Reconstructing the past

October 4, 2016

Everything we know about human migration might be wrong

Changes could be coming to a history textbook near you, as a team of researchers challenges one of the most widely accepted beliefs about the migration route followed by the first humans to arrive in North America.

A recent study published in Nature suggests that humans likely did not migrate into the southern areas of North America via the Ice Free Corridor route as was previously thought. The team of researchers behind the study included Cynthia Zutter, vice-provost and professor of anthropology at MacEwan University.

The study suggested that although retreating ice sheets at the end of the last ice age would have left a clear path along the Ice Free Corridor, there may not have been adequate food and shelter to support humans during the time of earliest migration.

In order to determine when the Ice Free Corridor would have become suitable for human habitation, this international group of researchers analysed nine sediment cores from Charlie Lake and Spring Lake (in northern British Columbia and Alberta, respectively), representing the last areas of the corridor to become ice-free. They found that the corridor had become vegetative only 12,600 years ago, despite evidence of humans in North America dating back as far as 14,000 years.

“My contribution to the project included the analysis of plant remains from the Ice Free corridor region,” said Cynthia, who was invited to participate in the project by its central researcher Dr. Charles Schweger, Professor Emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alberta. Cynthia worked with colleagues in Denmark who utilized a ground-breaking methodology that analysed microscopic environmental DNA. This DNA provided a snapshot of what the environment looked like thousands of years ago. “The researchers from Denmark carried out this innovative methodology that’s going to open up a whole new suite of reconstructing what past environments and vegetation and plant and animal communities were like,” she explained in a recent interview with CBC.

So if not via the Ice Free Corridor, how did the first North Americans make their way here from Siberia? Along the Pacific coast is a popular theory, and Cynthia hopes that new research techniques will soon be able to more accurately test that. In a recent interview, she told CBC that “although this is just one study, there is more and more evidence that, in fact, looking to the west coast becomes a smart way to start understanding this whole process.”

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