The discovery of human remains in North America has led scientists to believe that humans may have been living in the area much earlier than we originally thought. The earliest evidence for these ancient people was found at a site called the Buttermilk Creek Complex and is dated between 13,000-14,000 years ago. So who were these early inhabitants?
Early humans have been present on earth for close to 2 million years. Approximately 200,000 years ago, an unknown ancestor of modern humans began migrating from Africa and eventually settled in Eurasia. These early migrants became known as “anatomically modern Homo sapiens”. About 15-20,000 years ago, the first humans crossed Beringia , a land bridge that connected Siberia with Alaska. These early migrants are known as the “First Americans”.
The First Americans spread southward towards present-day Canada and into Central America. Their journeys can be broken up into two groups: the early Paleoamericans – who migrated between 15,000 and 8000 years ago – and the later Neoamericans – who migrated between 8000-4000 years ago. The early Paleoamericans are believed to be the first people to inhabit the Americas. They were highly nomadic, meaning they constantly moved from place to place in search of food. This group included small family groups as well as big bands of hunter-gatherers. These early migrants hunted large and small game, gathered wild plants and fished for food.
The Paleoamericans entered North America through Beringia and followed a continental ice sheet that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to present-day Nebraska. As they progressed southward, the fast-flowing ice sheets began breaking up, forming large ice-free areas. This led to open tundra inhabited by woolly mammoths and caribou. The Ice Age lasted for about 100,000 years and during the last glacial period, the meridional configuration of the Earth’s surface was very different than it is today. Most of North America was covered in glaciers, the sea level was lower and much of what is now Canada was covered by a huge ice-free plain which extended to south of the United States. The Paleoamericans crossed this land bridge into what is referred to as “the New World”. They followed large herds of migrating animals northward, eventually reaching central Alaska around 15,000 years ago. The Paleoamericans were nomads and travelled in small family groups, crossing the land bridge many times, before settling in areas to which they adapted for hunting and gathering food. As time passed, these early migrants began forming social networks. They learned where to find food, how to hunt animals and how to grow plants successfully .
Around 10,000 years ago the climate started to warm up and the ice-free land bridge was covered in water. The Paleoamericans began moving from Alaska towards Canada and from there southward into Central America. There is a great deal of debate among experts as to when these early migrants made it into South America or if they even did at all. The Paleoamericans are not thought to have made it down as far as the southern tip of the continent, but there is evidence that they may have at least reached Chile.
The Second Americans: The Neoamericans
The First Americans were not the only ones to live in North America during prehistoric times. Around 2000 BCE, a group of people known as the Neoamericans began to migrate into Central America. These people lived in the deserts and mountains of North America and were descendants of the First Americans. The term “Neoamerican” refers to these people’s cultural affiliation with early American civilizations such as the Aztecs and Incas, not their physical location.
The second group of people to migrate into the Americas were the Eskimo groups who entered North America from Northern Asia between 4000 and 2000 BCE. They lived in what is now Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland. The Eskimos arrived in North America much later than the First Americans. When they did arrive, however, their presence spread so quickly across the continent that there is little evidence of their existence in Alaska or Greenland.
As the Eskimos moved southward, they began to adapted to living in warmer climates by building houses out of wood and animal skins. Once they settled down, these people started farming and raising livestock while still hunting for food. They were also known for their skills as traders and artisans. The Eskimos lived in small settlements and, like the First Americans, traveled from one hunting ground to another by following herds of migrating animals or fish.