From Where Did the First Americans Come?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ted Goebel, archaeologist and professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, captured the attention of hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members during his recent lecture on the First Americans. The presentation, part of the Department of Anthropology’s Waring Distinguished Lecture Series, was titled “Ice Age Peopling of the Americas: Do Stones, Bones and Genes Tell the Same Story?” 

In the hour-long lecture, Goebel provided an in-depth look at the first people in America. “We think that the first Americans came from Asia, and they traveled from the Old World to the New World across the Bering Land Bridge that existed during the Ice Age between northeastern Siberia and Alaska,” said Goebel. “My goal is to show how archaeologists and geneticists are synthesizing the evidence together because we [archaeologists] can’t do it alone.”

Geneticists estimate that a small group of people—possibly 1,000 or fewer—separated from other Asian populations between 30,000 and 23,000 years ago. These people must have migrated to America either before or after the 3,000-year-long Last Glacial Maximum since during this event Alaska was blocked from North America by large glaciers, making migration south impossible.

Goebel addressed multiple theories about the First Americans. With the discovery of Yana RHS, a 28,000-year-old settlement in the Arctic Circle, archaeologists are confident that some humans moved to the Beringia Land Bridge area before the Last Glacial Maximum. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether the people at the Yana site eventually migrated into America or simply retreated back south when the climate became too cold.

Although archaeologists are certain about some things, there is currently no solid evidence to support other migration theories, such as one that suggests early Europeans (called Solutreans) traveled to America by boats. While Goebel reported the current state of the record, he made it clear that our knowledge could change at any moment. “New developments in human genetics and new discoveries in archaeology are rapidly changing the way we think about the origins of Native Americans,” he said.

“Each year the Department of Anthropology, through support from the Waring Endowment, brings in world-renowned scholars to explore topics in anthropology and share our discipline with the campus and community. Dr. Ted Goebel’s research is on the cutting-edge of discoveries about the First Americans,” said Dr. Ashley Smallwood, assistant professor of Anthropology and director of the Antonio J. Waring, Jr., Archaeological Laboratory.

Goebel also mentioned some of the mysteries that keep archaeologists perplexed. In addition to sites in North America dating to before the Clovis period (13,000 years ago), archaeologists have also found skeletons that have cranial features interpreted to be distinct from modern Native Americans.

Kennewick Man, a 10,000-year-old skeleton discovered in Washington in 1996, is one of these mysteries. Kennewick Man’s skull looked so European that the scientist who initially studied him believed he was a European settler who had died on the Oregon Trail. Some researchers believe these skeletons are Solutreans who hypothetically sailed from Europe to America. Though the current genetic evidence suggests these differences are caused by evolutionary changes associated with changes in the environment and the transition to farming, Goebel states having a variety of hypotheses is actually good. “You need to be able to look at the problem scientifically from as many different perspectives as you can, and that is truly what we are trying to do today,” said Goebel.