First North American Settlers May Have Come From Populations Living On Now Submerged Bering Strait Land Bridge

By Rhonda J. Miller on March 16, 2014 2:27 PM EDT

Submerged Lands Under Bering Strait Hold Clues To Settlement of North America
A new language analysis of Native Americans along the Pacific Coast and aboriginal Siberians suggests both cultures may have originated in lands now under the Bering Strait, part of region that is today generally known as Beringia. (Photo: National Park Service / Rhonda J. Miller)

Ancestors of Native Americans along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. may have arrived 10,000 to 15,000 years ago after living, along with ancestors of aboriginal Siberians, on a land bridge now submerged under the Bering Strait, according to a language analysis published in the journal PloS One. The study provides clues to the mysteries of the first settlers in North America.

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"The aboriginal populations of America and Asia are linked through prehistoric migrations via the Bering Land Bridge," authors of the study, Mark A Sicoli, a linguist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and his colleague Gary Holton, a linguist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said in the study, "Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia," published March 12. "Our understanding of these migrations has been derived primarily from archaeological and biological data, rather than from linguistics, as most migrations preceded the generally accepted 8,000-to-10,000-year limit of the traditional comparative method of historical linguistics."

Although many of the languages derived from those ancient cultures are now extinct or endangered, the linguistic analysis led the researchers to theorize that their study "... likely reflects radiation out of Beringia with both eastward migrations into North America and westward migration into Asia, rather than a unidirectional migration from Asia to North America."

Today, Beringia is defined as the land and maritime area bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia, on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada, on the north by 72 degrees north latitude in the Chukchi Sea, and on the south by the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula, based on information from the National Park Service. Beringia provides an opportunity for comprehensive study of the earth and human history.

"As one of the world's great ancient crossroads, Beringia may hold solutions to puzzles about who were the first people to populate North America, how and when they traveled, and how they survived under such harsh climatic conditions," according to the National Park Service.

Researchers Sicoli and Holton collected data on sounds and word structure from languages spoken on either side of the Bering Strait, Live Science reported. The study examined one family of languages, known as Yeniseian, which encompassed two languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia. One of those Yeniseian languages, known as Ket, is thought to have only 50 speakers, Sicoli told Live Science.

The linguists also studied another group of languages, known as Na-Dene, which includes 37 languages spoken mostly along the Pacific Coast of North America, including several Alaskan languages and Navajo.

Clues to the linguistic connections between the ancient peoples were revealed through a computer program that modeled how the languages are related to one another and potential ways the languages may have been dispersed.

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