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On the trail of ancient mariners

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Science  11 Aug 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 542-545
DOI: 10.1126/science.357.6351.542

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Summary

Archaeologists once thought that the earliest people to arrive in the Americas wandered into the continent through a gap in the ice age glaciers covering Canada. But most researchers today think the first inhabitants came by sea. In this view, maritime explorers voyaged by boat out of Beringia—the ancient land now partially submerged under the waters of the Bering Strait—about 16,000 years ago and quickly moved down the Pacific coast, reaching Chile by at least 14,500 years ago. Still, the evidence that might settle the question has been mostly out of reach. As the glaciers melted starting about 16,500 years ago, global sea level rose by about 120 meters, drowning many coasts and any settlements they held. The hunt for that evidence is now in high gear. A dedicated cadre of archaeologists is searching for maritime sites dating to between 14,000 and 16,000 years ago, before the ice-free corridor became fully passable. They’re looking at the gateway to the Americas, along stretches of the Alaskan and Canadian coasts that were spared the post–ice age flooding. They are even looking underwater. And on Mexico’s Cedros Island, researchers are helping fill in the picture of how early coastal people lived and what tools they made, details that link them to maritime cultures around the Pacific Rim and imply that they were not landlubbers who later turned seaward.