Native American Migration to America: History, Theories & Routes

Chris has a master’s degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The peopling of the Americas is one of the most controversial topics in ancient human migration theories. In this lesson, we’ll look at the prevailing evidence, and see where the first Americans may have come from. Updated: 09/30/2022

Settling the Americas

When Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas in 1492, he found a land that was already densely populated with people. We all know that Amerindian nations lived here for millennia before Europeans ever arrived, but where did they come from? If we assume that humans evolved in Africa and then spread out around the world, then at some point those humans had to make it into the Western Hemisphere. The peopling of the Americas is one of the most controversial topics in ancient migration studies, and it’s been hotly debated by researchers for decades. So, where did they come from? Let’s look at the main theories and see what researchers are saying today.

The Beringia Theory

The oldest accepted period of migration is what we call the Beringia theory. In the Ice Age, so much water was frozen into glaciers that the sea level dropped low enough to reveal a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska. The theory is that humans from Siberia walked across the Bering land bridge, following large game, and entered North America that way. From there, they spread south and across the continents.

But when did this happen? The Bering land bridge was open for a long time, but for most of this time, the glaciers across Canada were too thick for humans to cross. There was a limited time, roughly 18,000-15,000 BCE when corridors thawed out along the Pacific coastline and through inland Canada. Researchers believe that humans had to have entered North America in this window of time. Any earlier or later, and either the land bridge was submerged or the corridors were frozen over. The only other time that the land bridge was available and these corridors were open were before 40,000 BCE, which is much earlier.

The proposed route of the Beringia theory

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This theory is supported by geologic evidence, as well as genetic evidence which shows clear links between Siberian and Amerindian people. These genetic tests also suggest that the diversion of Siberian and Amerindian lineages happened slightly less than 20,000 years ago, so the timing checks out. As far as archeological evidence goes, artifacts in Beringia and Canada would have been destroyed by later glaciation, but we do have sites in North America that provide some evidence. The so-called Clovis culture, identified by unique spear points, left evidence of its existence in Colorado and New Mexico dating back at least 12,000 years. Right now, this is the oldest verified culture of the Americas.

An assemblage of Clovis stone tools

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Alternative Theories

The Beringia theory is the most accepted, but it’s not the only one that’s been suggested. For a while, some researchers believed that Clovis stone tools showed similarities to French stone tools from the Paleolithic era. They explained this by hypothesizing that ancient European people could have crossed the ice sheets over the north Atlantic. This idea is not widely supported and is seen by many as an attempt to justify European cultural domination over the Americas.

Another theory was that boat-savvy cultures of Oceania could have island-hopped across the Pacific, making their way to South America. While researchers have demonstrated the potential viability of Polynesian peoples to do this, absolutely no archeological evidence has been found to corroborate it. So, this theory is also generally dismissed.

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Other Evidence

So, the dominant theory is still that the first people in the Americas crossed the Bering land bridge between 18,000 and 15,000 BCE. Later coastal routes from Siberia to the west coast of Alaska have also been established as accepted periods of additional migration.

The problem is that we keep finding more and more evidence that doesn’t necessarily align with this theory. Sites across Texas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Florida have yielded artifacts that are potentially pre-Clovis. Even more interesting, the site of Monte Verde yielded well-preserved organic artifacts dated to roughly 14,000 BCE. Monte Verde is in Chile, all the way at the other end of the Americas. Research published as recently as 2016 also suggests that the corridors supposedly used by the first migrants were barren of plant life after being covered by glaciers for so long. This means that large animals like mammoths probably wouldn’t have traveled along them, and therefore, early humans couldn’t have been following their food into North America.

While the Beringia theory is still accepted, new ideas are starting to circulate. Some propose that humans must have entered the Americas by boats, traveling along the coastlines as early as 40,000 BCE. Most people now are willing to accept the likelihood of a pre-Clovis culture in the Americas, but the problem remains that we don’t have the archeological evidence to prove it. What we have are a lot of confusing and exciting pieces of the puzzle. Maybe someday we’ll actually find the missing pieces, and definitively prove who got here first, and how.

Lesson Summary

In modern archeology, the dominant theory to explain the peopling of the Americas is the Beringia theory, which claims that ancient people crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska between 18,000 and 15,000 BCE. This is corroborated by genetic testing of Amerindian and Siberian people, as well as archeological evidence of the Clovis culture (the oldest verified culture in the Americas). While others have proposed that the first people could have crossed the Atlantic ice sheets or the Pacific Ocean, neither of these is widely accepted. However, recent evidence has cast doubt on the Clovis-first theories, and many people are now willing to accept the possibility of a pre-Clovis culture. Without firm archeological evidence, however, the debate remains open. So who got here first, and how? The answer is out there somewhere, just waiting for us to find it.

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It’s official: Native Americans and Siberians are cousins

Man at the Altai Eagle Festival and Native American Indian man. Outdoor portrait profile.

Man at the Altai Eagle Festival and Native American Indian man. Outdoor portrait profile.

After more than a century of speculation, an international group of geneticists has conclusively proven that the Aztecs, Incas, and Iroquois are closely related to the peoples of Altai, the Siberian region that borders China and Mongolia.

Scientists have suspected for a long time that Native Americans are closely related to the peoples of Altai. The theory of the Altai peoples migrating from Siberia across Chukotka and Alaska, down to the Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, appeared almost a century ago.

Since then researchers have tried to prove this, and in late 2015 the famous Russian geneticist, Oleg Balanovsky, finally confirmed the theory. In addition, Dr. Balanovsky’sstudies also proved that some Native Americans have kinship with the indigenous populations of Australia.

“The current study confirms the theory that the Altai peoples are closely related to Native Americans,” said geneticist Valery Ilyinsky at the RAS Institute of General Genetics. ”We now have clear proof, and it is useless to contest it.”

American and Siberian genes

In 2013, two of the world’s leading scientific magazines, Nature, and Science , published articles about the analysis of whole genomes in Native Americans and their Siberian cousins. A comparison was made with populations in other regions throughout the world.

The first study analyzed 48 people from Brazil. The second study analyzed 31 genomes from peoples in the U.S. and Siberia. Results from both studies confirmed that the ancestors of Native Americans left Siberia about 20,000-30,000 years ago.

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After these publications Dr. Balanovsky decided to conduct a larger study, and so he notified international colleagues. They immediately responded to his request.

25,000 DNA samples from 90 nations

In the first stage, scientists analyzed DNA samples from the Russian biobank. “Our biobank contains more than 25,000 samples from representatives of 90 nationalities in Russia and neighboring countries,” Dr. Balanovsky told RBTH.

Discovering a shared history

In the second stage, the DNA was analyzed according to various markers such as the Y chromosome that is inherited from the male line, as well as the mitochondrial DNA that is inherited from the female line, and other chromosomes that are combined from both parents.

As a result, scientists proved beyond a doubt that Native Americans are closely related to the peoples of Altai. But during the study another discovery was made.

“Besides Siberian ancestors, some Native Americans showed a puzzling relation to the indigenous peoples of Australia and Melanesia in the Pacific Ocean,” remarked Dr. Balanovsky. “This is astounding because they are located in an almost opposite part on the planet.”

Land bridge from Asia

Scientists already know how humans traveled to the Americas from Altai. “Instead of the Bering Strait there was a land bridge [30,000 years ago], because during the Ice Age much water was locked in glaciers and the level of the world’s oceans was lower,” Dr. Balanovsky explained.

He added that it’s still not clear whether migration from Australia and Melanesia to the Americas was directly across the ocean, or by going up along the coast and via the Aleutian Islands. Archaeologists continue to study this issue.

Native American Migration to America: History, Theories & Routes

Chris has a master’s degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The peopling of the Americas is one of the most controversial topics in ancient human migration theories. In this lesson, we’ll look at the prevailing evidence, and see where the first Americans may have come from. Updated: 09/30/2022

Settling the Americas

When Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas in 1492, he found a land that was already densely populated with people. We all know that Amerindian nations lived here for millennia before Europeans ever arrived, but where did they come from? If we assume that humans evolved in Africa and then spread out around the world, then at some point those humans had to make it into the Western Hemisphere. The peopling of the Americas is one of the most controversial topics in ancient migration studies, and it’s been hotly debated by researchers for decades. So, where did they come from? Let’s look at the main theories and see what researchers are saying today.

The Beringia Theory

The oldest accepted period of migration is what we call the Beringia theory. In the Ice Age, so much water was frozen into glaciers that the sea level dropped low enough to reveal a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska. The theory is that humans from Siberia walked across the Bering land bridge, following large game, and entered North America that way. From there, they spread south and across the continents.

But when did this happen? The Bering land bridge was open for a long time, but for most of this time, the glaciers across Canada were too thick for humans to cross. There was a limited time, roughly 18,000-15,000 BCE when corridors thawed out along the Pacific coastline and through inland Canada. Researchers believe that humans had to have entered North America in this window of time. Any earlier or later, and either the land bridge was submerged or the corridors were frozen over. The only other time that the land bridge was available and these corridors were open were before 40,000 BCE, which is much earlier.

The proposed route of the Beringia theory

null

This theory is supported by geologic evidence, as well as genetic evidence which shows clear links between Siberian and Amerindian people. These genetic tests also suggest that the diversion of Siberian and Amerindian lineages happened slightly less than 20,000 years ago, so the timing checks out. As far as archeological evidence goes, artifacts in Beringia and Canada would have been destroyed by later glaciation, but we do have sites in North America that provide some evidence. The so-called Clovis culture, identified by unique spear points, left evidence of its existence in Colorado and New Mexico dating back at least 12,000 years. Right now, this is the oldest verified culture of the Americas.

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An assemblage of Clovis stone tools

null

Alternative Theories

The Beringia theory is the most accepted, but it’s not the only one that’s been suggested. For a while, some researchers believed that Clovis stone tools showed similarities to French stone tools from the Paleolithic era. They explained this by hypothesizing that ancient European people could have crossed the ice sheets over the north Atlantic. This idea is not widely supported and is seen by many as an attempt to justify European cultural domination over the Americas.

Another theory was that boat-savvy cultures of Oceania could have island-hopped across the Pacific, making their way to South America. While researchers have demonstrated the potential viability of Polynesian peoples to do this, absolutely no archeological evidence has been found to corroborate it. So, this theory is also generally dismissed.

Other Evidence

So, the dominant theory is still that the first people in the Americas crossed the Bering land bridge between 18,000 and 15,000 BCE. Later coastal routes from Siberia to the west coast of Alaska have also been established as accepted periods of additional migration.

The problem is that we keep finding more and more evidence that doesn’t necessarily align with this theory. Sites across Texas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Florida have yielded artifacts that are potentially pre-Clovis. Even more interesting, the site of Monte Verde yielded well-preserved organic artifacts dated to roughly 14,000 BCE. Monte Verde is in Chile, all the way at the other end of the Americas. Research published as recently as 2016 also suggests that the corridors supposedly used by the first migrants were barren of plant life after being covered by glaciers for so long. This means that large animals like mammoths probably wouldn’t have traveled along them, and therefore, early humans couldn’t have been following their food into North America.

While the Beringia theory is still accepted, new ideas are starting to circulate. Some propose that humans must have entered the Americas by boats, traveling along the coastlines as early as 40,000 BCE. Most people now are willing to accept the likelihood of a pre-Clovis culture in the Americas, but the problem remains that we don’t have the archeological evidence to prove it. What we have are a lot of confusing and exciting pieces of the puzzle. Maybe someday we’ll actually find the missing pieces, and definitively prove who got here first, and how.

Lesson Summary

In modern archeology, the dominant theory to explain the peopling of the Americas is the Beringia theory, which claims that ancient people crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska between 18,000 and 15,000 BCE. This is corroborated by genetic testing of Amerindian and Siberian people, as well as archeological evidence of the Clovis culture (the oldest verified culture in the Americas). While others have proposed that the first people could have crossed the Atlantic ice sheets or the Pacific Ocean, neither of these is widely accepted. However, recent evidence has cast doubt on the Clovis-first theories, and many people are now willing to accept the possibility of a pre-Clovis culture. Without firm archeological evidence, however, the debate remains open. So who got here first, and how? The answer is out there somewhere, just waiting for us to find it.

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Source https://study.com/academy/lesson/native-american-migration-to-america-history-theories-routes.html

Source https://www.rbth.com/science_and_tech/2016/02/23/its-official-native-americans-and-siberians-are-cousins_569517

Source https://study.com/academy/lesson/native-american-migration-to-america-history-theories-routes.html

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