At 0900 on this our second morning at sea, we’re abeam of St Lawrence Island, making 14.5 knots (one knot equals 1.15 statute miles), and visibility’s reduced to less than a ship length in woolen fog. St. Lawrence lies some 150 miles south of the Bering Strait, where the science activities will begin.  There, between the Seward Peninsula and the Chukotka Peninsula, only 58 miles of relatively shallow water separate Asia from the Americas.  Through this portal, at least 12,000 years ago, passed a shadowy culture of proto-Indians, the first humans from the Old World to venture into the then-uninhabited New World. And from this singular stock, descended every pre-Columbian person who ever lived in North and South America—Iroquois, Creek, Athabascan, Mohawk, Inca, Aztec, Apache, Navajo, Haida, Toltec, and everybody else, through a process anthropologists call genetic drift.

Healy points her bow into the Bering Strait

Healy points her bow into the Bering Strait

However, the question of just when the first humans crossed the strait segregates archeological opinion into two rancorous camps.  The conventional view holds that no humans could have migrated into North America before 12,000 years ago.  Until then, their way would have been blocked—on the Alaska side of the Bering Strait—by an immense, lifeless, ice sheet.  It wasn’t a matter of the Land Bridge from Asia; that came and went with some frequency.  After 12,000 years ago, the climate warmed enough to offer an “ice-free corridor” southward into the rest of North America.  The fossil record seems to support this view.  The oldest reliably dated objects of human origin are finely wrought stone projectiles called Clovis points after the little New Mexico town where they were first discovered—sticking in a mastodon’s spine—in 1933.  Now that they knew what to look for, archeologists excavating animal sites elsewhere began turning up projectile points wrought by humans all over North America, and then in South America as far south as Patagonia.  Clovis technology must have exploded on the scene, revolutionizing the relationship between human hunters and their prey, thereby accelerating human migration to everywhere.  Not a single Clovis point older than 12,000 years has ever been found, and those who contend that the first Americans walked into North America after that date, but not before, are called “Clovis Firsters.”

The other side contends that the first Americans crossed the Bering Strait in boats.  If so, they could have come much earlier than 12,000 years ago, because for boatmen the presence or absence of that ice-free corridor would have been irrelevant.  This side doesn’t have a neat name like the Clovis Firsters, and since they accuse archeology of a terrestrial bias, perhaps they wouldn’t object to “Mariners.”  The Mariners point out that the Pleistocene ice sheet, covering all of Canada and much of the United States, would not have precluded navigation, because contrary to previous opinion, it didn’t cover the land entirely.  Along the west coast of North America, pockets of coastal land, called “refugia,” remained open year round, attracting marine mammals and shellfish that could have quite nicely supported transient humans in boats.

Fog lifts over Little Diomede Island

Fog lifts over Little Diomede Island

There wouldn’t need to have been many refugia, because a skin boat, similar perhaps to the Inuit’s umiak, could have traveled much faster and more efficiently than walkers.  Maybe these ur-explorers even employed sails.  Some number of them would have drowned in gales or accidents, the age-old disadvantage of water travel, others from exposure.  But boats, say 25-feet long, would have had the capacity to carry supplies, tools, cookware, and warm furs, maybe even a few sentimental possessions, upping the odds of survival.  Also a maritime population could multiply faster, because young children would not need to be carried.

The Mariners, however, can’t prove any of this with the only evidence that counts in archeology, the fossil record.  With reputations and textbook royalties to protect, Clovis Firsters scoff: Doesn’t it seem reasonable that if streams of boatmen were crossing the Bering Strait before 12,000 years ago, someone would have found at least one dateable artifact in the refugia to show for it?  Well, no, the Mariners reply, skin boats leave no wake in the fossil record, and hard things like scrapers and spear points would be found only out on the ancient Ice Age shoreline, which now lies under 200 feet of cold North Pacific water.  Oh, the old submerged evidence, and here the debate turns churlish, sarcastic.

But with nothing to offer or to lose in the “peopling of the Americas” debate, and with my own marine bias, I find appealing the idea that bands of Siberian voyagers crossed the Bering Strait in small boats and picked their way south along the west coast of North America down to the equator and beyond, adapting their boats to available resources and local conditions as they went, pressing on, pausing perhaps at the rich marine pickings in Peru and Ecuador before they braved the cold waters south of 40° South, then 50° S. Some stopped, of course, to establish societies that would last until the conquistadors came.  But some, the really hardcore salts, the wanderers who for one reason or another never fit ashore, paddled on as if to probe boundaries of human possibility, and finding none, pressed on still farther.

We know little and will probably never know more about these ur-explorers, but given the ecological and climatological conditions in Siberia, we might surmise that their mode of survival as hunter-gathers was similar to that of the Inuit and their precursors.  Nor will we ever know why they came into the New World—motives don’t leave tracks in the fossil record.  Were they forced militarily from their Siberian homes? Were they simply following prey animals?  There’s usually a materialistic or political motive behind aboriginal migration, just like European exploration, but maybe such deterministic explanations are too facile.  These were fully evolved humans with the same complex intelligence and capacities as us; besides, simpleton aborigines don’t survive to spread their genes.  Maybe they just wanted to know what was over there on the other side.  Curiosity could have motivated the hike or the paddle; we know that it has motivated explorers in the past—and scientists still.  It’s not a big step.

If you stare too long into the fog, your eye composes objects from their absence.

And sometimes you think you see them, vestiges of their boats, huddled figures in animal furs, the raise and dip of their paddles.  But it’s probably just a trick of the fog, something reflecting dimly on the facets of the waves.

About The Author

Dallas Murphy

Dallas is an author with nine published books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, most recently "To the Denmark Strait", an account of a 2011 oceanographic expedition with Bob Pickart. The Healy cruise will be his sixth Arctic expedition serving as outreach writer.

One Response

  1. Bob Hogan

    Know it is cold but it sounds fascinating .
    PS way too busy to write more


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