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Until recently, the most widely accepted hypotheses about the arrival of humans to the American continent supported the idea that an ice-free corridor between Siberia and Alaska allowed people to migrate south. But until about 12,600 years ago it was impractical and there is evidence prior to that date of human presence.
At deposit called Cooper’s Ferry, in the northwestern state of Idaho, a team of scientists, led by Oregon State University, has found remains of utensils and stone plates dating back about 16,000 years and that may have been used in food processing. Along with the tools, fossil remains of extinct horses and other small mammals have also been discovered.
What is surprising about this discovery is not only its antiquity –which precedes the Clovis culture, the indigenous people who were believed to be the first inhabitants of America–, but its similarity to the shape of the oldest stone artifacts found on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
"We suggest that the first Americans may have reached North America via a coastal migration that began in what is now Japan before about 16,000 years ago," says Loren G. Davis, director of the Pacific Slope Archaeological Laboratory from the American university and first author of the study that publishesScience.
According to the researchers, the ancestors of the first Americans came from Northeast Asia. Specifically, the peoples that arrived at the site may have originated in the Japanese islands. “Now we are collaborating with Japanese researchers to make more comparisons of artifacts from Japan, Russia and Cooper’s Ferry,” Davis details.
Crossing the Columbia River
The study thus clarifies the time and route by which the first humans arrived in America, but raises a hypothesis contrary to the traditional model. The location and age of the Cooper’s Ferry site, where evidence of domestic life has been found 16,000 years ago, holds the key to explaining this migration.
Cooper’s Ferry, known to the Nez Perce tribe, is located in the upper basin of the Columbia River, which rises in southwestern Canada and empties into the Pacific Ocean. 16,000 years ago, when the place was inhabited, there was no possibility of getting through Siberia and Alaska by land route from the northern ice sheets.
"The Columbia River was able to provide the first Americans with their first route [from the Pacific Ocean] to the interior lands south of the continental ice sheets that covered most of Canada at the time," Davis emphasizes.
For the researcher, migration along the Columbia River is consistent with coastal migration and the hunting and fishing way of life. "The boats could also be appropriate for this trip," he adds.
The Clovis Paleoindians were not the first
The dates of the artifacts, which are about 16,000 years old, also challenge the old theory that the indigenous people of the Clovis culture made the first migration to the Americas, through the opening of the ice sheet from Siberia to Latin America. North.
“Traditionally, archaeologists thought that the Clovis Paleoindians moved to America about 13,250 years ago and that most of the native peoples were descendants of this initial migration,” says the researcher, who began excavating at this American site in the 1990s. .
However, in the last decades of the 20th century, scientists began to find evidence that humans were already on the American continent before the Clovis peoples appeared. "This suggests that the antiquity of human occupation was different and deeper than traditionally thought," he reveals.
"Now we have evidence that there were people in Idaho before that corridor opened," he says. This also confirms that the first peoples moved south of the continental ice sheets along the Pacific coast.
In the coming months or years, the research group will show the results of dating other artifacts found at Cooper’s Ferry. “We have 10 years of excavated contraptions and samples to analyze, ”Davis concludes.
Loren G. Davis et al. "Late Upper Paleolithic occupation at Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, USA, ~ 16,000 years ago"ScienceAugust 29, 2019.