Beringia was inhabited for 500 generations

The now submerged land bridge (Beringia) between Asia and North America was not just a little strip of land across which the ancestors of native Americans quickly moved across. It was not just a rest stop for the journey to America. The “bridge” was a vast area of land and itself served as a fairly permanent habitat and refuge for ancient humans for around 10,000 years (500 generations) from 25,000 to 15,000 years ago. Beringia extended some 1,600 km from north to south and almost 5,000 km east to west from Siberia’s Verkoyansk Range to the Mackenzie River in Canada. It could well have been the increasing sea levels as the world came out of a glacial period into the current inter-glacial and a shrinking Beringia which led to the migrations from Beringia into North America.

J. F. Hoffecker, S. A. Elias, D. H. O’Rourke. Out of Beringia? Science, 2014; 343 (6174): 979 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250768

Beringia: Credit: Wlliam Manley, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.

Beringia: Credit: Wlliam Manley, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado.

Abstract: Based on the distribution of tundra plants around the Bering Strait region, Eric Hultén proposed in the 1930s that the now-submerged plain between Chukotka and Alaska—the Bering land bridge—became a refugium for shrub tundra vegetation during cold periods (1), which include the last glacial maximum (LGM) between ∼28,000 and 18,000 cal BP (calibrated radiocarbon years before the present). Adjoining areas to the west and east supported drier plant communities with a higher percentage of grasses during glacial periods. According to Hultén, when warmer and wetter conditions returned to these areas, the land bridge, which he named Beringia, became a center of dispersal for tundra plants. Now it appears that it also may have been a glacial refugium and postglacial center of dispersal for the people who first settled the Americas.

As sea levels rose Beringia would have become increasingly isolated and the peoples living there would have experienced a not inconsiderable evolution over some 500 generations before moving on to populate the Americas. At the peak of the last glacial period some 28,000 years ago, huge tracts of land – now submerged – would have been home to human settlements. Habitable land would have been available not only in Beringia but also around most of the world’s existing coastlines, in Sundaland and in the Persian Gulf.

world map ice age image National Geophysical Data Center at NOAA

Archaeological evidence is of course lacking from the coastal sites of that time and which are now completely submerged.

University of Utah Press Release:

Genetic and environmental evidence indicates that after the ancestors of Native Americans left Asia, they spent 10,000 years in shrubby lowlands on a broad land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska. Archaeological evidence is lacking because it drowned beneath the Bering Sea when sea levels rose. 

University of Utah anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke and two colleagues make that argument in the Friday, Feb. 28, issue of the journal Science. They seek to reconcile existing genetic and paleoenvironmental evidence for human habitation on the Bering land bridge – also called Beringia – with an absence of archaeological evidence.

O’Rourke says cumulative evidence indicates the ancestors of Native Americans lived on the Bering land bridge “in the neighborhood of 10,000 years,” from roughly 25,000 years ago until they began moving into the Americas about 15,000 years ago once glacial ice sheets melted and opened migration routes.

….. “Nobody disputes that the ancestors of Native American peoples came from Asia over the coast and interior of the land bridge” during an ice age called the “last glacial maximum,” which lasted from 28,000 to at least 18,000 years ago, O’Rourke says,

The ice sheets extended south into the Pacific Northwest, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Ohio. Large expanses of Siberia and Beringia were cold but lacked glaciers.

The absence of archaeological sites and the inhospitable nature of open, treeless landscape known as tundra steppe mean that “archaeologists have not given much credence to the idea there was a population that lived on the Bering land bridge for thousands of years,” he adds.

O’Rourke and colleagues say that in recent years, paleoecologists – scientists who study ancient environments – drilled sediment cores from the Bering Sea and Alaskan bogs. Those sediments contain pollen, plant and insect fossils, suggesting the Bering land bridge wasn’t just barren, grassy tundra steppe but was dotted by “refugia” or refuges where there were brushy shrubs and even trees such as spruce, birch, willow and alder. …….

During the last glacial maximum, thick glacial ice sheets extended south into what now is the northern United States, sea levels dropped some 400 feet, O’Rourke says. As the glaciers melted, sea levels began to rise, reaching current levels 6,000 years ago.

During the long glacial period, Siberia and Alaska were linked by the Bering land bridge, which contrary to the name’s implication, really was a huge swath of land north, between and south of Siberia and Alaska, at the present sites of the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea, respectively. ……

…… The theory that humans inhabited the Bering land bridge for some 10,000 years “helps explain how a Native American genome (genetic blueprint) became separate from its Asian ancestor,” O’Rourke says.

“At some point, the genetic blueprint that defines Native American populations had to become distinct from that Asian ancestry,” he explains. “The only way to do that was for the population to be isolated. Most of us don’t believe that isolation took place in Siberia because we don’t see a place where a population could be sufficiently isolated. It would always have been in contact with other Asian groups on its periphery.”

“But if there were these shrub-tundra refugia in central Beringia, that provided a place where isolation could occur” due to distance from Siberia, O’Rourke says. …..

….. O’Rourke and colleagues point to a study of mitochondrial DNA – genetic information passed by mothers – sampled from Native Americans throughout the Americas. The study found that the unique genome or genetic blueprint of Native Americans arose sometime before 25,000 years ago but didn’t spread through the Americas until about 15,000 years ago.

“This result indicated that a substantial population existed somewhere, in isolation from the rest of Asia, while its genome differentiated from the parental Asian genome,” O’Rourke says. “The researchers suggested Beringia as the location for this isolated population, and suggested it existed there for several thousand years before members of the population migrated southward into the rest of North and, ultimately, South America as retreating glaciers provided routes for southern migration.”

“Several other genetic-genomic analyses of Native American populations have resulted in similar conclusions,” he adds.

“For a long time, many of us thought the land bridge was a uniform tundra-steppe environment” – a broad windswept grassland devoid of shrubs and trees, O’Rourke says. But in recent years, sediment cores drilled in the Bering Sea and along the Alaskan coast – the now-submerged lowlands of Beringia – found pollens of trees and shrubs.

That “suggests Beringia was not a uniform tundra-steppe environment, but a patchwork of environments, including substantial areas of lowland shrub tundra,” O’Rourke says. “These shrub-tundra areas were likely refugia for a population that would be invisible archaeologically, since the former Beringian lowlands are now submerged.”

“Large herd animals like bison or mammoths likely lived on the highland steppe tundra because they graze. Many smaller animals, birds, elk and moose (which browse shrubs instead of grazing on grass) would have been in the shrub tundra,” he adds.

Other research indicates “that much of Beringia – particularly the lowlands – appears to have had average summer temperatures nearly identical (or only slightly cooler in some regions) to those in the region today,” O’Rourke says. “The local environments likely were not as daunting as many have assumed for years. They probably hunkered down pretty good in the winter though. It would have been cold.”

………. archaeological sites must be found in Beringia if the long human layover there is to be confirmed. Although most such sites are underwater, some evidence of human habitation in shrub tundra might remain above sea level in low-lying portions of Alaska and eastern Chukotka (in Russia).




About ktwop

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This entry was posted in Ancestors, Homo Sapiens, Hunter-gatherer, Peopling the Americas, Peopling the world and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Beringia was inhabited for 500 generations

  1. Vanalander says:

    Reblogged this on Vanaland.

  2. Pingback: Peopling the New World Arctic | 6,000 Generations

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