Image Credit: Painting by George Teichmann (https://www.beringia.com/exhibits/first-people) from the Yukon Department of Palaeontology Art Collection.
Translocation has historically been one of the strategies employed by humans to seek subsistence and other resources. Changes in climate and the environment have been one of the major reasons for human migrations, even more dynamically so in hunting communities as prey animals can only adapt to these through movement. One such set of journeys occurred along the Bering coast, commencing as early as 37.5 thousand years ago.
The Bering Land Bridge intermittently connected Eurasia and the Americas across deep time, most recently at 38000 B.P. (before present), up until 10000 B.P. after which it would remain submerged to this day. It was during this period that our species colonised the New World (i.e. the American continents) after exiting Africa about 70 thousand years ago (hereafter kya), encountering various climates and environments.
Temporal Correlations: Comparing dates using evidence
The discovery of more than 1900 stone artefacts found in the Chiquihuite cave in Mexico, some of which date to 33 kya has made it the earliest, although contested sign of humans in the Americas to date. If humans reached central Mexico 33 kya, when did they enter Beringia?
Genetic evidence says that proto “Beringians” split away from East Asians as early as 37.5 kya, soon after the formation of the bridge. It was from this ancestral population that groups would make incursions into Beringia, whose descendants would become the Native Americans. These people seem to have wasted little time in recognising and making the most of this newly accessible resource-rich space, most probably by following other fauna.
Mobility and Subsistence Economy: Exploring Interrelationality
Regardless of the exact time of arrival of Beringians into the cold, harsh, and seemingly barren land, why would any sane individual, let alone entire communities undertake this journey to the unknown?
For starters, these migrations happened over the course of thousands of years. Even by the most conservative estimates, a thousand years is more than 30 generations. On average, each generation would have travelled perhaps a hundred kilometres over the course of their life. Also, prehistoric humans had no knowledge of or ambition to colonise huge, unexplored continents, nor could they distinguish between the Old and New Worlds. These “migrations” were simply a consequence of their itinerant lifestyles.
Why move at all? Nomadic life to varying degrees had been the norm for the last 6 million years of our evolution. Aside from the mobile nature of our subsistence throughout the Paleolithic, a few other “push” and “pull” factors possibly influenced their decision. Perhaps the biggest push factor was the presence of other human groups in more known territories that threatened their existence. Despite population densities being much lower than present-day, the vast territorial ranges of nomadic people made competition for resources and the necessity for newer lands significant. Moreover, although temperatures were around the same as today, Northeast Eurasia wasn’t much warmer than Beringia.
Some researchers also believe that the presence of naive fauna, i.e. animal groups that had never before encountered humans and were therefore largely ignorant of their potential threat, enticed these individuals to unexplored territories. As is always in science and even more so in prehistory, this is debated. However, the navieté of certain wild animals in fringe areas is not unknown. Even today, penguins at the south pole are nonchalant and even curious in the presence of humans.
Floral and faunal analysis suggests the impossibility of southward movement across present-day Canada through the passage between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets until 12,600 years ago. Therefore, while other overland corridors might have been used for the colonisation of the rest of the Americas, this opens up the possibility of a coastal movement. Such travel might have occurred along the southern coast of the Bering Land Bridge, especially with the potential presence of resource-rich kelp forests. Kelp, along with the biodiversity that it supports, inhabits parts of the present-day coastline and likely did so before the Last Glacial Maximum as well, based on paleotopographic reconstructions.
Kelp forests host a variety of fish, shellfish, birds, and mammals such as seals and walruses. These could have formed a large enough part of the economy of coastal people such that they were capable of and willing to move about this zone even in the absence of a major impetus. Coasts are also often generally characterised by moderate temperatures in comparison to interior regions and were likely preferred, especially in high latitudes. Therefore, the potential for coastal migration along the Northern Pacific is great. As with any coastal remains, underwater archaeology is required to locate concrete evidence of occupation of now-submerged paleo-islands and coastlines.
Mobilities as a Resource: Translating it to Movement
While the gradual spillover of the Northeast Asian tribe complex across Beringia and into the Americas is an extension of the Out-of-Africa dispersal, this process is ultimately an outcome of seasonal variations in temperatures. Nomadism is often not random, but a semi-cyclic movement largely dictated by herd movements and, ultimately, seasonal changes. Present-day Walrus populations also migrate southwards towards the warmer Bering Sea during the winters and largely remain in the regions of pack ice during the summers. Keeping in mind the dangers of over-relying on ethnographic evidence to infer prehistoric life, the contribution of such faunal movement to the peopling of Beringia was likely immense, as pinnipeds constitute a major part of the present-day Inuit diet.
Up until a few decades ago, Inuit tribes such as the Nunamiut of Alaska heavily relied on Caribou, residing inland throughout most of the year. However, they travelled to the coasts in the summers where they hunted marine mammals and traded extremely sought-out Caribou products such as fur and sinew with the more coastally oriented human groups. In contrast, North Alaskan Inuit groups specialised in Baleen whale hunting. Such differences in economies of human groups likely also existed in prehistory, as they colonised Beringia.
Therefore, it is possible that the accumulation of a surplus of local resources and the resulting seasonal movements to exchange them incrementally shifted the locus of this semi-cyclic movement over hundreds or thousands of years. Mobilities were necessitated by the seasonally changing easiest acquirable food sources, as well as the regular need for clothing and tools. These also provided avenues for interaction between tribes, opportunities for genetic and cultural exchange, and the maintenance of population numbers, which was necessary to sustain newly established colonies.
Adaptations are by themselves both material and cultural processes that require knowledge transmission over generations. Generations of people had to continually practise a nomadic way of life for such oral traditions relating to mobile survival skills to have remained relevant. Each generation needed to learn the strategies used by the former and appropriate them to their own contexts and ecological niches that they preferred. The resource of mobility, therefore, was inherited and needed to be used by every generation intermittently throughout their lives so as to transmit updated information on adaptive strategies.
This could be seen in pre-modern, and to a certain extent, modern Inuit communities in what is termed Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Generations of Inuit, and possibly Beringians learnt details of herd movement, interception techniques, local landscapes, other human groups, spiritual beliefs, and weather patterns, as well as the creation and use of tools, boats, and shelters through the ancestral social memory and applied their own experiential knowledge, thereby enabling strategies that were flexible over various contexts. The capacity to colonise new territories and survive unprecedented challenges is an important precondition for the movement itself.
This was developed through the presence of such an established yet dynamic system of knowledge as TEK. For example, when these people reached the Great Plains in the south, they would have encountered vastly different ecologies containing mostly open savannahs with occasional swamps and thick forests. Each generation had to adapt considerably and consistently across the lands that they traversed, to eventually enable the hunting of a variety of megafaunas such as mammoths, horses, deer, sloths, and bison encountered in the plains. To do so, each generation had to consult the TEK that they were passed down, either apply it readily if their contexts were sufficiently similar or use it in conjunction with their experiences to work out strategies appropriate to their present contexts. If successful, these strategies would be included in the TEK that would be inherited by the next generations. The formation of networks that were used on a semi-regular basis, such as the Nunamiut’s seasonal trade migrations, was afforded by inter-tribal TEK that were exchanged during crossings.
Mobilities have directly influenced the outcomes of every event and process in history through their role in developing networks. As Martin Bell concedes, the frameworks of networks in the present were laid thousands of years ago. Apart from being corridors of traversal, these routeways and intersections came to be imbibed with meaning, becoming ‘sites’ of exchange. The mobility of knowledge increased through inter-group interactions. Communities with flexible but deep traditions often specific to their contexts could learn from each other, enabling them to survive in the others’ unique environment. Thus, mobilities were self-multiplying, self-retarding phenomena, inducing change throughout history, catalysed by varying environments, and accompanied by bio-cultural exchanges of genes, commodities, pathogens, or associated ideas, moulding human populations and their behaviours.
The uniqueness of the Beringian and American migrations lay in the ability of humans to inhabit a range of ecologies in a relatively short span. The Beringia mobilities were some of the earliest and most consequential adaptations in the history of modern humans as they contributed to some of the most rapid mass extinction events, allowed for the eventual cultivation and spread of crops previously unknown to the Old World, and the relatively isolated development of mighty empires, unique cultures, languages, and ways of life.
A strictly linear movement into such a vast space is impossible. For the sustained colonisation of Beringia and subsequently, the Americas, networks of groups suited to various ecologies were necessary. These networks would in turn provide the bases for those in the future among Native Americans, facilitating the movement of important ideas such as those of food production. Late mediaeval Europe and Asia benefited from the Columbian exchange only because Native Americans had developed useful commodities with the help of intricate networks. The migration of humans into Beringia from Northern Eurasia was the beginning of American human history, which continues to impact our lives today and hence deserves attention.
It is fascinating to ponder on the origins of TEKs, and whether they predate our species. It is obvious that some form of cultural learning can be inferred from the earliest stone tools dating 3.3 million years ago. Some other aspects, such as learning hunting strategies from the progenitors are shared with other animals. However, humans today largely rely on observation skills rather than primary senses to infer weather patterns and plan ambushes of migratory herds. These, along with more complicated aspects of resource use, abstract ideas, and spiritual beliefs could only be transmitted through significantly sophisticated spoken languages. At what points in our evolutionary histories did we start exhibiting such behaviours, and why?
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