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How Did First Americans Get Here?

Archeologists have long insisted that people first came to the Americas by crossing the Bering land bridge from Siberia between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago. However, most indigenous people in both North and South America deny this. South Americans say they came from the sea and many Native Americans say they came from the South. Now it's been discovered that they couldn't have crossed the Bering Bridge, since it didn't exist then.

Allison M. Heinrichs writes in the Los Angeles Times that archeologists carbon dated materials found at the Ushki site in Siberia, which is thought to be the original starting point for crossing the Bering land bridge into North America, and found it's much younger than they previously believed. This means the first Americans couldn't have used it to migrate overland during the last great ice age. The Ushki site is the remains of a community of hunters who lived around Ushki Lake in northeastern Russia that is now known to be only about 13,000 years old.

The new date means the Ushki settlement is the same age as the Clovis site, an ancient community found in New Mexico. It would have been impossible for people to walk thousands of miles from Siberia and then on into what is now New Mexico in such a short period of time. "This was the last site out there in Siberia that could have been an ancestor for the Clovis," says researcher Michael Waters. "We have to think bigger now and start thinking outside the box."

The Bering Bridge was a strip of land that linked Siberia to the Americas between 10,000 to 18,000 years ago. It no longer exists, but was exposed during a cold period when more of the ocean was frozen into arctic ice, making sea levels 400 feet lower than they are today.

The Clovis site in New Mexico contains the earliest evidence of North American settlement and shows that people were here 13,600 years ago. Traces of early settlements have also been found in Monte Verde in southern Chile and the Cactus Hill site in Virginia, which are both about 12,500 years old.

Geneticist Michael Crawford thinks the solution to the puzzle is that there were multiple migrations across the Bering Bridge at earlier times in history, during mini ice ages. He says humans could not have crossed the land bridge and traveled to New Mexico in just 400 years, and reaching South America by foot within 1,000 years was even less likely. "Certainly the molecular genetics shows that it wasn't just a single migration," he says. Genetic research shows that "humans have been in America for at least 20,000 years." One problem with this theory is that no earlier settlements in the Ushki site in Siberia have been discovered, so no one knows where the immigrants would have come from.

Anthropologist Brian Fagan thinks people could have traveled quickly and spread out through the Americas in only a few hundred years. "We are talking about tiny numbers of people, highly mobile, who would have traversed thousands of square miles as part of their hunting round within surprisingly few generations," he says.

Michael Waters says, "It's one of those things where we don't have all the answers right now and that's what makes it so exciting. I think we're in the threshold in the next 20 years of basically rewriting North American history."

Jeff Hecht writes in New Scientist that scientists have found the skulls of a group of people who lived in what?s now Mexico's Baja California and who may be the earliest inhabitants of North America. Their skulls are shaped differently from ours?they're longer and narrower. Was there an earlier civilization in the Americans, who came before the Native Americans, that we know nothing about?

These skulls aren't like Native American skulls or those of Asians (who are supposed to be their closest ancestors). Instead, they're more like the skulls of modern Australian aborigines or Africans.

One theory says that two distinct groups of people migrated to North America at different times, while others think there was only one major migration, and then different groups spread out and evolved different physical attributes. A 10,500-year-old skeleton found in Brazil and the 9,000-year-old skeleton of Kennewick man in Washington state both have long, narrow skulls.

Not all scientists dismiss the idea that prehistoric man was able to travel widely, across oceans and out of sight of land. These two authors have even found their maps.

To learn more, click here and here.

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