For decades the issue seemed moot. The first settlers, we were told, were big-game hunters who arrived from Asia at the end of the Ice Age some 12,000 years ago, crossing a land bridge at the Bering Strait and migrating south through an ice-free passage between two great glaciers blanketing the continent. But after years of sifting through data from diverse and surprising sources, the maverick scientists whose stories Lost World follows have found evidence to overthrow the "big-game hunter" scenario and reach a new and startling and controversial conclusion: The first people to arrive in North America did not come overland -- they came along the coast by water.
In this groundbreaking book, award-winning journalist Tom Koppel details these provocative discoveries as he accompanies the archaeologists, geologists, biologists, and paleontologists on their intensive search. Lost World takes readers under the sea, into caves, and out to the remote offshore islands of Alaska, British Columbia, and California to present detailed and growing evidence for ancient coastal migration. By accompanying the key scientists on their intensive investigations, Koppel brings to life the quest for that Holy Grail of New World prehistory: the first peopling of the Americas.
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September 30, 2005
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Excerpt from Lost World by Tom Koppel
A Drowned Forest
The Northwest Coast exudes more than a whiff of mystery and adventure. Brooding forests line the shores of fjords that slash deep into the mountain fastness. Haunted faces on carved cedar poles preside in silent disdain over abandoned native villages. The hushed secrets of the past beckon, yet remain elusive. Most enigmatic of all, lying hidden beyond the outer beaches and reefs and far below the surface is an entire lost world, a domain of the deep that is evoked in ancient native myth and confirmed by the latest technological wizardry. Invisible to modern eyes, this drowned zone holds clues to ancient seafaring people and how they came to populate our hemisphere.
These forgotten coastal dwellers first came to life for me when I rented a seaside homestead on a small island in British Columbia. The Stone House, as the owner called it, stood in a clearing just behind the beach at the head of an isolated bay fringed with regal Douglas firs and twisted red madrone trees. I liked the house, but what really intrigued me was the spot it stood on, a grassy level platform that spanned a quarter acre and was raised about six feet above the high tide line. As I paced around it with my aged landlord, he told me that this platform was no accident of geology but a human creation. It was an Indian shell midden, or organic native garbage dump, a dense buildup of shells that resulted from thousands of years of seasonal shellfish harvesting. There were similar middens behind nearly every beach along the sheltered "Inside Passage," which runs from Puget Sound in Washington State right up into the panhandle of Alaska.
My landlord had unearthed a crumbling human skull when he dug the house foundations four decades earlier. During my years there I was humbled by the thought of living on native ground hallowed by the centuries. Soon, I planted a vegetable patch on the midden next to the house. Digging in, I discovered that the soil, far from being the mixed sand and clay of ordinary garden dirt, consisted of crushed and broken shell along with humus from fallen leaves and droppings from the island's deer, sheep, and goats. My produce thrived.
One day, I hiked across the island to another bay and came upon a scene that helped me understand how middens were formed. A family from one of the Coast Salish tribes was busy digging clams by the bushel-load at low tide to sell to cash buyers. Their boat was pulled up high and dry on the mud flats. Lined up off to one side were a dozen or more thigh-high gunny sacks full of clams, each almost too heavy to lift. I was amazed at the volume of shellfish that could be taken from a single small beach, and it was easy to see how over scores of centuries shell middens could build up to depths of five to ten feet or more. In these modern times, the succulent bivalves would be taken away and shucked at a processing plant, or sold live in the shell. In the past, though, the Indians simply camped out at spots like this for days or weeks at a time, and were still doing so when the first European settlers arrived. After digging the clams, they smoked or roasted them and skewered them on sticks for storage. Shellfish gathering was a major part of their seasonal harvest cycle and was essential for laying in a supply of food for the winter. The shells were simply left behind above the tide line.
I had majored in anthropology briefly in college before moving on to other things, and living on the midden rekindled a passionate interest. It wasn't long before I was wangling invitations to potlatch ceremonies, going to watch native fisheries, and generally delving into coastal anthropology. Poking around in academic journals published by universities in Seattle and Vancouver, I learned that the leaching of chemicals from the shells helped greatly to preserve the bone and antler artifacts, such as fine harpoon points, that were so important to prehistoric coastal hunting and gathering. Nearly all coastal archaeology, in fact, involved digging in shell middens. This led me to other middens and archaeological sites on the nearby islands.
I quickly discovered that looking at today's shores could only take me back about 5,000 years, at least in my area. Because sea level on the Northwest Coast has changed so drastically and so rapidly since the Ice Age, in most places anything older was under water. Coastal archaeology along the Inside Passage had barely scratched the surface of land and sea, but the implications of ancient sea level change went well beyond creating local difficulties for a handful of anthropology professors.
At the peak of the last glaciation of the Ice Age -- 18,000 to 20,000 years ago -- great ice sheets covered much of northern Europe and Russia. In the southern hemisphere, enormous glaciers mantled the Andes. And in North America, the Laurentide ice sheet, with a central dome as much as three miles thick, extended from eastern Canada almost to the Rockies and down into the United States beyond the Great Lakes. Another ice sheet, the Cordilleran, stretched over the Rockies to the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, and northern Washington State. So much water was locked up in ice that world sea level was 350 to 400 feet lower than it is today.
Entire bodies of water that had existed prior to the glaciation dried up, and the former sea bottom became exposed land. In the best known case, the Bering Strait disappeared and became a broad "land bridge," around a thousand miles wide, connecting Asia and North America. We are all familiar with schoolbook pictures of ancient people, dressed in furs, hunting mammoth elephants and trekking across the land bridge to populate the New World.
There were also many islands, in all the world's oceans, that no longer exist. On maps of the North Pacific, we find no islands between Hawaii and the mainland of Alaska and British Columbia except just off the mainland coast. But in the last glaciation there were several islands well out in the Pacific. These were the tops of submarine mountains coming up from very deep water, just like the volcanic islands of Hawaii. Now they lie a hundred or more feet below the surface and attract vast schools of feeding fish. Oceanographers call them seamounts. Other islands that still exist at today's sea level were simply much larger at that time, and in some cases were connected to the mainland.
Nearly all the world's coastlines lay much farther to seaward than they do now. One respected archaeologist has calculated that the total amount of "extra" land this lowering of sea level created along the coasts of North America was equal to one and one half times the area of Texas. Life on the exposed land was very different from what we can see in modern times. The Northwest Coast today has a mild, wet climate and dense coastal rain forest. At the peak of glaciation, though, there was pack ice along shore and tundralike vegetation on land, much like the present north coast of Alaska.
Then the Ice Age waned. The ice sheets melted and gradually retreated from the coast, and the sea rose worldwide. In some places there were odd local effects. Where shorelines had been pressed down by the weight of the ice, the land rebounded at times even faster than the rise of the world ocean. But overall, between around 17,000 and 10,000 years ago, the rising sea simply drowned these once-extensive coastal lands under hundreds of feet of water.
Any people living along the coast would have been forced to relocate. But of course, there were no cities, probably not even permanent settlements of any size. People lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering, and they were always on the move, in step with their sources of food. And since it took thousands of years for the sea to rise, there was likely little disruption to the lives of those ancient people.
But there is one lingering consequence for us today. The rising sea inundated nearly all traces of Ice Age coastal dwellers throughout the world, making it nearly impossible to find evidence of when, where, and how people lived on those drowned lands. Because underwater searches are difficult, incredibly expensive and even, at times, dangerous, until recently archaeologists have hardly even tried. Instead, they have focused on what they could find, which is invariably at sites well inland from where so many people presumably lived. In this way, the rising sea has severely skewed the archaeological record and given a strong terrestrial bias to our image of the people and lifeways of these late glacial times.
We know, for example, that some late Ice Age people hunted mammoths with spears, because the stone spear points have been found in close association with mammoth bones. But they have been found on terra firma, of course, and far inland from the former ancient shoreline. We hardly know anything about what people were doing on the coasts of the world ten to twenty thousand years ago. Where did they live? What animals did they hunt? What fish did they catch, and how? What critters did they gather in the intertidal zone? What kinds of weapons and tools did they use?
For those of us who live in North America, there are additional questions. When did the first people arrive? From where and by what route? And for a few pioneering scientists of the last decade, that question has led to a more pressing one: Is it conceivable that the coastlines were inhabited before the interior of the continent? And if so, when?
Once I realized how drastically our coastal world had changed, everything I saw took on a slightly different hue. During those years I rebuilt a lovely old wooden cruising sailboat and spent much of each summer exploring the Northwest Coast with friends. While studying the undersea contours on nautical charts, I tried to picture the ancient world with hundreds of feet of water peeled away. The locations of beaches and sandspits, of islands and reefs -- all would have been different. It must have been a rugged land of rubble-strewn moraines and tundra, where towering cliffs of ice fronted on the sea and roiling waves of ice fog drifted out over the continental shelf, a coastal fringe inhabited by polar bears, walruses, and other Arctic species that vanished from the region 10,000 years ago.
On one of my sailing trips north, we anchored for the evening among a maze of heavily wooded and unpopulated islands not far south of Alaska. We had seen only one other boat the entire day and easily imagined ourselves to be moored at the edge of the world. After dinner, my friend and I set out in the dinghy to explore our silent domain. At one island we went ashore and stumbled upon a well-concealed campsite littered with rusting pans and disintegrating plastic. A derelict canoe, cracked and hidden in the bush, was half filled with scummy water and mosquito larvae. Our fantasies ran wild. Was this the lair of a Crusoe-like recluse, or a fugitive from the law? Were there skeletons, literal or figurative, hidden on that island? It was a mystery we never solved.
A nearby island posed a different kind of riddle. Rowing along its shore, we noticed that the tide seemed to be exceptionally high. It was so high, in fact, that the sea was actually lapping at the base of dead trees on the gently sloping shoreline. Looking closer, we realized that all the trees from the high tide line back to at least 40 or 50 feet were gray and bare of foliage, killed off by the salt water. But the trees had not yet fallen over. We realized that this forest could not have become established in the first place if salt water had always soaked the soil in which they grew. The sea must have risen at least several feet within the lifespan of these very modestly sized trees, perhaps one hundred years.
Overall, of course, the Pacific Ocean itself was rising at no such rate, if at all. Rather, the land in this area was rapidly subsiding. The movement of tectonic plates was pinching and prodding and reconfiguring the entire Northwest Coast, dragging the land downward in some places, pushing it up in others. For me this was a graphic lesson that yanked regional sea level change out of the geological time scale of thousands or millions of years. Rising seas could change the location and character of the shoreline within a single lifetime, in what to geologists is the mere blink of an eye. A whole new element in coastal prehistory became real and relevant for me.
This was in the late 1980s, when just a few archaeologists were questioning the prevailing idea of how and when the First Americans arrived. Was it possible that the long-held theory that big-game hunters came from Asia by hiking across a dry land bridge at the Bering Strait just as the Ice Age waned wasn't really viable? Was it possible, instead, that seafaring people with boats came earlier and by way of the lost world that now lies under water along the North Pacific coast? Witnessing drastic and rapid sea level change for myself piqued my interest in this scenario. So I traveled, asked questions, wrote magazine articles on the subject and learned how, in the face of great obstacles, a few small teams of scientists in Alaska, British Columbia, and California were unraveling the mysteries of those flooded shores. The quest continues, but already the results have begun rewriting the prehistory of our continent.