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

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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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Jersey Heritage
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Watch Conservationists Disassemble World's Largest Known Celtic Coin Hoard
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Jersey Heritage

Reg Mead and Richard Miles are proof that striking silver can be just as exciting as hitting gold—especially if the precious metal in question is a massive heap of ancient coins.

In the summer of 2012, the two amateur treasure hunters used metal detectors to discover the world’s largest-known Celtic coin hoard—now known as Catillon II—buried in a field on the Isle of Jersey in the British Channel Islands. The duo had spent more than 30 years searching for the rare stash, after a farmer’s wife (other accounts refer to her as a daughter) told them decades prior that her family had discovered silver coins while plowing a field.

Mead and Miles were granted limited access to the land, which they scoured after harvest season each year. Their persistence paid off when they finally found the treasure: nearly 70,000 Roman and Celtic coins, believed to date from around 30 to 50 BCE, along with some gold and silver jewelry, glass beads, a leather purse, and a woven silver-and-gold bag.

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Long ago, members of a tribe called the Coriosolitae—who once lived in modern-day Brittany and Normandy in France—buried the wealth, presumably to hide it from the Romans.

The hoard was excavated by a team that was composed of members of local history and archaeology organizations Societe Jersiais and Jersey Heritage, along with staff from the Guernsey Museum, located on the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Removing the coin heap from the ground proved to be a challenge: "With earth still attached, it weighed over a ton," Neil Mahrer, a museum conservator with local historic trust Jersey Heritage, told Archaeology. "We had no idea how strong it was, in that it was only held together by the corrosion between the coins."

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

The Celtic coin hoard known as Catillon II
Jersey Heritage

Once the treasure was finally unearthed, conservationists and volunteers spent around three years carefully extricating coins from the pile. The arduous project was completed in January 2017—and now, thanks to the magic of video editing, we can watch the entire process in only 30 seconds.

What happens next to the hoard is unclear. Such finds are protected by the Treasure Act.

[h/t Archaeology]

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