Pacific Migration, Existence, and Paradox: A Deep History

Let's begin by diving deeply (pun intended) into the history of anthropological understandings regarding the settlement of the American continent.

Surf and/or Turf

Sample from Kelp Bed
Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Northwest, USA, North America

A standard high school education likely told the story of the peopling of the Americas like this: the formation of massive glaciers during the last ice age had caused the sea level to decline, creating a so-called “land bridge” connecting Siberia to North America; this area, known as Beringia, provided dry land expanse for early peoples to cross into the American continent as they migrated out of Asia.

Within the archaeological field, those in support of this migration-via-Beringia camp often pointed to the broad chronology of an early Paleolithic Clovis culture as evidence in support of their movement. By the turn of the millenia, however, recent discoveries [see bonus material] in sites ranging from Monte Verde to Oregon put the chronology to put the so-called Clovis First theory in doubt.

Once the evidence became too much to bear, it appears that the field of deep history finally became willing to look beyond the Clovis First paradigm; by 2002, one archaeologist described the American field as having newly evolved into “a pissing match to see who can come up with the oldest spear point.” In 2007, the field was further revolutionized by the so-called “kelp highway” hypothesis, whereupon archaeologists and marine biologists provocatively suggested that kelp forest ecosystems played a key role in facilitating maritime movement of peoples from Asia to the Americas towards the end of the Pleistocene era. Much of these so-called kelp highways have been placed geographically in what is now known as the Pacific Northwest (see pictured).

Here, then, we arrive at the surf and/or turf theories that has since taken hold of much of the twenty-first century archaeological movement. But if all this wasn’t interesting enough, we can further complicate the discussion through an indigenous-centered critique. Indeed, the Bering strait theory had always been particularly controversial among certain Native groups; Alexander Ewen, an anthropologist and member of the Purepecha Nation, bemoaned in a 2017 interview that the Eurocentric viewpoint of “Indians [existing] at a lower stage” led early scientists to incorrectly conclude both that 1) indigenous sailing was impossible and 2) that indigenous arrival into North America was achieved solely over land.