Glaciers kept them from moving south for thousands of years. 

By Jess McHugh
January 17, 2017
Courtesy of Université de Montréal

The first humans to arrive in North America may have migrated thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to new research.

Anthropologists from the University of Montreal, along with a radiocarbon dating expert from Oxford, determined that humans lived in what is now Yukon, Canada, near the border with Alaska, as early as 24,000 years before present. Scientists had previously estimated that the first humans crossed the Bering Strait only 14,000 years ago.

The researchers made their deduction by examining some 36,000 bone fragments found in the Bluefish Caves, a location in Yukon first excavated in 1977. They found undeniable human traces on at least 15 of the bones, including tool markings on a horse mandible, thereby proving the presence of human activity, according to research published last week in the journal Plos One.

Jacques Cinq-Mars, an archeologist who was the first to excavate the site in the 1970s and 1980s, made the hypothesis that humans may have spent time in that region as early as 30,000 years ago by carbon dating bone fragments found in the caves. Lauriane Bourgeon, a doctoral anthropology student and first author of this new study, was able to confirm his hypothesis in part through advances in taphonomy, or the study of burial practices and bone markings.

“With advances in that, it became much more obvious which bones had been modified by the tools found on the site,” Ariane Burke, second author and advisor on the project, told Travel + Leisure.

The people who lived in this area led a nomadic lifestyle, according to Burke, and the caves served more as a campsite than a settlement. For many years the population remained a mystery to scientists and anthropologists, as there was little concrete evidence of human inhabitation in the region.

These early humans, called the Beringia for crossing the Bering Strait, would have migrated via the landmass that once connected Siberia and present-day Alaska. As their arrival coincided with an ice age, they were unable to move south for thousands of years, leading to a genetic standstill.

Anthropologists and archeologists have since attributed the lack of early human traces in the region to the fact that many of the areas where the Beringia people once lived are now underwater. The research from Bourgeon and her team helps confirm this decades-old hypothesis concerning the fate of the first Americans.

“There are so few sites with similar dates,” said Burke. “Now the geneticists have provided us with some context.”