Thanks to a variety of archaeological finds of tools and animal bones bearing cut marks, together with precise dating, it now seems clear that the Americas began to be colonised as early as the Last Glacial Maximum from tangible evidence from Bluefish Cave in the Yukon territory of Canada and as early as 15.5 ka close to the southern tip of South America in Chile. Although confirmation remains to be found, there is even a possibility that pre-sapiens people had arrived far earlier. Advances in analysis of ancient genetic material help understand the divergence of early colonisers. Y-chromosome DNA from living indigenous men suggests that all early Americans stemmed from 4 separate colonising populations who may have entered by crossing the Beringia land bridge, exposed as a result of glacial fall in global sea level, to follow different routes, including along the Pacific coast. A possible common ancestor of all native Americans emerged in 2013 from the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA of the skeleton of a young man from near Lake Baikal in Siberia who lived about 24 ka ago. At the very start of 2018 an online paper in Nature took the story even further.
The diversity of Native American people. (credit: Wikipedia from a 19th century Norwegian painting)
The remains of a ~6-week-old girl recovered from a site at Upward Sun River in Alaska – called ‘Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gay’, or ‘sunrise girl-child’ by indigenous Alaskans – dated at 11.5 ka, has yielded a precise genome (Moreno-Mayar, J. and 17 others 2018. Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan genome reveals first founding population of Native Americans. Nature; doi:10.1038/nature25173). The baby girl’s DNA shows that the group to which she belonged was ancestral to contemporary and fossilised ancient Native Americans. She was probably a member of a founding population of ‘Beringians’. At the end of the last glacial epoch (11.5 ka) a separate branch of Native Americans was already established in unglaciated North America further south. That group had split into two further groups sometime between 17.5 to 14.6 ka, who became ancestors of most of the indigenous people of the Americas. The ‘Beringian’ people were therefore probably stranded in the far north by the difficulties of crossing the vast North American ice sheet. Probing deeper into time, using demographic modelling, suggests that the founding population of all Native Americans, including the ‘Beringians’, split from East Asians around 36 ka ago. Gene flow among them and with East Asians persisted until about 25 thousand years ago, with some admixture with ancient northern Eurasians up to 20 ka. It seems that the ‘Beringians’, of whom little ‘sunrise girl-child’ was a late member, became isolated genetically between 22-18 ka.
The ancestral mixture of both East Asian and northern Eurasians that led to the founders of the whole panoply of geographically isolated Native Americans is remarkable. It shows just how far human groups moved and mingled during the run-up to the Last Glacial Maximum, which made the far north just about uninhabitable – or so it has been assumed. For a small ethnically mixed group to survive such conditions for so long suggests considerable ingenuity in living off the land.
In 1991-2 palaeontologists excavated a site near San Diego, California where broken bones had been found. These turned out to be the disarticulated remains of an extinct mastodon. One feature of the site was the association of several large cobbles with bones of large limbs that seemed to have been smashed either to extract marrow or as source of tool-making material. The cobbles showed clear signs or pounding, such as loss of flakes – one flake could be fitted exactly to a scar in a cobble – pitted surfaces and small radiating fractures. The damage to one cobble suggested that it had been used as an anvil, the others being hammer stones. Broken pieces of rock identical to the hammer stones were found among the heap of bones. No other artefacts were found, and the bones show no sign of marks left by cutting meat from them with stone tools. The breakage patterns of the bones included spiral fractures that experimental hammering of large elephant and cow bones suggest form when bone is fresh. Other clear signs of deliberate breakage are impact notches and small bone flakes. Two detached, almost spherical heads of mastodon femora suggest that marrow was the target for the hammering and confirmed the breakage was deliberate.
Artist’s impression of American mastodon. (credit: Wikipedia)
Since the sediment stratum in which the remains occurred consists of fine sands and silt, typical of a low-energy river system, the chances that the cobbles had been washed into association with the mastodon are very small. The interpretation of the site is that it was the result of opportunistic exploitation of a partial carcase of a young adult mastodon by humans. In the early 1990s attempts were made to date the bones using the radiocarbon method, but failed due to insufficient preserved collagen. That the site may have been much older than the period of known occupation of North America by ancestors of native people (post 14.5 ka) emerged from attempts at optically stimulated luminescence dating of sand grains that can suggest the age of burial. These suggested burial by at least 60 to 70 ka ago. It was only when the uranium-series disequilibrium method was used on bone fragments that full significance of the site emerged. The results indicated that they had been buried at 130.7±9.4 ka (Holen, S.R. and 10 others 2017. A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA. Nature, v. 544, p. 479—493; doi:10.1038/nature22065 – full paper and supplements available free)
Not only is the date almost ten times that of the earliest widely accepted signs of Homo sapiens in the Americas, the earliest anatomically modern humans known to have left Africa are around the same age, but restricted to the Levant. The earliest evidence that modern humans had reached East Asia and Australasia through their eastward migration out of Africa is no more than 60 ka. The date from southern California is around the start of the interglacial (Eemian) before the one in which we live now. It may well have been possible then, as ~14 ka ago, to walk across the Bering Straits due to low sea level, or even by using coast-hugging boats – hominins had reached islands in the Mediterranean and the Indonesian peninsula certainly by 100 ka, and probably earlier. But whoever exploited the Californian mastodon marrow must have been cold-adapted to achieve such a migration. While the authors speculate about ‘archaic’ H. sapiens the best candidates would have been hominins known to have been present in East Asia: H. erectus, Neaderthals and the elusive Denisovans.
Surely there will be reluctance to accept such a suggestion without further evidence, such as tools and, of course, hominin skeletal remains. But these long-delayed findings seem destined to open up a new horizon for American palaeoanthropology, at least in California.
You can find more information on hominin migration here.
For many years anthropologists were certain that the Americas remained outside the human realm until the great icecap of North America had begun to melt decisively. This view stemmed partly from the only conceived route being across the exposed floor of the Bering Sea when sea-level had fallen to leave it as a landmass known as Beringia. The other literal stumbling block had been the glacial blockage of the only lowland corridor from Alaska to the Great Plains which roughly follows the Alberta – British Columbia border in Canada. There is abundant evidence that the corridor did not become ice-free until about 13 ka, an important fact that for a long while bolstered the Clovis-First hypothesis, from the eponymous and highly distinctive stone tools that date back to just after that time. After a long, sturdy rearguard action by its devotees that view was transcended by finds of earlier tools with dates as old as 15.5 ka that extend close to the southernmost tip of South America. Studies of Y-chromosome DNA from living First Nations men that suggested that all early Americans stemmed from 4 separate colonising populations who may have entered via Beringia by different routes, including along the Pacific coast. A possible common ancestor of all native Americans has turned up from the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA of a fossil skeleton from near Lake Baikal in Siberia who lived about 24 ka ago. But yet another twist has emerged from the Yukon Territory of Northern Canada.
Beringia Land Bridge. Animation of its development from 21.000 BC to modern times.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since 1987 it has been known that animal bones with clear signs of butchery occurred in the Bluefish Cave on the Yukon – Alaska border. Dating of the bones by the 14C method seemed to support human occupation there during the Last Glacial Maximum; highly controversial at the time, in the absence of any other sites of that age in the whole Americas. The material has now been re-examined and dated by a more advanced radiocarbon method (Bourgeon, L. et al. 2017. Earliest human presence in North America dated to the Last Glacial Maximum: new radiocarbon dates from Bluefish Caves, Canada. PLoS ONE, v. 12; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169486). This work has confirmed the earlier view since the ages of bones range from 24 to 12 ka. But the discovery of what seems long-term occupation under the most arduous glacial conditions is not the only outcome of the research. One hypothesis for the genetic diversity among living indigenous people of the Americas is that their forebears, the first people of the Americas, may have been from genetically isolated populations stranded on Beringia, yet surviving eventually to migrate southward once climate warmed. The ‘Beringian standstill hypothesis’ suggest that the small population underwent genetic drift for about eight thousand years, their descendants inheriting the genetic diversity produced by this process. Bluefish Cave is probably where some of those pioneers waited-out the Ice Age