Between two continents on the edge of the Arctic lay the ancient place called Beringia. It was a time of ice, giant mammals and
some of the first people in North
During the Ice Age, vast glaciers up to nearly two miles thick covered much
of the northern hemisphere, locking up much of the world’s water as vast ice
sheets. Of interest to Alaska is one very long glacier system that
started in Siberia and skirted the west coast of Alaska and Canada to as far as
Oregon. Global sea levels dropped as much as 300 feet as a result, exposing the
floor of the Bering Sea and revealing a relatively flat, low-lying stretch of
continental plain linking North America to Asia. This land bridge was part of a
larger unglaciated area called Beringia.
Beringia remained untouched by glaciers because of its arid climate. Instead,
the landscape consisted mainly of hardy grasses, herbs, dwarf birch and willows
of the vast steppe tundra that joined the continents of Asia and North America.
It was home to the giants of the Ice Age - the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the
steppe bison, the giant beaver, the North American horse, and camel. Also
present were large predators - the giant short-faced bear, the American lion and
the scimitar cat.
The theory of Beringia infers
that the first people who saw what is called America
today were following ice-age mammals who were migrating east from Siberia in search of more food and
to escape from their predators. In time
these hunters, following the game, wandered into the grasslands of the American
interior, then east to the Atlantic shores of Canada, south across the deserts,
through Central America, and finally to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South
America. Though we do not know with certainty when people first reached Beringia
and settled there permanently, it was the emergence of the Bering land bridge
that enabled them to reach the North American continent. As the ice receded, the
sea levels rose again until, about ten thousand years ago, Alaska and Siberia
were parted once and for all by the waters.
How long the Americas have been inhabited by humans is simply informed
guesswork, but most agree that it has been at least 15,000 years.
The disagreements arise anew with the unearthing
of skulls, bones, primitive burial grounds, hunting camps, and utensils.
Recent archeological discoveries have shattered the thought
that North and South America were populated strictly by those early peoples who
crossed the land bridge (as shown in the map to the right), or even that migrants through Beringia
were ancestors of all the North American tribes.
However, my intent for this page is not to discuss populating
any part of the Americas except our area of research - Alaska. And whether
or not the tribes of Alaska were "the first Americans" is irrelevant for this
page simply because what is important to us is the fact that they even
made that trek at all and began the establishment of what today would be called
Alaska. To us, those ancient People were first.
Between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago, a migration
took place along the Beringian land mass. These people were the
ancestors of the Eskimo and Aleuts, whose material culture was founded in
the Siberian-American Paleoarctic tradition. Components of the Ushki Lake sites
in central Kamchatka (Russia), dated to 14,000 years ago, have analogous artifacts at
maritime Alaska sites, such as Anangula in the Aleutian chain and Ground Hog Bay
on the northwest coast.
Artifacts have shown that another migration of Ancients took
place, but they sailed through the Bering Strait on hide-covered watercraft
instead of crossing the bridge. This migration possibly
included the ancestors of the interior Alaska Indians and the Pacific Northwest
coast Indians. These people were nomadic gatherers and caribou hunters who used
a microblade technology; their abandoned camps are scattered across
eastern Siberia and interior Alaska.
Using tools created from stone, bone,
sinew, wood, fiber, and moss, they invented secure dwellings and tailored skin
clothing. They developed expert control of fire, including the use of
alternative fuels such as animal dung, finely broken bone, and fat or oil in
areas lacking woody plants. They learned to travel over snow and ice. They also
learned to cope with long hours of winter darkness. These ancient people were skilled in many of the arts and sciences we pursue
today. They possessed profound biological knowledge - the nutritional and
medicinal properties of many plants and the habits and anatomy of many animals.
They were experts at finding geological deposits that contained stone suitable
for flaking into tools and grinding into pigments. They were storytellers who
entertained and educated themselves by passing on oral histories and knowledge
from one generation to another.
Each new group brought a new tradition and language. The new tribe would
invade, pushing the older tribes south or east to find new land to graze. Until
the Eskimo, no man dared to settle the frozen land.