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Study: The First Americans Didn't Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge

Stone projectile points discovered at Oregon's Rimrock Draw rockshelter. One may be at least 15,800 years old. Image credit: Katrina Lancaster // Bureau of Land Management // CC BY 2.0

For much of the 20th century, scientists believed that the first settlers of the Americas could only have arrived one way. As the conventional story went, an ice-free super highway opened up across the Bering Land Bridge toward the end of the last ice age, allowing people from Eurasia to follow big game like bison and mammoths down through the interior of North America.

New archaeological discoveries have challenged that narrative in recent years. And a study published in the journal Nature offers further evidence that this northerly corridor wasn’t the first route to the continent.

University of Copenhagen researchers Eske Willerslev, Mikkel Pedersen, and their colleagues found that this harsh route only became viable for human migration 12,600 years ago—when the first plants and animals showed up in the region. Meanwhile, archaeologists have ample evidence that people were living in the Americas long before then.

“We know conclusively that human groups were in the interior before that date—perhaps as early as 15,000 calibrated radiocarbon years before present—so it is highly unlikely that they came south through the corridor,” said Michael O’Brien, an anthropologist and current academic vice president of Texas A&M University–San Antonio, who wasn’t involved in the study. “A more likely scenario is that they came south along the Pacific coast.”

For the study, Pedersen and colleagues drilled sediment cores from beneath the frozen surface of two lakes in western Canada: Charlie Lake and Spring Lake. These were among the last areas to lose their ice cover when the two huge ice sheets that blanketed the region (the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets) split during the end of the last glacial maximum, around 15,000 years ago. The retreating ice opened up a path some 1500 kilometers long into the interior of North America.

With the sediment cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct a history of environmental conditions along this route based on algae, pollen and other plant matter, fossils, and ancient DNA trapped in the layers of chilly soil. They concluded that before 12,700 years ago, patchy grass was the only life along the ice-free route. Slowly, plants like sage brush and willow started to change the barren corridor into a steppe landscape. By 12,600 years ago, bison arrived. About 2000 years later, the route started to look more lively as it became populated by jackrabbits, voles, and other small mammals, which were followed by mammoths, elk, and predators like bald eagles. The route likely became impassable for humans and big mammals again about 10,000 years ago, when dense coniferous forests started to grow.

The results of the study suggest the route was only usable between 12,600 and 10,000 years ago. This narrow window is too late to match with the once-prevailing “Clovis First” hypothesis. The Clovis people, who are named after their characteristic fluted stone spearheads first found near Clovis, New Mexico, were thought to have been the first inhabitants of the Americas. The earliest Clovis points show up in the archaeological record about 13,500 years ago. It was long believed that they got here by crossing the Bering Land Bridge sometime before then.

Recently, several before-Clovis sites have been discovered in the Americas. Fossilized feces more than 14,000 years old have been found in Oregon’s Paisley Caves. Stone tools alongside mastodon bones in Florida were recently found to be 14,550 years old. And much further away from northwestern Canada, in southern Chile, humans inhabited Monte Verde at least 14,000 years ago (and possibly even earlier).

Alternate migration routes have been put forth in the past, such as the controversial Solutrean hypothesis, which posits that the first Americans actually came from Europe, not Asia, via a North Atlantic route. But many anthropologists now favor a Pacific coastal route to explain how the first people got to the Americas, though more research is needed to fully understand how these intrepid settlers traveled (perhaps by boat).

“Such a study has been needed for quite some time now,” said Vanderbilt College archaeologist Tom Dillehay, who wasn’t involved in the new study. Dillehay, whose excavations at Monte Verde in the 1970s revealed the site's ancient age, challenging the Clovis First theory—and long considered suspect as a result—told mental_floss that this type of study is just the beginning. “I would like to see more studies of this nature done in other areas of the corridor to confirm this hypothesis—especially at the entrance and exits points of the corridor.”

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12 Solid Facts About New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain
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On May 3, 2003, the craggy rock face known as New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain tumbled to the ground in spectacular fashion. For a landmark that had been in the state's DNA for generations, its collapse was like a death in the family to some. The day after it fell, people left flowers at the base of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park as a sort of funeral tribute, and plans were immediately launched to create a longer-lasting memorial. So what was so great about the Old Man of the Mountain, pre- and post-crumble? Read on for the stone-cold facts.

1. THANKS TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, THE OLD MAN WAS ALSO KNOWN AS “THE GREAT STONE FACE.”

Although not explicitly named, it’s widely believed Hawthorne based his 1850 short story "The Great Stone Face"—which was set in an anonymous state that happens to look like New Hampshire—on the Old Man. At that time, the mountainous figure was already a tourist draw to the Granite State. Hawthorne described it as an “enormous giant, or a Titan,” with a “broad arch of the forehead,” a long-bridged nose, and having “vast lips.” Eventually Hawthorne’s nickname stuck, along with other loving titles like “Old Man” and “the Profile.”

2. THE "FACE" WAS ACTUALLY A SERIES OF LEDGES.

These granite cliff ledges, 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide, when viewed from the north at certain angles looked like a jagged face. Hawthorne corroborated this, writing in “The Great Stone Face”: “If the spectator approached too near, he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks ... Retracing his steps, however, the wondrous features would again be seen; and the farther he withdrew from them, the more like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear."

3. HE COULD HAVE BEEN 12,000 YEARS OLD.

An 1856 postcard of The Old Man of the Mountain
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man was first discovered and recorded in 1805 by road surveyors Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks, which put the landmark at nearly 200 years old by the time it fell. But it likely first formed when water inside cracks in the granite bedrock froze and thawed following the retreat of glaciers about 12,000 years ago. (This freezing and thawing process was what hastened its eventual collapse.) According to geologist Brian Fowler in a research report by the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, the lower ledge—or chin—of the Old Man is assumed to have fallen first. Once that support was gone, the rest of the rock fell in formation.

4. CANNON MOUNTAIN WAS SO NAMED BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE ANTIQUE ARTILLERY.

The Old Man jutted from a cliff in Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, within Franconia Notch State Park. Originally named Profile Mountain, it took on a new name since its granite dome resembles a cannon from select vantage points. There are even three sub-peaks, nicknamed “The Cannon Balls.”

5. SOME OF THE STRONGEST SURFACE WINDS EVER IN THE U.S. WERE RECORDED ON TOP OF CANNON MOUNTAIN.

The gusts measured 199.5 mph on April 2, 1973. While impressive, they were likely even higher since 199.5 mph was the limit of what the researchers' instruments could record at the time. The highest surface wind gust in the U.S. still belongs in-state, though, with New Hampshire's Mount Washington recording 231 mph winds in 1934.

6. A SERIES OF TURNBUCKLES AND IRON TIES WERE PLACED WITHIN ITS FACE TO KEEP IT TOGETHER.

By 1916, as it became clear the Old Man might not live forever, the first efforts to protect the rock formation were made. By the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s "forehead" was clearly noticeable, and residents who were worried about its safety used chains, turnbuckles, and iron ties to keep the crack from separating. Many of those metal rods used to hold the Old Man together were still attached to the mountain years later.

7. THE STATE EVENTUALLY SPENT A SMALL FORTUNE TRYING TO SAVE IT.


Julius Hall, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the New Hampshire state legislature passed a $25,000 appropriation for the necessary repairs to slow the Old Man's deterioration. These steps included quick-drying cement and steel rods meant to fill in and fortify cracks. The rocky Band-Aids were maintained every summer.

8. THE CARETAKERS’ MAINTENANCE ROUTINES WERE METICULOUS.

One longtime caretaker, Niels Nielsen, took great pains to keep the Old Man clean since 1965. Nielsen would spray bleach on the rock face and in its cracks, then carefully remove moss and lichen in an effort to prevent cracks from spreading further. He would even clean out the Old Man’s ear with a garden hoe. When Nielsen retired, he passed the job on to his son, David. The face continued to be groomed until its collapse.

9. NIELS NIELSEN SAW THE OLD MAN AS A GIFT FROM GOD.

According to Yankee Magazine, Nielsen was rather enchanted by the rock formation. “I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman, yet I had never seen anything like the Old Man," he said. "I don’t believe anyone can be up there and not feel the presence of God."

10. BUT EVEN NIELSEN KNEW IT MIGHT FALL SOME DAY.

Nielsen was asked by Yankee what would happen if the Old Man ever fell. “The Lord put him here, and the Lord will take him down," Nielsen replied. Research concluded its collapse was natural—that the freezing-thawing process and subsequent erosion over time caused its downfall.

11. YOU CAN STILL "SEE" THE OLD MAN.


Rob Gallagher, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The image of the Old Man has lived on as a state emblem since 1945, appearing on highway signs, on the back of drivers licenses, and on the reverse of the state quarter. But residents weren’t done with honoring the now-deceased rock face. At Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza and Historic Site in Franconia, special viewfinders and steel “profilers” at vantage points near Profile Lake offer a glimpse of what the formation used to look like.

12. THERE’S EVEN AN OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN FLOWER.

Old-Man-of-the-Mountain, or tetraneuris grandiflora, is found in the Intermountain Regions and Rocky Mountains in states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. It’s sometimes called an alpine sunflower and got its common name from the wooly hairs that cover its leaves.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Take a Closer Look at the $17 Billion 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

Feast your eyes on these new images of the treasure among the wreckage of the Spanish ship San José, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks." When it sank on June 8, 1708, it was carrying gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth roughly $17 billion today. Now, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is revealing the major role it played in the 2015 expedition to find the San José.

The three-masted, 62-gun Spanish galleon exploded and sank at the hands of the British during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying its riches to the Colombian city of Cartegena to finance the war. Archaeologists had been trying to find the San José for decades before it was finally located on November 27, 2015, during an expedition organized by Colombia, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), and WHOI. The multibillion-dollar treasure, which still sits nearly 2000 feet below the surface of the ocean near Cartegena, is just now being revealed.

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS 6000 was responsible for finding the elusive wreck. REMUS has been with the project since the beginning: The machine created the first side-scan sonar images of the site. After that, REMUS journeyed to a point 30 feet above the site and captured high-resolution photos of the ship's distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphins. REMUS's documentation of this defining feature allowed scientists to positively identify the wreck as the fabled San José. (Thanks to whoever had the idea to put dolphins on the cannon in the first place.)

WHOI also released REMUS's photos of the wreckage, which show details of the horde, including ceramics and those famous cannons. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said back when the treasure was discovered.

The San José's treasure is the subject of a legal battle for ownership between Colombia and U.S. salvage company Sea Search Armada, which helped look for the wreck. In 2011, four years before the San José was even found, the court ruled that the booty belongs to Colombia, but the dispute is ongoing. Because of the legal drama, the exact location of the wreck remains a government secret.

Below, check out the newly released pictures for a closer look at cannons, teacups, and other ceramics.

cannons from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

pots from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

teacups from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

REMUS 6000
REMUS 6000
Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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