For decades, most scientists believed the first Americans were big-game hunters who crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia about 11,500 years ago. New discoveries, such as those found at the Topper Site in rural Allendale County, 85 miles southwest of Columbia, SC, are part of a growing body of evidence that could overturn that theory. Topper may provide evidence of human habitation in the southeastern United States as early as 18,000 years ago.
Crossing the Bering Straits
35,000 BC or was it 11,000 BC?
Recorded history is only the tip of an iceberg reaching back through the millennia to the first appearance on earth of the species Man. Anthropologists, prehistorians and archaeologists have extended our vista of the past by tens and hundreds of thousands of years. We cannot understand human history without taking account of their findings.
The transformation of Man (or, more accurately, of certain groups of men in certain areas) from a hunter and fisher to an agriculturist, and from a migratory to a sedentary life, is the most decisive revolution in the whole of human history. The climatic and ecological changes which made it possible have left their mark on the human record down to the present day.
Agriculture not merely made possible a phenomenal growth of human population, which is thought to have increased some sixteen times between 8000 and 4000 BC; it also gave rise to the familiar landscape of village communities, which was still characteristic of Europe as late as the middle of the nineteenth century and even today prevails in most parts of the world. Nowhere are the continuities of history more visible. The enduring structures of human society, which transcend and outlive political change, carry us back through the centuries to the end of the Ice Age, to the changes which began when the shrinking ice-cap left a new world for Man to tame and conquer.
The origin of Native Americans, Indians, discovered by Christopher Columbus and probably by Leif Ericson, is still a great mystery. Some archaeologists believe that Asians crossed from Siberia to Alaska 20,000 to 35,000 (or more) years ago and spread out across the North American Continent, then south to Central and South America.
Theories hold that evolution combined with climate and environment to account for the wide diversity found between the Eskimos of Canada and the many tribes and various cultures found in the United States, Mexico, and South America. These theories are used to explain such differences as those found between tribes like the Pueblo of New Mexico and the Six Nations of the northeastern United States. Also, when the Inca, Aztec, Toltec, Maya, etc., are considered speculations abound.
Recent discoveries and examinations of mummified human remains seem to support theories that humans crossed from Asia to the Americas more than 11,000 years ago. Evidence from a mummy discovered in Western Nevada in 1940 indicate that the body is 9,400 years old. Technicians reconstructed a face for the skeleton and the features appear to be those of a remote Northern Japanese group and the clothing from the mummy matches the textiles still made by those Japanese. Current speculation is that humans could have crossed by boat to North America from a variety of places, i.e., Siberia, Japan, and China via the Bering Straits or by island hopping across the northern Pacific.
Prior to human habitation the Americas supported huge mammoths and mastodons, herds of bison and elk, and saber-toothed cats.
During the Pleistocene Epoch -- between about 2 million and 11,500 years ago -- (See Wisconsin Ice Age) great sheets of ice covered much of the Northern Hemisphere. Such ice sheets were up to about 10,000 feet deep. Oceans levels became lower because so much of the earth's water was ice. Much land that had been under water -- and is submerged today -- became dry. One such area lay between Siberia and Alaska, where the Bering Strait now separates Asia and North America by about 50 miles.
Plant growth began on the new land and animals crossed from both directions, grazing on the vegetation. Some people of Siberia followed the animals they hunted and crossed the land-bridge to the New World -- ancestors of Eskimos and American Indians.
No one knows the exact date but many experts now believe they arrived 18,000 B.C. - 15,000 B.C. By about 9,500 B.C. the ice sheets had melted and the land-bridge became covered with water. By 6000 B.C., people were living at the southern tip of South America.
The first Americans lived in small bands of 20 to 50 people. They followed herds of animals they hunted and never settled anywhere for long. Their shelters were crude and temporary.
The weapons of the early Indians were mainly wooden spears with sharp stone points. Some of the points had a large flake removed from one or both sides. This type of point is called a fluted point. The first fluted point was discovered in the early 1900's among a pile of animal bones near Folsom, New Mexico. Fluted points of that type are called Folsom points. Early Indians also used a spear-throwing device called an atlatl, which increased the range and force of their spears.
The animals hunted by the early Indians were very large. The hunters often found it easier to kill these beasts by driving them into swamps or over cliffs, rather than spearing them. Most of the knowledge that we have about the hunters comes from these sites where animals were killed.
Slowly the climate turned warmer and wetter (Wisconsin Ice Age), and the huge ice sheets began to melt. Water from the ice sheets flowed into riverbeds and lakes, and raised the level of the oceans. The land across the Bering Strait became covered with water, and migration to the New World all but stopped.
The large animals hunted by the early Indians began to die out about this time. No one knows exactly why, but the animals' food supply of grass may have slowly decreased as the climate changed.
A change in Indian ways of life accompanied the changing climate and plant and animal life. In North America, great forests replaced many grasslands in the north and east. Small, swift animals lived in these woodlands. The Indians may have begun to use the bow and arrow at this time. It made a good weapon for hunting the swift woodland animals. Around the lakes and along the rivers, the Indians began to fish and to trap ducks and other water birds. They gathered shellfish for food along the coasts of both North and South America.
Some regions became desert-like. The Indians who lived in these areas had to eat more and more plant food because the animals were small and scarce. The desert people ground seeds to make flour, gathered berries and bulbs, and ate nuts. Sometimes they added meat to their diet--chiefly rabbits, prairie dogs, and an occasional deer.
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