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  • The First Americans

    Over thousands of years, people spread out from Africa into Europe and Asia.  Long before the invention of farming, the wheel or writing, the first hunters reached Beringia.  Beringia is a modern name for a strip of land that once connected Asia to Alaska in North America.

    The current evidence suggests the first humans crossed this “land bridge” at least 40,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. 

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    The Bering Strait has separated Asia and America for about 15,000 years.  The continents are now more than fifty miles apart, but at one time they were connected by a passage more than 1000 miles wide. The continents are now more than fifty miles apart, but at one time they were connected by a passage more than 1000 miles wide.

    Beringia existed during the Ice Ages, periods when the climate of the earth was colder.  During an ice age, precipitation that fell on land would harden into large masses of ice called glaciers.   The forming of glaciers caused sea levels to drop about three hundred feet.

    Scientists fear modern industry has made the earth warmer, causing ice at the polar regions to melt.   These melting ice caps could cause the oceans to rise and coastal lands to be submerged.

    Although the climate of Beringia was frigid, it appears to have been warmer than nearby land is today.  Beringia was not covered with ice because there was very little snowfall in the region.  Instead, Beringia was covered with grass and small trees that fed large mammals such as bears, bison and the now extinct wooly mammoths and mastodons.  These animals attracted human hunters to the region.  The hunters who crossed Beringia into America came in small groups beginning about 40,000 years ago.

    As the earth grew warmer, the glaciers melted and the land bridge slowly closed about 15,000 years ago—this was at least 9000 years before civilizations developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. Today more than 50 miles of ocean separates Asia from North America. 

    The Inuit—traditionally known by outsiders as Eskimos—also reached America from Asia, but long after the land bridge had closed.  The Inuit crossed the frigid waters of the Bering Strait in boats between 6000 and 2000bce. Their DNA indicates that the Inuit are genetically unrelated to the other indigenous people of America. 

    Archaeologists are also intrigued with ancient skeletal remains found primarily in South America that do not fit the profile of the people who passed through Beringia. DNA evidence suggests that there may have been some migration to America from the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific, possibly by sailors blown off course by storms.

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    In 1947, adventurer Thor Heyerdahl constructed a raft using ancient technology.  Heyerdahl and a crew of six sailed 3770 miles on the Kon-Tiki, named after an Inca god.  Their 97-day journey took them from Peru to the island of Puka Puka.  Heyerdahl’s voyage proved that it was possible for ancient sailors to travel the Pacific Ocean, but not that it occurred.

    Resources

    Download this lesson as Microsoft Word file, a Google doc, or as an Adobe Acrobat file
    View a Powerpoint presentation of this lesson
    Listen as Mr. Dowling reads this lesson.

    Lexile Measure 1170L
    Mean Sentence Length 18.12
    Mean Log Word Frequency 3.38
    Word Count 453 

    Mr. Donn has an excellent website that includes a section on Native Americans

    Map of Beringia
    The coastline of Beringia during the last Ice Age.
    Hubbard Glacier
    The Hubbard Glacier is in eastern Alaska and part of Yukon, Canada.
    Wooly Mammoth
    The wooly mammoth went extinct about 11,500 years ago, but these and other large mammals attracted hunters to the land bridge that led to North America.
    The Kon-Tiki
    Kon-Tiki was the raft used by Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands.
    Thor Heyerdahl
    Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914 – 2002) sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in the Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl’s expedition demonstrated that long sea voyages were possible in ancient times.

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    Next: The New World
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