The Japan Times, February 18, 1998
Americas possibly inhabited 40,000 years ago
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) Linguistic and physical evidence is mounting to show that the first Americans migrated from Asia not 10,000 or 20,000 years ago, but as many as 40,000, experts said Monday.
The first people to make the trek across what is now the Bering Strait from Asia into Alaska may have arrived before the last ice age covered North America with glaciers they said.
The discovery of a site apparently 12,500 years old in Monte Verde, Chile, has thrown the archaeological world into an uproar. The site is 1,300 years older than the oldest known previous one and it is about 16,000 km from the former land link between Asia and Alaska.
Unless the settlers dashed straight to Chile, their descendants must have been on the continent for tens of thousands of years, researchers said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Johanna Nichols, a language expert at the University of California at Berkeley said computer models could show how long it would take people to physically move from Alaska to Monte Verde.
"That's about 8,000 miles (12,800 km) once one crossed the ice sheet," she said. "It would have taken about 2,000 years to travel on a beeline at a good clip."
That would put the first settlers at 14,500 years ago, at the very latest.
Geological experts point out that heavy glaciers covered much of the continent at that time, so such a trek must have taken place much earlier.
Some of the most compelling evidence is linguistic, said Nichols. Native North American languages are so different that they must have evolved over tens of thousands of years.
"The linguistic population of the New World is 40,000 years old, or something like that," Nichols said.
"There are 130 to 150 different (language) families in Native American languages today," Nichols said at a news conference. An example of a language family is Indo-European, which includes languages as far apart as English, Russian and Sanskrit.
It takes such a family about 6,000 years to evolve. "So there are something like 140 of these 6,000-year-old different units existing among Native Americans," Nichols said.
"The large number of distinct language families historically attested in the Americas ... is far more than could have descended from one ancestor in 14,500 years."
Even if people had migrated into the Americas constantly over time, without any interruptions by glaciers, it would have taken 30,000 years for that many groups to develop, she estimated.
There was probably a second influx, she added. There is a narrow strip of different language families along the western coasts of the Americas that matches patterns found only in other Pacific Rim nations.
"They are 12,000 years old, but certainly not 40,000," she said.
Rob Bonnichsen of Oregon State University said his team might eventually be able to answer the question — with physical measurements — of when the first Americans arrived.
The researchers found naturally shed human and animal hair at ancient sites and were able to tease DNA from it. They have also used new carbon-dating methods on the animal hair, and it seems to work.
"We can extract and amplify DNA from an individual hair," he said. "We can DNA-analyze and carbon-date the same hair."
His team has tried the method on a 9,500-year-old hair from a mountain sheep but they want to perfect the method before trying it on a precious human sample.
Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington said he believes more evidence will come out about very early Americans. Scientists who had sites they thought were older than 10,000 years were afraid to come forward for fear of being criticized, he said.
"Now a number of sites are coming to light," he said. "I would predict that in the next year there would be even more. "