significantly earlier and via a different route than most of us learned in school. There’s something fishy about the whole thing.

Open most middle school textbooks to the chapter on how our species migrated to the Americas and you’ll likely see an image of people in furs trekking over taiga and tundra, the lost world of Beringia. The land bridge, now submerged, once linked Siberia to North America. For years the standard story was that hunter-gatherers from Siberia crossed it on foot when the glaciers retreated enough, at the end of the last ice age, to open an ice-free corridor.

And people did cover Beringia on foot when such a route opened up. But they probably weren’t First Americans. Think of them as… Second Americans, perhaps.

Thanks to a growing body of archaeological and genetic evidence, researchers publishing today in Science say it’s increasingly likely that the first humans to arrive in the Americas followed a coastal route, making the most of marine resources on a “kelp highway” that spanned the edge of the north Pacific from Asia to North America. And they made this journey well before glaciers retreated to open the traditional Beringia overland route.

Surf or Turf?

To be clear, the kelp highway hypothesis is not new. It’s a 21st century tweak of a coastal migration theory that was around — and discounted — for much of the preceding century, when many in the field were all in on the Beringia overland idea. In 2007, archaeologist Jon Erlandson and colleagues, including marine ecologists, fleshed out the earlier idea of coastal migration by reconstructing the environment these early travelers would have encountered.

About 16,000 years ago, someone traveling along the northern Pacific Ocean coastline eastward from Siberia would have encountered an essentially unobstructed route at sea level, with plenty of fish, shellfish, kelp, seabirds and other resources — and no dangerous open ocean. The specificity of the hypothesis, together with subsequent archaeological discoveries that defy the Beringia timeline, led more and more researchers to rethink whether they wanted to stay in the overland migration camp.

What’s new about the kelp highway hypothesis, according to authors of today’s commentary, is that we’ve passed a tipping point, and that most of the field now believes the First Americans followed this Pacific Rim buffet all the way from Siberia to the North American coastline and beyond. As these earliest of Americans moved south into Central America, the marine ecosystem would have changed — no more kelp forests, but mangrove habitats instead, which offered different sustaining fare that the adaptable humans made use of.

At the same time that the kelp highway hypothesis appears ever more plausible, the old Beringia overland idea is facing more challenges. For example, a 2016 study of pollen, fossils and DNA from cores of lake sediment reconstructed the environment of that early ice-free corridor into North America. The authors concluded the route would have been inhospitable to humans until much later, perhaps 12,600 years ago — well after archaeological evidence shows humans had moved deep into the Americas.

There’s solid archaeological evidence at the Monte Verde site in Chile of a human presence on the South American coast at least by 14,500 years ago — and potentially as early as 18,000 years ago. And in Florida last year, researchers turned up evidence of a mastodon butchering site that’s about 14,550 years old.

Let’s Not Get Too Crazy Now

Just because it’s time to bury the overland Beringia hypothesis for First Americans once and for all, it doesn’t mean anything goes, according to the authors of today’s commentary.

In particular, they take aim at a controversial study published in April that suggested stones found near mastodon bones dated to about 130,000 years ago were evidence of humans at the site in southern California. That study’s conclusions are an example of “implausible claims based on limited and equivocal evidence” according to today’s authors, who add that there’s no evidence humans were even in far northeastern Siberia any earlier than around 50,000 years ago.

(And yes, as genomic evidence has shown, all signs point to the First Americans’ ancestors coming from Siberia. Claims of a westward migration from Europe before the end of the Ice Age, also known as the Solutrean hypothesis, haven’t been supported by DNA studies, though that doesn’t stop some folks from continuing to promote the scientifically shaky idea.)

Under The Sea

Despite exciting finds in the last year or two, notably on Canada’s Triquet Island, sites with evidence of an early human presence that would bolster the kelp highway hypothesis remain few and far between. And blame the ocean itself for that. Due to erosion and post-glacial sea rise, coastlines around much of the world have changed significantly, often by ten miles or more, in recent millennia.

That said, it’s likely there are more remnants of rest stops on the kelp highway somewhere out there, waiting to be found. The researchers behind today’s perspective call for a greater focus on fieldwork in coastal areas where the geography has meant little change with sea level rise — and for more work underwater, in hopes of rediscovering what the sea swallowed centuries ago.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Comments (37)

  1. OWilson

    There’s a good case to be made for early populations of Asiatics, not Indo-Europeans, finding their way to the Americas by virtue of just occupying the retreating ice shelf and following their food source, as did later Norse explorers, after the last Ice Age.

    The melting ice sheet left no fossil record, however!

    • Erik Bosma

      However, I believe that they did not have the technology, by the time they reached Central and South America to create the architecture that they left behind. That had to come from mutual ancestors of the Sumerians or Harrapans and the Incas and eventually the Aztecs and the Mayans who came by sea from what is now IndoChina.

      • OWilson

        I agree!

        But, that’s the “Big Question”, did they bring their pyramids, religion myths, tombs and mummification techniques to the New World, or did they invent it all over again once they found themselves here?

        I believe the former make more sense!

        • Armand Bourque

          And metallurgy? Lots of free high purity copper on the surface,did bronze slip their minds en route? Sublimated racism,if you ask me. Independent invention. Like cotton and rice. West africa,and mideast,and central america,different times,independently.

      • Armand Bourque

        Balls. Theres too muany layers of development on record down there. And a very different approach to material use. Suspension bridges,no arches. Lots of fibre tech,some fabrics from 8-900 b.c.e. have a 500/inch thread count. Didnt happen inwestern eurasia until 500 yers after that.

  2. The thought of southern First Immigrants harnessing giant otters (pre-historic Pteronura brasiliensis) to pull their sledges is oddly appealing.

    • 6JimBob

      That would make a great diorama at the Creation Museum!

    • Erik Bosma

      As if they could make the otters do anything at all. Instead, they probably just laid on their backs and preened or had lunch until the humans gave up and found that dogs were dumb enough (or perhaps smarter since it meant free food).
      Just like humans. I’ve seen humans expend more energy avoiding work all day than they would have if they just did their jobs. But I digress…

  3. Erik Bosma

    I’ve always wondered why research into human migration into the Americas by sea hasn’t really been followed up on much since Thor Heyerdahl and crew. There exists a common weather phenomenon called the Pineapple Express which continuously blows warm wet air in a NE direction from the area around Hawaii and further south right up to the Pacific Northwest including California. Why would ancient mariners make it all the way to Hawaii and Easter Island (a system other than the Pineapple Express) but not go any further? If you ever meet some of the Haida people from what used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii) you would swear you were in Hawaii or some other parts of Polynesia. The people are very obviously Polynesian phenotypes. And for all those that drag out DNA records to state where these first ‘Canadians’ came from – most indigenous peoples of the Americas had the same ancestors at one time.
    A quick digression to S. America makes me wonder if the technology behind the eventual Inca and Mayan Empires didn’t come from those early Pacific crossing mariners who brought over the technology already in existence in India and Sumeria? There IS some physical evidence to prove that and, again, why stop at Easter Island.

    • RebelSoldier

      The Maya were and are in Central America, not South America. Civilizations arose in the Americas around 1,000 BC at about the earliest, 10,000 years after the American Indians arrived here. (I prefer that term.) Civilizations are built on agriculture. Potatoes for the Incas and their many predecessor civilizations and corn for the Maya and other Meso-Americans. Both potatoes and corn (yeah I know maize) were turned into foods, through millennia of cultivation, that could support masses of people. To me that shows the growth of purely American agriculture and the American civilizations built atop them.

      Sumeria? That was the earliest civilization on Earth we are really aware of, there may be earlier ones to be discovered, though outfits like ISIS are doing their best to erase any traces there may be in the likely spots. That agriculture and cities arose separately here in the Americas is a much more interesting and powerful theory to explore on many levels.

      • OWilson

        Unless we have proof of simultaneous development on two continents, one should be careful not to dismiss the possibility of cross contamination.

        My bet is that the ancients traveled by necessity, by force, by accident and cross pollinated other cultures.

        Shared creation myths and religions, tools, technology, from sails to swords, to calendars and maps, and pyramids, can spread like wildfire, once conceived.

        Just look at Levis!

        It’s this dismissal of a naturally evolving civilization.that gives rise to the Alien Visitor, Atlanta and Religion myths.

        Beside’s it is not happening today, except maybe on other yet undiscovered planets. 🙂

        • Diane Goodwin

          Federated Mutual Insurance fired Kyong Rodgers in Arkansas but Kyong now makes $8860 working with Travelers Cos. from home INTERNATIONALPROJECT49.COM

        • Erik Bosma

          Thanks OW. There is no evidence saying that ancient peoples way before the Polynesians weren’t crossing the oceans. For example, how did the Australian Aborigines get there? They didn’t take a ferry and they didn’t walk all the way. Although they DID walk most of the way – maybe (they could have sailed from anywhere along their long journey from Africa to the South Pacific – after all it took them many, many generations).
          Sounds to me like people are preaching the gospel or anthropology instead of contemplating what was and could have been.

          • OWilson

            Exactly Eric!

            The Eurocentric Victorians, who figured that every other race were savages, even civilized savages, Orientals they called them, to be conquered and saved from themselves, is just as crazy as the current PC theory that “diversity” itself is the answer to conflict between races.

            Just as the Phonecians were buying copper and tin from, the Welsh, millennia ago, so were they building sailing ships to exploit resources further afield.

            There is evidence that Europeans, at least, touched on Eastern S,A,, and even that the Chinese visited Western S,A.

            We should not judge them by today’s PC morals and values, let we dismiss our proud Native American forebears as racists who raped, pillaged, and tortured, even enslaved, poor undocumented innocent immigrants who wanted nothing more that a better life for their children! 🙂

            Perspective is need toward history, lest the luddite mob burn and pillage monuments to the great men and women, who, like the Native Americans fought so bravely for what they beleived in, in their own time and place!

          • Maia

            Thoughtful and measured reply.

        • RebelSoldier

          The native American civilizations were not simultaneous to the development of civilization in the old world. It came to the new world about 1.000 BC, about 10,000 years after the fertile crescent discovered cities and agriculture. To put it in perspective. The wheel was never used for transportation in the new world. The Andeans and Meso-Americans needed another couple of thousand years to reach the level of civilization reached in classical Greek and Roman times. And that’s why I think basically we have separate native American civilizations growing up in the new world though an occasional human bit of flotsam from the old world might have been a wake up call and inspired the locals. Still the native Americans can be given the credit for what they created here.

          • OWilson

            Europeans got their tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa, corn, peppers and squash a thousand years after the American native populations, but that doesn’t mean they were domesticated simultaneously in Europe! 🙂

      • dan becker

        Why do you prefer the term indians when they are not?

        • RebelSoldier

          Because when a Navajo Indian told me he was Indian and I assumed he was from India it hurt him more than I want to see again,

          • dan becker

            Wow. So interesting. I am surprised a person of Navajo ancestry referred to himself as an indian. I live in Grants, NM, and there is a mythical story of the “Seven Cities of Cibola”. Cibola is the name of the county Grants is in. It meant the Seven Cities of Gold that brought Coronado up here from Mexico. There are no seven cities of gold, and Coronado returned to Mexico empty handed and broke. What there are here are about 4 nations, the Acoma, Laguna, Navajo, and the Zuni. As much as possible I try to stay away from the words “indian” and “reservation”.
            Thanks for your return comment.

          • Wesley Westphal

            Actually there are 19 Pueblos in NM – all have been here for over 10,000 years.

          • Maia

            Right! I wondered why Dan made no mention of Pueblos.

          • RebelSoldier

            He was a young man in the Job Corp and maybe wasn’t up on the niceties of PC definitions.

    • I think people stopped paying much attention to these due to the fact that the first human arrivals in Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) happened after American civilizations had already existed for over ten thousand years.

      In fact, even the most generous models would make the first Polynesian settlements several millennia younger than the settlement of the Americas.

      So, the answer to “Why stop at Easter Island?” would be that if they went any further, they would have found long-established civilizations, not fresh territories to settle.

    • dan becker

      The Pineapple Express is an occasional and winter only phenomena. Hawaii is usually under the Northeast trades blowing from the northeast, and toward the northeast.

  4. dave hil

    Yea, this has made perfect sense as i’ve seen it written about these last 10 plus years. Canoe peoples, skin boats… look at the advanced state of both those crafts in Alaska and the Pacific NW. Modern great voyaging canoes are still being made and still a central part of the cultures.

    • Armand Bourque

      Until the 1970s there was a ferry to one of the western irish islands made of walrus hide. About 90 yrs old when retired,some local guy had boots made. 40’long or so,carried 2 small cars,or 10-12 cattle,or 20-30sheep. EXACTLY like an umiak. That tech was circumpolar,and walrus was the preferred material. Large,up to 1 1/2″thick,and amazingly tough.

  5. James Brown

    Some feel that people came to the USA from ASIA, others feel they came from Europe still others from Africa.
    During the Ice Ages [ more then one ] people have moved around by boat / foot etc. So we find different groups of people through out the world within different time spans. HEAT AGE??
    The “Human race” Has been around for a very long time. Much longer then some are willing to guess. Sign of human passage, bones / wast / tools are mixed around the world.
    The size of the bones indicate different living conditions/ food /etc.So size would indicate, easy, worm, lite diet “small frame” Large frame “hard, cold, more hardy diet. Between HEAT & ICE ages, what worked, worked. Mixed the “human” frame / body.


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