Much like Doggerland between Britain and continental Europe is said to have been a home to the ancestors of modern-day Western Europeans, Beringia may have cradled America’s Natives for 10,000 years, and the answer to one of the biggest mysteries in human migrations might be buried underwater. Does a recent compilation of evidence, including genetic data, piece the puzzle together, or are there even more questions to ask now than ever before?
The theory, known as the Beringia standstill hypothesis, suggests that the first people to settle the American continent may have lived on what commonly is referred to as the Bering Land Bridge for approximately 10,000 years during the last glacial maximum, before the melting ice that closed the bridge opened up the gates to their new home; the American continent.
The genetic evidence, which some people might perhaps consider to be the strongest source of support to validate this hypothesis, show that the ancestors of Native Americans split from their cousins in Asia more than 25,000 years ago. It is also suggested that the land in Beringia had sufficient vegetation to support big livestock and other sources of nutrition as well as woody shrubs for fire, a fundamental necessity in the demanding arctic climate. According to experts, all this goes to support that the harsh existence of this ancient population in their demanding geographic circumstance was supportable, as the area was very inhabitable.
The article Perspectives, published in the journal Science on Feb. 27, documents this compilation of evidence, and the authors suggest that archaeologists conduct research projects in the regions of the Russian Far East and Alaska, scouting for traces of this ancient population. A more dominant hypothesis suggests a direct migration about 15,000 years ago, in which the ancestors of Native Americans crossed Beringia and quickly colonized the American continent rather than dwelling in the north. An extensive excavation project could come to determine which one of the two holds water, or perhaps something else entirely. Although most of Beringia is now underwater, the area surrounding the land bridge might hold the secret to unravel the mystery of the 10,000 years.
The genetic research, that some might consider a cause of the mystery rather than a clue, suggesting at least 25,000 years to have passed since the population split from their Asian cousins, was conducted in 2007. The researchers discovered mutations in the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line. The mutation is shared by almost all the Natives of North and South America, but do not seem to appear in the Asian populations that are otherwise considered the closest relatives of the Americans in the old world. Genetic evidence also suggest that the ancestors of several northern population such as the Inuit, to name an example, came over in another wave of migrations, separate from the initial settlers.
As far as the landscape goes, it was suggested by Eric Hulten, a Swedish botanist, back in the 1930s, that Beringia had served as a refuge for shrubby tundra plants. Insects, pollen and other traces of plants were discovered in sediments from beneath the Bering sea. Reportedly, The outer portions of Beringia, what today is the Russian Far East and Alaska, were vast steppes with grazing saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoth and other big game.
With animals to hunt and woody plants for fire, the area had the two fundamental resources that other areas in the Arctic lacked, with the central part of the region, now underwater, being probably the mildest and most comfortable to settle down and simply live. The settlement remains of the first Native Americans might thus be dwelling underwater, and the mystery of 10,000 years sleeping in the secrecy of the ocean, waiting to be awakened.
By Halldor Fannar Sigurgeirsson