Beringia is thought by a handful of renegade scientists to be a prehistoric homeland for aboriginal people who later spread across the Americas and the key to one of archeology’s greatest Holy Grails – figuring out how humans first got to this continent. This July, Jacques Cinq-Mars, a renowned archeologist living in Longueuil, is heading to Beringia – a vast territory that once spanned the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia – in hopes of resolving a controversy he unleashed nearly 20 years ago when he chanced upon a curious-looking cave in the Yukon’s Keele Mountain Range, perched on a ridge high above the Bluefish River.
Here, at a site known as the Bluefish Caves, Cinq-Mars’s team discovered something that would turn archeology on its ear and has fuelled debate ever since – a chipped mammoth bone that appeared to have been fashioned into a small harpoon point. Radiocarbon dating showed the bone to be 28,000 years old. The find stunned archeologists who had long presumed the first people to enter the Americas did so 13,000 years ago via a land bridge from Siberia after the end of the last Ice Age.
Until that point, routes from Alaska down into the Americas were blocked off by glaciers up to four kilometres thick, which would have cut off any possibility of migration for thousands of years. But scientists have unearthed a growing number of ancient human sites across the continent that date back much more than 13,000 years. How did those people get here? No one knows for sure.
Cinq-Mars, a retired former curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, believes the answers lie in the lost land of Beringia.
Named after 18th-century Danish explorer Vitus Bering, this territory emerged from under the sea when advancing glaciers locked up seawater and caused ocean levels to fall 120 metres. The 1,000-kilometre-wide land bridge that joined the two continents was so arid it remained a glacier-free oasis of grassland steppes that teemed with life at the height of the Ice Age.
People here lived alongside giant and outlandish animals – beavers the size of today’s bears, fearsome carnivorous bears that would have dwarfed today’s grizzlies, sloths as big as oxen, mastodons, lions and woolly rhinos and camels. – toth