How man first came to North America

FRANKLIN RUSSELL September 24 1960

How man first came to North America

FRANKLIN RUSSELL September 24 1960

How man first came to North America


It’s no longer a guess— now we know. Discoveries of the past few years tell who the earliest North Americans were, where they came from, what they wore, even what they looked like

MORE than 25,000 years ago, a band of olive-skinned people, sturdily built with black, straight hair and dark brown eyes, trekked across the wide strip of tundra that then joined the North American continent to Asia. They were lightly dressed in caribou skins and carried flint-tipped spears. On their right was the Pacific, to their left, the Arctic Ocean. Ahead, they could see low foothills and the beginning of the vast tundra in what we now call Alaska.

They were the first men to arrive in North America. Until recently, these facts — what the men looked like and when they came — were not known. But now, because of a series of important archaeological discoveries, most of them in the last dozen years, science is able to reconstruct their arrival with more and more precision.

There are still, of course, some parts of the picture to fit in. The estimate of when they arrived may be out by as much as 10,000 years. But, as Dr. Richard MacNeish, the senior archaeologist of the National Museum in Ottawa, said recently: "It will not be too long before we have a pretty clear picture of North American pre-history.”

When this clear picture is established, it will

mark the end of more than four centuries of speculation about early man in America. Already, knowledge has squelched several competing theories: that early North American Indians were recent arrivals on the continent: that they were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel; that they were survivors of the legendary island of Atlantis or seagoing natives from the Pacific. In tracking down early man, archaeologists are the key hunters, but working closely with them are botanists, geologists, geographers, linguists, climatologists and nuclear physicists. Botanists can tell by analysing pollen found with traces of early man what sort of plants and trees were growing during his lifetime. Some linguists, studying the Athapaskan Indian language, have found points of relation between it and Chinese. Nuclear physicists can measure, by the carbon-14 process, the deterioration of carbon molecules in any previously living tissue, such as wood or bone, and determine when the material was alive. The process is fairly accurate back 50,000 years.

It is exciting work, often done under incredibly taxing conditions. MacNeish and archaeologist Gordon Lowther,


How man first came to North America

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They were probably just as intelligent as we are —though they were handicapped by poor equipment

curator of McGill University's McCord Museum, once walked almost seven hundred miles through blackflies, chestdeep swamps, and rugged mountains in the Yukon looking for traces of early man.

These dogged detectives of pre-history are slowly revealing a saga of migration probably unrivaled in human life. In 1948. Dr. J. L. Giddings, a U.S. achæologist, found a 9,000-year-old collection of manmade flints on the Alaskan coast just south of the Bering Strait. In 1954, Dr. MacNeish found nine layers of human habitation, going back at least 10,000 years, at a place he called Engigstciak near the Arctic coast west of Aklavik.

Though these dates are thousands of years after the dates of finds in Mexico and the U.S., the two discoveries were the first to firmly pin down man's entry to the continent from the northwest. Linked to scores of subsequent smaller finds in the Northwest Territories. British Columbia. Alberta, and elsewhere, they are enabling the archaeologists to fill in the patchwork picture of early man’s occupancy of the whole continent.

The story is a high drama of ingenuity and fortitude. “It's easy to say that early man came down from the northwest." says one U.S. archaeologist, “but the territory between Alaska and southwest Canada is one of the most appalling obstacle courses in the world.”

The tracing of their journey may have even more significance. A couple of win‘ ters ago. Dr. MacNeish found traces of an agricultural people in a central Mexican cave. He dated the find at about 6000 BC. Mesopotamia has always been regarded as the first site of agriculture, but MacNeish's find may show that agriculture developed in North America at about the same time.

The first men to enter North America were Homo sapiens like ourselves. They were nothing like the popular conception of prehistoric men. brutal, hairy savages living in caves. They walked erect, were probably beardless, and were by no means stupid. The noted U.S. anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said of such men that if one of them walked down a city street dressed in modern clothes the only people who would look twice at him would be girls.

“These early men,” says Walter Kenyon. senior archaeologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, “were well organized and managed their lives very well.” The Arctic archaeologist at the National Museum, William Taylor, says that their intelligence “was most likely on a par with that of people living today in Moncton. Victoria or Aklavik."

But the first migrants were handicapped by crude tools. “Hunting of any sort was difficult with stone weapons,” says Professor T. F. Mcllwraith, head of

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the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. The men did not then have the bow and arrow. It came with later men. There’s a faint chance they had dogs, but they certainly had no other domestic animals. They had fire, but no metal and no wheel.

They wore skin clothes, which may have been tailored, and stitched footwear. They certainly had the atlatl, a throwing stick that fitted into a slot on a spear or dart and enabled the hunter to increase the range of his missile.

They lived anywhere there was game

they could kill—caribou (the skins provided them with the finest insulated clothing available), deer, beaver, and sloth. They probably scavenged, killing ailing mammoths and feeding on dead ones they found. When hunting became difficult, they moved on. They had language, probably highly developed, and certainly some sort of religion. Men of their type in Europe were carefully burying their dead and decorating their graves with shells. They danced, perhaps painted their bodies and sang. Like twentieth-century men, they were super-

stitious, and terrified of things unknown.

They certainly had ¡esthetic sense; some flint tools of 20,000 years ago show extraordinary delicacy of design and construction, and the men who made them may have marveled at the sweeping beauty of the new land they were entering. The tundra was set against blue mountains, white-capped peaks, ribbons of glaciers. In spring, the tundra blazed with (lowers. Through the long grasses roamed caribou, deer, mammoth lions, and bison, some of them with hornspans of six feet. Overhead (lew

geese and ducks, eagles and ptarmigan.

The newcomers were able to cross from Asia to Alaska because of an extraordinary chain of events. All Canada was then in the grip of the last great glacial age, the Wisconsin, named after the state in which its deposits were first studied. A vast sheet of ice stretched from Greenland to B. C. At times, it was 3,000 feet thick over Vancouver Island, perhaps thousands of feet thick over the sites of Montreal and Toronto. This mass of ice sopped up the oceans and lowered the level of the Arctic Ocean by about 200 feet. Since the Bering Strait between Alaska and Asia is only 150 feet deep, the Wisconsin must have exposed a land link between the two continents. Even more coincidentally, Alaska had a low rainfall and ice hadn't a chance to form on its plains. So instead of moving into a land of icy desolation, the early men found game in a climate as warm as it is today.

The migrants crossed to Alaska for one reason: food. As Hannah M. Wormington, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Natural History, has said, “Primitive man doesn't depart from known familiar things to face the unknown. Some strong compulsive force, such as the need for food, will cause him to make a drastic change.”

In pursuit of game, the men camped on riverbanks, near caribou crossings, or close to salmon spawning runs. Along many Alaskan rivers, like the Kuskokwim and Tanana, they must have seen bears catch spawning salmon in the rapids. The overfed bears would tear out only the guts and roe and drop the carcasses. Early men undoubtedly drove off the bears and feasted on the freshly killed fish.

Glaciers blocked the Pacific coast

Over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, more men came over the land bridge and the earlier men pushed deeper into Alaska. Some moved south of the Alaska Range, within sight of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, only to find that hunting stopped on the south coast at a line of impassable glaciers. They could see icebergs floating west across the Gulf of Alaska.

Others went north of the Alaska Range through tundra country, following the rivers to their icebound origins in the Wrangell, St. Elias and Mackenzie mountains. Some followed the Yukon and then the Porcupine, which bore directly northeast into the mountains and disappeared, like the others, into ice.

Early men commonly moved along coastlines, and some groups headed north from the Bering Strait bridge along the coast, keeping north of the Brooks Range, which dominates northern Alaska and was heavily glaciated throughout the Wisconsin. Here, they found more than 20,000 square miles of tundra. The hunting was good. Everywhere, men were moving east. The migration, which wasn't purposive or even continuous, probably took hundreds of years. No doubt many of the men returned to Asia. But in their wanderings they were heading for a dramatic breakthrough.

When Richard MacNeish and Gordon Lowther were exploring the Firth River, which crosses the Alaska-Yukon border about 80 miles from the Arctic coast, in 1956, they fle\V over the Rat Pass, the lowest pass in the Rockies. It lies in a roughly northeasterly line of travel that early men would have taken up the Porcupine River, which branches off from the Yukon a hundred miles or so away.

The pass was never blocked by glacial ice. “It would have been easy to cross the icebound mountains there,” says Lowther.

Later, near the coast on the Firth River, MacNeish and Lowther were excavating for relics near a caribou crossing when their Eskimo guide climbed a small steep hill nearby to look out over the coastal plain for caribou. As Lowther watched, he saw a re-creation of perhaps 25,000 years of history, a hunter instinctively seeking high ground to watch for game.

Since the coastal plain was not glaciated either, the men who had gone north of the Brooks would be moving east parallel w’ith those climbing over the Rat Pass. Farther to the east lay ice— nearly three thousand miles of it, apparently blocking all routes to the central continent.

But the Wisconsin ice sheet had a surprising flaw in its vast surface. Shortly tefore the war, geologists discovered a ceuple of stretches of unglaciated land running parallel to the Rockies on their east side. This meant that the enormous wesiward-moving ice sheet petered out before it reached the eastward-moving ice sheet from the Rockies.

The geologists knew that the Wisconsin, like all ice ages, had interstadial periods, when the ice thawed for a few hundred or thousand years. During such periods, they calculated, there could have been a corridor of ice-free land streüching from the Mackenzie delta right into ice-free continental America.

James B. Griffin, of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, has said that according to some geologists the corridor was open about 30.000 years ago. It may have been closed 5,000 years later and opened again between 14,000 and 16,000 years ago. During these thaw periods, animals would push into the thawing territory as herbiage sprang up. Somewhere in that time, it's likely that men, in their perennial quest for game, entered the centre of the continent via the mountains of Wyoming and Montana.

They moved through woodland country, hunting small game, camping in rough shelters made of branches and skins. When they found suitable types of rock, they might set up workshops where they laboriously chipped stone spear, dart and knife points. Lowther recently found one of these at Tadoussac, Quebec, which had been in use almost continuously for 6,000 years. The early men carved handles from wood and bone, jammed or tied the points to the tips of them, and fashioned flint scrapers for preparing animal skins for their use.

In this new land, their ways of life changed sharply. Some became salmon eaters on the banks of rivers, particularly the Columbia and Fraser. Dr. Charles E. Borden of the University of British Columbia recently dug thirty feet down through human deposits by the Fraser, representing more than 6,000 years of fishing in the river by early men.

Some became hunters, and lived in caves at Sandia, New Mexico. They left behind them beautifully made Hint spear points which, according to scanty evidence, were made about 20.000 to 30,000 years ago. Others moved deep into South America. There is a carbon-14 dating of human site material showing they reached the southern tip of the continent about 8,500 years ago. Others pushed north in the wake of the thawing Wisconsin and left traces perhaps 15.000 years ago on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By about 10,000 years ago, men were

spread through most of the continent. The Folsom men—named after a village in New Mexico—were stalking mastodons on the great plains. These men seemed aggressive and widespread. They were probably later, highly successful immigrants.

In 1924. a young collector, Kenneth Jones, found one of their distinctively fluted points at Mortlach, Saskatchewan. In 1926. an American palæontologist found similar flints at Folsom under thirteen feet of alluvial gravel. Dr. Frank Hibben, director of the Natural History Museum of New' Mexico, once found a Folsom point for sale in a curio shop at Ketchikan, Alaska. Since then. Soviet archaeologists have found flint points in Siberia that resemble these Folsom finds.

Perhaps Folsom man was too successful. Something — perhaps weather changes, perhaps hunting — wiped out a great number of North American animals around this time. Many kinds of deer, bison, tigers, horses and mastodons vanished. Perhaps the bow came to North America from Asia at that time, giving its users a temporary mastery over all other life.

One thing is sure. While man pushed his successful settlement of the New World to its limits, the Wisconsin was melting fast, filling up the Arctic Ocean again and eventually flooding the land bridge across the Bering Strait. North American man was completely sealed off from the Old World about I(),()()() years ago.

They were horseless hunters

While men in Europe and Asia famed the horse and later invented the wheel, as hunting and fishing cultures turned to agriculture to create the civilizations of Sumer and Egypt, most North Americans remained hunters, wheel-less and horseless. There were no more men out of Asia for thousands of years. Count Eigil Knuth, a Danish archaeologist, recently lound traces of Eskimo habitation on the northern tip of Greenland going back about 4,000 years—which means that even the Eskimos have been here longer than was suspected a few years ago. These first Eskimos, whose origins are obscure, were replaced about 800 B( by the Dorset Eskimos, who were in turn overwhelmed by the Thule Eskimos about AD 1000. William Taylor of the National Museum believes that both the Dorset and Thule peoples came from Asia. 1 he Hooding of the Bering land bridge didn't stop them. They were ac:ustomcd to living on the edge of pack ce and were accomplished small-boat narine rs.

The ebb and flow of North American ife over more than 20.000 years has left : record that is still frustratingly fragnentary, and many mysteries remain to >c solved. “The archaeologists will solve hem." says William Taylor, “given time, 'copie, work." They include the puzzle 4' the fair-skinned Beothuk Indians of Jewfoundland, who spoke an unknown .tnguage. I he Beothuks were slaughtby white men in the eighteenth ntury and the last of them died in 829. Nobody can yet be sure how they it into North American life.

I he Mound Builders of eastern Ameria are still baffling. They built mounds the shapes ol turtles, men and serents—one of these 1.500 feet long— nd some even in semi-pyramidal form, ne of these pyramids in Illinois is a undred feet high and covers almost liften acres. Its construction must have tken 1,000 men working for twenty

years. What happened to these active, successful people? Nobody knows.

Dr. George Carter of Johns Hopkins University, a geographer, botanist, and anthropologist, claims to have a site at La Jolla, California, with very primitive traces of human life from 1 ()().()()() years ago. He and some other scientists believe that man really came here before the Wisconsin, perhaps 300,000 years ago. They point out there were early men — Sinanthropus pekinensis — living then in China.

A former National Museum archaeologist, Tom Lee, dug up some ancient human relics on Manitoulin Island in 1951 and he was sure, from the geology of the area, they were about 1 ()().()()() years old. But he got no support for his views and never put them fully into print.

The search for early North American man is probably the most difficult archaeology in the world. Because of permafrost, and perhaps glaciation, there's little chance of finding bones. Stray flint points may be the archaeologist’s only clue to life there. It's a triumph if he finds layers of human habitation.

When Richard MacNeish was excavating his great find at Lngigstciak in 1955, he dug down through three layers of Eskimo culture dated from about the time of Columbus back to the time of C hrist. He dug through a layer of primitive Eskimo flint points anti burins — slot-making tools that early men used for fine cutting jobs such as slicing bones to make knife and scraper handles and other tools. They were probably left by men living there when Babylon was a young city or when the Pharaohs were building their pyramids.

Finally, under a layer of sand and gravel, he found ten crude choppers and scrapers anti a fragment of buffalo bone. This material probably dates from 8,000 or 10,000 years ago. But such finds are rare.

I he story of early man in North America is the story of Homo sapiens himself, and the only reason there is any story is because he has always been an extraordinary fellow. I'he first traces of him anywhere in the world were in Europe 40,000 years ago. There he assimilated Neanderthal man, another type of man with heavy eye ridges, a receding chin and a bigger brain than modern man. But Homo sapiens was the latest refinement of perhaps a million years of human habitation of the earth. He had a peculiar spark, one that sent him across the world in all directions. In 15,000 years, or less, he had advanced across steppe, mountain and desert, assimilating or killing more primitive men as he came, till at last he set foot on the land bridge to North America.

All archaeologists expect dramatic new finds that may change many of our present ideas about early men on this continent. “Discovery is going ahead so fast that our knowledge changes almost daily, says Dr. Edward Rogers, an ethnologist at the Royal Ontario Museum.

[he Arctic Institute is sponsoring a $250,000 expedition to Devon Island, almost 2,000 miles north of Toronto, starting in 1961. The twenty or so scientists going out with the expedition will spend up to ten years studying the island's archæology, botany, climatology and geology. Some archaeologists, like MacNeish and Lowther, who have vast areas to explore, are using light planes. Others taking part in the hunt for early man are trying to raise money for helicopters.

"Our biggest discoveries are still ahead of us." says Gordon Lowther. with satisfaction, it