Early Migrants May Have Come by Land and Sea
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—Forty years ago, an archaeologist named
Phil C. Orr discovered a few bits of human bone embedded in the
crumbling wall of a dry creek bed at a place called Arlington Canyon, way
out on the wind-swept island of Santa Rosa off the California coast.
Orr and his colleagues, using the best methods of their day, estimated
the bones, two femurs, were old. Really old. But they did not know what
After spending years on a shelf at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural
History, the bone fragments were returned to the laboratory, in this case
one of the most sophisticated radiocarbon and molecular dating facilities in
the world, the Stafford Research Laboratories of Boulder, Colo., and
were found to be approximately 13,000 years old--making the fragments
the oldest human remains ever found in the New World.
That is enough to make the discovery highly significant, and to provide
further support for the gathering consensus that the human migration into
the Americas occurred much earlier than previous dogma held.
But it also raises another, equally tantalizing question: If Arlington
(and they guess she was a woman based on the size of the femurs) was
found on an island miles off the California coast, how did she get there?
"You have to conclude," says John Johnson, the archaeologist at the Santa
Barbara museum who decided to redate the bones, "that she did not swim.
They had boats."
They had boats?
Generations of schoolchildren have been presented with another scenario,
of early humans trekking across the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and
then, as soon as the great glacial sheets receded and opened up an ice-free
corridor along the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, hunters following
the big game down across the North American plains, down and down,
until they reached the end of the migratory road, at the tip of South
Now, with the new finds, and in particular that of the Arlington Woman,
another scenario presents itself.
The maritime route.
"There is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't have had boats 13,000
years ago," says Knut Fladmark, an archaeologist at the Simon Fraser
University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the earliest proponent of a
coastal migration hypothesis in the 1970s. "Why should boats be any
stranger than the development of sophisticated projectile points and
sophisticated hunting strategies?
It is sort of a psychological barrier. We just don't happen to imagine
earliest migrants traveling by boat, but there is more and more evidence to
suggest that is exactly what they did."
Fladmark points out that early humans reached Australia about 40,000
years ago, and Australia was an island continent back then, unconnected to
Indonesia. Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California also was an island,
even with the lower sea levels.
If the newest discoveries and their dates hold, it makes a lot of sense,
Fladmark and others, that the scientific community is now rallying behind
maritime migration scenarios.
The land bridge over the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was
established 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, as sea levels fell. But the early
migrants would have been bottled up, waiting for the gradual opening of an
ice-free corridor between the immense glaciers that clung to the Pacific
Coast and the Rocky Mountains. That corridor did not open until about
11,500 years ago.
The traditional dogma held that they waited, until the first evidence of
so-called Clovis points, the sharp stone projectile spear tips found in
Clovis, N.M., with a date of about 11,200 years ago.
But the archaeological community was set on its ear in the last few years
with other finds. There is the ancient hunting camp discovered in Monte
Verde in southern Chile, which shows evidence of human occupation--and
a diet of mastodon meat, as well as mushrooms, shellfish, berries and
nuts--about 12,500 years ago.
There also is fresh evidence of an early human presence in southern Peru,
at another seaside encampment that dates to 12,000 years ago, with
further evidence of a maritime-based diet of fish, seabirds and shellfish, as
well as wild fruits and vegetables.
So how did the early migrants get there? The current theories suggest they
might have traveled along the coast, exploiting the rich resources where sea
meets land, and traveling with some sort of watercraft.
"What does it mean to say that the peopling of the Americas was done by
boat?" asks Rob Bonnichsen at the Center for the Study of the First
Americans at Oregon State University.
It means our earliest ancestors in the New World were mariners. Indeed,
they were mariners who brought dogs along, and were smart enough to
exploit the rich coastal resources.
What kinds of vessels?
"We have no earthly idea," says Don Morris, an archaeologist at the
Channel Islands National Park who collaborated with Johnson on the
redating of the Arlington Woman's remains found there. "They could have
employed reed boats, just bundles of cattails, the sort of craft that survived
into current times. They also could have used some kind of dugout
Fladmark adds to that list of possibilities some kind of watercraft made
animal skins, perhaps of seal skins, which the early migrants would have
employed as clothing, stitched together. Fladmark guesses that if they
could stitch together a nice, warm parka to weather the brutal cold of the
Arctic, they might have kept sewing until they made a boat that floated.
When the first Europeans arrived along the California coast in the 16th
century, they found a thriving maritime culture, particularly among the
Chumash Indians, who lived along the coast and out on the Channel
Islands off Santa Barbara, and were skilled paddlers of seaworthy canoes
made of driftwood planks.
Morris and others imagine a migration in which early travelers hopped and
skipped down the coasts. "People come along and lunch is served in every
tide pool. You just stroll along the coasts, eating as you go." He makes it
sound like the early-bird special at Red Lobster. "And when you face a
headland or some physical obstacle, you get in your boats--whatever the
heck they were--and keep moving. And what is drawing them? The farther
south you go, the warmer it gets."
At present, the traditional dogma--of migrants moving by land following
mastodons--still works. That is how many newcomers spread across the
plains. But it is clear that the maritime scenario also holds water, and that
the story of human arrival in the Americas is emerging as a tale of by
Arriving by Foot or by Boat?
Recent discoveries have provided evidence that the earliest migration into
the Americas occurred by boat.
11,500 years ago Corridor opens through ice sheets
20,000 years ago Land exposed by drop in sea level
13,000 -- 12,000 years ago Bering Strait land bridge crossing
11,200 years ago Clovis, N.M.; arrowheads
13,000 years ago Santa Rosa island; female skeletal fragments
11,500 years ago Amazon; human skeleton
12,000 years ago Coastal Peru; camp
12,500 years ago Monte Verde, Chile; encampment
Plank canoes were the seafaring vessels used by the Chumash Indians of
Santa Rosa Island when Europeans arrived.
8,000 years ago Kennewick man
SOURCES: Newsweek; Illinois State Museum
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