- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004


People who might have been ancestors of the first Americans lived in Arctic Siberia, enduring one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth at the height of the Ice Age, say researchers who discovered the oldest evidence yet of humans living near the frigid gateway to the New World.

Russian scientists uncovered a 30,000-year-old site where ancient hunters lived along the Yana River in Siberia, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and not far from the Bering land bridge that connected Asia with North America.

“Although a direct connection remains tenuous, the Yana … site indicates that humans extended deep into the Arctic during colder [Ice Age] times,” the authors wrote in a study appearing this week in the journal Science.

The researchers found stone tools, ivory weapons and the butchered bones of mammoths, bison, bear, lion and hare, all animals that would have been available to hunters during that Ice Age period.

Using a dating technique that measures the ratios of carbon, the researchers determined that the artifacts were deposited at the site about 30,000 years ago. That would make them about twice as old as the artifacts of Monte Verde in Chile, site of the most ancient human life known in the American continents.

Donald K. Grayson, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the discovery is significant because it is so much earlier than any other proven evidence of people living in the frigid lands of Siberia that formed the gateway to the Americas.

“Until this site was reported, the earliest site in the Bering land bridge area was dated at about 11,000 years ago,” Mr. Grayson said. “Every other site that had been thought to have been early enough to have something to do with peopling of the New World has been shown not to be so.”

At the time of the Yana occupation, much of the high northern latitudes on the Earth were in the grip of the Ice Age, which sent glaciers creeping over much of what is now Europe, Canada and the northern United States.

But the Yana River area was ice-free, a dry flood plain without glaciers. It was home to mammoth, horse, musk ox and other animals that provided food for the human hunters who braved Arctic blasts to live there.

“Abundant game means lots of food,” Julie Brigham-Grette, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in Science. “It was not stark tundra as one might imagine.”

Among the artifacts found at the Yana site were weapons that resembled some found at a Clovis, N.M., site dated at about 11,000 years. But Mr. Grayson and others said the evidence is weak linking those implements to the tool and weapon techniques used by the Clovis people. Similar artifacts also have been found in Europe and western Asia, Mr. Grayson said.

“The similarities [in the tools and weapons] are not enough to prove they were ancestral to the Clovis people in the New World,” Mr. Grayson said.

Some specialists, however, still hold out hope that the discovery provides important clues about the ancient migration from Asia to the Americas.

Finding evidence of human habitation at the Yana site “makes it plausible that the first peopling of the Americas occurred prior to the last glacial maximum,” Daniel Mann, of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said in Science. The last glacial maximum was 20,000 to 25,000 years ago.

Mr. Grayson and others, however, said more evidence is needed before it becomes widely accepted that it was people from the Yana site who migrated to the New World.

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