Beringia Baby! Or Beringia, Baby?

Putting down a marker so I can say I told you so later... 

It will turn out that scientists are totally misinterpreting the data in this paper about ancient DNA recovered in Alaska, reported in the Verge. 

By analyzing the infant’s genome, researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Copenhagen found that while all ancient Native Americans originated in East Asia, the family tree branched roughly 20,000 years ago. One group — the infant’s group, now named the Ancient Beringians — lived in the frozen north and eventually disappeared. The other moved south, splitting yet again roughly 15,000 years ago into two distinct populations that peopled North and South America.

Why do I think they are wrong? Because there is a lot of supposition that goes into interpreting genetic evidence. It matters what assumptions you make. These folks are operating under the old story: Native Americans first came to the Americas on foot.  

Why do scientists believe this? Probably because they’ve never gone on High Adventure in the Boundary Waters. You can pack anything you want in a canoe: ice chests full of food, cast iron Dutch ovens, wooden boxes filled with shovels and spatulas, and more! Who cares? Paddling is a breeze and weight doesn’t make much difference.  

But... walking? That’s a different story! Ultralight backpackers literally cut the tags out of their underwear in order to cut weight. You think Indians brought their family from Siberia on their back? When there was a perfectly good body of water right there! No way! 

But wait? Crossing the Pacific in a canoe? You’d drown! But they didn’t have to cross the ocean...

Today you can travel from Vladivostok to San Diego in a boat and never once lose sight of the shore except for... the Bering Strait! But what was not a strait but rather an isthmus back in the Ice Age? The Bering Land Bridge, “Beringia,” Baby!

This isn’t just my theory. Lots of scientists are now on the right track. I’m a little baffled at why this study’s authors seem to be behind the curve. Here’s a cool story about the canoe theory in Smithsonian Magazine

Mikkel Winthell Peterson in Smithsonian. 

Mikkel Winthell Peterson in Smithsonian

Side note: if you look only at the genetics, the Aboriginal Australians do seemed to have paddled across a giant ocean 50,000 years ago in the Stone Age!  Scientists don’t actually think that happened and figure the first Australians must have taken a route through Asia. Nonetheless, Abroriginals aren’t related to anyone in Asia, Europe, or the Americas and there are no archeological remains, either. It was the very first migration out of Africa, and has been trampled under foot by the folks in the big second wave that included the ancestors of you, me, and everyone you know who isn’t 100% African.