How We Discovered the First Americans and What Happened to Them
Imagine that you've stepped back in time to nearly 15,000 years ago. It is the middle of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The land that now lies underwater serves as multiple bridges between islands and continents; giant animals, like mammoths, roam the wide, open steppes and marshy rivers; and before you is the great Laurentide ice sheet, stretching into the middle of what would become the United States.
A bitter wind races across the grassy plains before you, a reminder that winter is soon to come. In the distance, a group of people comes towards you—ragged compared to your lace-up boots and dense winter coat. They are dressed in animal hides, fashioned into boots, pants, and jacket-like shirts. They carry satchels on their backs of everything they own—tools and weapons, a few dried foods or scraps of meat, their children, clothing, and perhaps some items that are purely for play or decoration. They are following a herd of mammoths as they travel southward. They do not speak English like you do, nor do they even look like you do. They are what we call "prehistoric man"—like us in all but culture. They live here, braving conditions and hardships that you can barely imagine.
Who Are You?
It will take centuries before we know who these people are or even have the remotest clues as to why they came—braving the corridors between glaciers to enter the North American continent. Some, perhaps, even came by sea—island-hopping or paddling through the waters of the Pacific (and maybe the Atlantic) to the Central and South American continents. They will step on shores that now lie beneath the waves of tropical destinations - and perhaps beneath the waves lie the rest of the clues.
What we do know is that these people were the first "Americans." Though the term America would not be applied to the continent (or to a specific group of people in a subsection of the continent) for nearly 14,500 years, these were the first to claim the land and its resources. As far as we have discovered, these people were nomads—wandering the land in search of food and following the herds through the seasons. Occasionally, they would dwell in rock shelters or other semi-permanent dwellings for a season or two; some may have even returned to these shelters year after year, following herds or possibly for religious reasons.
For historians and archaeologists, there are three primary ways to define who these people were and where they came from. First, linguists have identified over 300 languages spoken at the time Europeans came into contact with civilizations on the American continents (circa 1450-1550 CE). Linguists believe that these 300 or more languages can be traced back to six or eight "root" languages (called phyla), but there is still some debate over the amount of diversification in language that such estimates imply. Another theory, purported by Johanna Nichols, has studied the "building blocks" of languages (such as grammar and pronunciation) and suggests that there were many waves of immigration to America during prehistory (the time before European contact). These waves would have brought more people with different languages, and the encounters these new nomads had with existing populations would have influenced the development of newer languages, similar to what has occurred between British English and American English (as American English was exposed to other languages and influenced by different dialects and slang). Whatever the true answer is, most of these languages are believed to have come from the Asian (and perhaps African) continent.
A second method of identifying the nomads comes from studies of dental patterns in Native American tribes and skeletons of prehistoric man (some of which are not identified with any known tribe). Christy Turner is one of the anthropologists who study these records. Some of her studies indicate that most of these nomads belong to the "Sinodonts" classification, which evolved from Asian populations into all native populations of the Western Hemisphere. Sinodonts arose in Asia about 20,000 years ago, and are distinguished by extra ridges on the insides of their upper incisors (a "shovel shape" so to speak) and three roots on the lower first molars.
A third method (and the last we will discuss here) is done through research in Mitochondrial DNA, which is DNA passed down from a person's mother. This is one of the most reliable methods of DNA research into a population's history. These studies suggest that groups of native populations on the American continent had nearly identical variations in mitochondrial DNA—suggesting that they share similar (or the same) ancestors. However, these studies also showed that Native American populations share very few characteristics with their Asian counterparts—suggesting that migrations may have occurred as early as 30,000 years ago. In order to explain differences among native populations, such as the differences between Eskimos and native Central/South American populations, mitochondrial DNA also provides evidence: there were waves of migration, with each immigration contributing to, and being less distinct from, the mitochondrial DNA of Asian populations. A final wave of immigration would thus explain why Eskimos look remarkably more like Asians than South Americans. An interesting note here is that mitochondrial DNA is also revealing links between Native Americans and European populations, which may help to support theories on European exploration of the Americas before Columbus.
However, there is one final piece of the puzzle: archaeological evidence. Interestingly, recent discoveries in Brazil have supported mitochondrial DNA evidence. Over 100 items unearthed from the Serra da Capivara national park in Brazil's northeastern Piaui state have been dated as far back as 30,000 years ago. The items include cave paintings and ceramic art, and depict a variety of animals, ceremonies, hunting expeditions, and sex scenes. The paintings are estimated to date back 29,000 years, which is exactly the time that such paintings also appeared in Europe and Africa. This evidence has been further supported by discoveries at other sites, such as Valsequillo in Mexico and Monte Verde in Chile.
What Happened to Them?
Immigrants to the American continent during the Pleistocene era had no idea that when the Ice Age ended, so would any contact with the Asian continent. Perhaps when the land bridge between Alaska and Russia sank beneath the waves, families became separated. Or perhaps by then, populations had moved on and no one heard the slipping of the land beneath the waves.
As the climate on the American continent warmed, these prehistoric nomads would begin a transformation that, unlike that of European and Asian histories, would only be recorded in the living memory and oral histories of their descendants. The First Americans would leave very few traces of who they were, what they were like, or how they lived. 500 years after the general immigrations into America, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter would be inhabited—sparking a period of semi-permanent occupation that lasted nearly 6,000 years. After another 2,000 years, Monte Verde would be established, and someone would walk in the peat bogs, leaving three intact footprints for modern archaeologists to find.
Shortly after, the Pleistocene era would end—the ice would melt and the climate would change at a rapid rate, altering the lives of these nomads significantly. By this time, bands would have reached the southern tip of South America. In a few more thousand years, the Clovis culture would emerge and survive until the last of the megafauna had died out. Over the next 11,000 years, many cultures would rise—some for short periods, and some for long periods. Some would dominate the land and history—the Inca, Maya, and Aztec. Some would leave only small clues as to who they were—the Folsom culture, for instance. And some would leave mysterious structures that continue to fascinate us—the Puebloans in the American Southwest and the moundbuilders of the Mississippi.
Whoever they were, whatever they did, their voice is only now being heard. Today, new discoveries across America - from deserts to underwater caves—are yielding new information about where these people came from and how they survived the changes that would forever shape them. These discoveries are leading to a re-evaluation of Native American oral traditions, recognizing myths and legends not just for the power to inspire, but also the power to record history when no written record exists.
The First Americans went on to create one of the most culturally diverse continents that the world had ever seen—with thousands upon thousands of bands of peoples—some nomadic, some sedentary—living in better tune with the land than Europeans, but also modifying it in significant—and lasting—ways. They were much like us—they fought, they loved, they did everything they had to in order to survive. Comparable to the New York City resident who must learn to hail cabs, be alert on subways, and find the best food in the supermarket, the First Americans had to learn how to navigate the land (and possibly sea); to be alert for dangers from predators, the weather, and the land; and to find the best resources to provide for and protect their families. We will never know their names or exactly where they came from or why they came at all, but we do know that they were here and they survived in what is perhaps one of the greatest and most mysterious human histories of all time.