The Siberian Origins of Native Americans

©Edward J. Vajda

Virtually all scholars agree that the aboriginal populations living in North, Central and South America at the time of Columbus' voyages originated from small groups of prehistoric immigrants from North Asia. No sober anthropologist would defend the notion that Pre-Columbian Native Americans sailed across the Atlantic from Europe or Africa or that Native Americans have lived in the Western Hemisphere from time immemorial.

There is less agreement, however, regarding the time of the first migration across the Bering Strait into North America. And there is less agreement still on the number of separate migrations. Did the first migrants arrive tens of thousands of years ago, before the onset of the last Pleistocene cold phase 25,000 years ago? Are all Native Americans descended from one immigrant group or many? And if there were more than one migration, then exactly how many separate migrations took place?

The most likely answer to these questions is that the first people to cross the Bering Strait into Alaska did so toward the end of the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago. Also, there is mounting evidence that this first crossing represented only one of at least three distinct migrations from Asia into North America.

The First (Amerind) Migration (earlier than 10,000 BC)

The earliest indisputable evidence of human habitation in northwestern North America dates from nearly 12,000 years ago (about 11,700 BC). Some South American sites (Monte Verde on the Chilean coast, have recently been date to more than 12,000 years ago). Arrow points and other artifacts from this period found in Alaska and parts of northwestern Canada have been labeled the Paleo-Indian tradition. These are the so-called Clovis fluted arrowheads. No direct evidence of such a culture has come to light in adjacent parts of North Asia, although a possible prototype has been found on Sakhalin Island. Most likely, the people who developed the Paleo-Indian culture crossed over the Bering Strait (the land bridge had by that time already been submerged by rising seawater) into Alaska earlier than 14,000 years ago and there developed a new culture. Another possibility is that the prototype of this culture is to be found beneath the waters of the present day Bering Sea. Whatever the direct origin of their fluted arrows and other technology, these Paleo-Indian big game hunters quickly spread southward into a land teeming with game as a warming climate opened gaps in the ice sheets covering northern Canada. Within 1000 years of the first evidence of human habitation in Alaska, the same Paleo-Indian assemblages of tools appeared in all habitable parts of North and South America, from the Canadian plains to the tip of present day Chile. It has been estimated that if a group of a few hundred humans entered the Americas and moved at a rate of only eight miles per years, their natural increase, as the first inhabitants of a rich land, would have led to a population explosion (for hunter gatherers) and spread throughout all of the habitable portions Western Hemisphere in about a thousand years. This is exactly what seems to have happened.

Even if humans did cross the Bering Strait earlier than 12,000 years ago (or lived between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago on the cold tundra plain that is now the Bering Sea floor), it is very unlikely that the could have penetrated the ice sheets south of Alaska. If they had, they would have likewise populated an enormous area in a relatively short time. There is no evidence that anything like this occurred (isolated, contraversial claims of human habitation in Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Brazil or coastal Chile 17,000 or 30,000 years ago must be erroneous). It is possible, however, that earlier finds will come to light in Alaska itself, as people from North Asia could have crossed over to Alaska a few thousand of years earlier than is now believed and there developed new cultures before the melting ice allowed them to travel south. There is evidence of human habitation in Pacific North Asia dating back at least 17,000 years (15,000BC).

Most Indians of North America, and all Indians of Central and South America seem to be descended from this first wave of migrants out of Alaska at the end of the Ice Age. Similarities in Amerindian languages, as well an in DNA point to the conclusion that a very small group of migrants gave rise to this enormous, far flung assemblage of peoples in a relatively short time. Only the northern and Arctic zones of present-day Canada were uninhabitable 9,000 years ago, as the Amerindian migration was not able to populate these ice-bound areas.

The Second (Na-Dene) Migration (c. 8,000 BC)

There is evidence that perhaps as early as 8,000BC a new group of Asian immigrants had entered Alaska. These were peoples who had perfected a tundra hunting lifestyle, which extended itself into the newly ice free areas of North America. The characteristic tools of this second group soon spread from Alaska into the Canadian interior. Archeological assemblages nearly identical to those associated with this second wave of immigrants have been found in areas of Kamchatka (the Ushki site), which date from 12,000 to 9,000BC (this was the territory that later came to be inhabited by the Itelmen). Thus, there is indisputable evidence that the reindeer hunters who gave rise to the Athabaskans, as well as the coastal Tlingit, Haida and Eyak of Alaska, developed their tundra culture first in northeastern Asia, then spread into a similar ecological niche in North America, as this area opened up to human habitation after the retreat of the continental glaciers. This second immigrant wave could not push very far south because most of the land was already occupied by descendants of the first migration. Since most of southern North America was already populated by descendents of the first (Amerindian) colonists, only a few Na-Dene tribes, such as the Navajo and Apache, made their way very far south, and this occurred during the past thousand years. This second group of Indians, who are sometimes called the Na-Dene ("Dene" means human being in Athabaskan", while "Na" means human being in Haida), share many distinctive linguistic and genetic features not found among the other Indian tribes.

The Third (Eskimo-Aleut) Migration (c. 4,000 BC)

The last wave of human migrants populated for the first time the Arctic coastal zone of North America (which had not been settled even by the Athabaskan reindeer hunters). These were the ancestors of the modern Eskimo and Aleut tribes. There absolutely is no doubt about the Asian origin of this migration: Eskimo tribes remain to this day on both sides of the Bering Strait, and there is ample evidence of Eskimo presence in prehistoric times along the entire coastal zone of far northeastern Asia. It is very likely that the proto-Eskimo-Aleuts subsisted as reindeer hunters in what is now Russia's Chukchi Peninsula before expanding into Alaska before 4,000BC. In the Bering Strait zone, both groups developed new tools and techniques for marine mammal hunting. This technology, together with the melting of the final North American glaciers, led to the expansion of Eskimo speaking tribes all the way to Greenland. Today, Eskimo-Aleut peoples show distinct similarities in language and DNA markers which distinguish them from the descendants of the earlier two migrations, who are popularly known as "Indians." Most of the original Eskimo range on the Asian side of Bering Strait, however, has been taken over by Chukchi and Korak reindeer breeders. If these peoples had crossed the Strait, they would have become a fourth migration. But this never happened, perhaps because the Chukchi-Korak move north occurred so recently (within the past thousand years). Before the pastoralist Chukchi could entirely displace their hunter-gatherer rivals, the Asiatic Eskimo, however, a new and more formidable invader entered the area: the Europeans.

European exploration and conquest of Beringia

European ships began exploring the north Pacific area (collectively known as Beringia, pronounced "bear-IN-jee-uh") already in the mid 17th century. The first to cross through the strait between Asian and Alaska was the cossack Semeon Dezhnev in 1648, but he was unaware that he had sailed between two great continents. The difinitive European voyage through this strait occurred in 1728 on a voyage made by Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain in the employ of the Russian Imperial Navy. A second voyage by Bering in 1741 opened up much of the Aleutians and southern Alaskan coast to economic exploitation by the Russians (in fact, the coastline explored by Bering's second voyage roughly parallels the present-day boundaries of Alaska). Bering himself died in 1742 while shipwrecked on the Commander Islands (named afterward in honor of Commander Bering).

Nevertheless Bering's voyage showed the way for other Europeans. Driven by a greed for fur-bearing sea animals (especially the fur seal), during the next century the Russians penetrated as far south as present day San-Francisco. Through the plans of merchant Grigory Shelikhov, who envisioned a thriving Russian colony in Alaska, and under Shelikhov's hand-picked successor, the talented and capable Aleksandr Baranov, the Alaskan colony took root but never prospered. It's failure was due mainly to difficulty in bringing food supplies to Russian settlers in this region. (Russians at that time considered even Siberia to be another country, Kamchatka to be an island, and Alaska to be almost on another planet--and in the 18th and early 19th century this was not far from the truth.) Another reason for the failure of Russian Alaska was the resistance of powerful and hostile Indian tribes, especially the Tlingit, who burned down the Russian capital Sitka in 1802). Alaska was to remain Russian territory from 1741 to 1867, when it was sold to the United States for two cents an acre.