Grade Ten Thematic Unit Lesson 1: Bering Strait Theory

Lesson One: Bering Strait Theory


  1. Present students with the question: How did First Peoples originate within the North American continent? Give students an opportunity to brainstorm and articulate their perceptions. Write down all ideas on a chart paper or black board. (5 minutes). Someone may identify Bering Strait, please circle on the brainstorm rant/chart.
  2. Provide students with the handout on the Bering Strait Theory and ask them to identify the main points within the handout. Have students write jot notes and provide students with a lecture format of the Bering Strait Theory. (10 Minutes).
  3. Break students up into small groups to discuss the Bering Strait Theory and why that theory would be the acceptable theory for science and other disciplines. (20 minutes) Ask students to consider these two questions in each of their groups:
    • I. Why/ why not does the Bering Strait adequately explain the arrival of the First Peoples to North America?
    • II. What are some of the scientific certainties or speculations regarding the Bering Strait Theory?
  4. Have student’s identify the characteristics of a theory. Have students explain to each other and then write a definition in their notebook regarding the word “theory”. Have students come back from their small groups and as a class or individual answer/reflect upon the two questions. (10 minutes)

Adaptations to Lesson: Have students reflect upon how water has been used to explain migration of the First Peoples to the Americas. The Bering Strait theory indicates frozen water that is used as a bridge while Deloria believes water and aquatic travel resulted in the migration of humans. Other theories indicate Creation Stories. Rather than just reading and talking to small groups regarding this theory, have students research and write a report about alternative scientific theory to that of the Bering Strait theory. Divide students into dyads or triads and then have them present the scientific theory that they have researched.

Websites about the Bering Strait Theory:

Bering Strait Land Bridge Theory Student Handout

A Jesuit priest, Jose de Acost (1539-1600), was the first to propose the possibility of a temporary land bridge called Beringia. This land bridge was a possible route by which Homo Sapiens (modern humans) crossed from Asia to the Americas. In 1856, Samuel Haven built upon de Acost's theory and hypothesized that during the Pleistocene epoch (approximately 20,000 years ago) large areas of the continental shelf were exposed and sea levels dropped because water was locked up in glacial ice. This created a landmass approximately 2,000 km wide across the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska.

Based on anthropological and genetic evidence, western scientists generally agree that most First Peoples of the Americas descended from people who migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, between 17,000-11,000 years ago. The exact epoch and route is still a matter of controversy, as many of the new scientific data no longer supports that time frame. As scientific instruments of verification and carbon dating improve, the Bering Strait Theory does not stand up to the controversial findings.

Until recently there was a consensus among anthropologists that the alleged migrants crossed the strait 12,000 years ago via the Bering Land Bridge which existed during the last ice age (which occurred 26,000 to 11,000 years ago), and that they followed an inland route through Alaska and Canada that had just been freed of its ice cover. There are a number of difficulties in this theory — in particular, growing evidence of human presence in Brazil and Chile 11,500 years ago or earlier.

Thus other possibilities, not necessarily exclusive, have been suggested: The migrants may have crossed the land bridge several millennia earlier and followed a coastal route, thus avoiding the ice-covered interior. They may have been seafaring people who moved along the coast, a theory disputed due to the relative lack of seafaring skills of peoples of this time period. The crossing of the Bering Land Bridge may have occurred during the previous ice age, around 37,000 years ago. This is also supported by the archaeology dating of some sites in South America prior to the previously assumed date of 12-14,000 years ago.

A more radical alternative is that the Siberians were preceded by migrants from Oceania, who arrived either by sailing across the Pacific Ocean or by following the land route through Beringia at a much earlier date. Proponents of this theory claim that the oldest human remains in South America and in Baja California show distinctive non-Siberian traits, resembling those of Australian Aborigines or the Negritos of the Andaman Islands. These hypothetical American Aborigines would have been displaced by the Siberian migrants, and may have been ancestors to the distinctive First Americans of the Tierra del Fuego, who are nearly extinct.

Some mainstream anthropologists and archaeologists consider the genetic and cultural evidence for a primarily Siberian origin overwhelming. According to their theories, at least three separate migrations from Siberia to the Americas are highly likely to have occurred:

  1. The first wave came into a land populated by the large mammals of the late Pleistocene, including mammoths, horses, giant sloths, and wooly rhinoceroses. The Clovis culture would be a manifestation of that migration, and the Folsom culture, based on the hunting of bison, would have developed from it. This wave eventually spread over the entire hemisphere, as far south as Tierra del Fuego.
  2. The second migration brought the ancestors of the Na-Dene peoples. They lived in Alaska and western Canada, but some migrated as far south as the Pacific Northwestern US and the American Southwest, and would be ancestors to the Dene, Apaches and Navajos.
  3. The third wave brought the ancestors of the Innu/Inuit and the Aleuts. They may have come by sea over the Bering Strait, after the land bridge had disappeared.

In recent years, molecular genetics studies have suggested as many as four distinct migrations from Asia. These studies also provide surprising evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous migrations from Europe, possibly by peoples who had adopted a lifestyle resembling that of Inuits and Yupiks during the last ice age.

One result of these successive waves of migration is that large groups of First Peoples of the Americas have similar languages and perhaps physical characteristics as well, they moved into various geographic areas of North, and then Central and South America. While First Peoples of the Americas have traditionally remained primarily loyal to their individual tribes, ethnologists have variously sought to group the myriad of tribes into larger entities which reflect common geographic origins, linguistic similarities, and life styles.

While many First Peoples retained a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle through the time of European occupation of the New World, in some regions, specifically in the Mississippi River valley of the United States, in Mexico, Central America, the Andes of South America, they built advanced civilizations with monumental architecture and large-scale organization into cities and states. Some of these cities and civilizations were greater and more advanced than those civilizations in Europe at that time in the early 1500’s.

The concept of migration through an ice bridge justified scientific explanation for First Peoples having Mongolian and Siberian ancestry, this theory was taught within the schools as the only valid, realistic and provable theory regarding migration. Yet the theory has some holes within in it, how does it explain the origins and genetic traits of other races not just Siberian and Mongolian.

Some other thoughts regarding the Bering Strait Theory have been discussed by Aboriginal Academics such as Deloria. In 1995, Deloria disputed the Beringia theory based upon his hypothesis that the ocean's water levels had to drop sixty metres in order to fully expose a land bridge. He believes that this was impossible and that the climate would have been uninhabitable for humans due to the glacial landscape. Ultimately, if Deloria is correct in his evaluation of the Beringia environment, humans must have come by a different route to the Americas. Instead, trans-oceanic migrations could have lead Asian, Australian, or Siberian peoples to any point along the coastlines of the Americas. Therefore, post-glacial migration on the Americas could have moved north and east. Although the theory of human trans-oceanic migration is disputed, archaeologist Knut Fladmark believes humans have had the skills to travel by sea for 30,000 years. He also maintains that migration continued by sea after the landmass of Beringia was flooded. Although, some anthropologists believe that humans did not have the skill or the technology for deep-sea voyages, Fladmark argues that cross-Pacific migrations are viable because of a sea current that follows a path from Japan to the North American coastline. Another possible migration route is to travel by both land and sea along the coastlines of Beringia. This is supported by the theory that the main food sources for migrating peoples came from both land and sea.

Other ideas have been rediscovered, some with growing acceptance, as to the ultimate origin of Native Americans:

  • Most Native American religions teach that humans were created in America at the beginning of time and have continuously occupied the area.
  • In the 19th century and early 20th century, proponents of the existence of lost continents such as Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria used these to explain how humans could have reached the Americas.
  • Some Christians believed that the first peoples of the Americas were in fact the “Lost Tribe of Israel” or that the Americas were in fact the lost Garden of Eden.

Questions to consider regarding your reading:

I. Why/ why not does the Bering Strait adequately explain the arrival of the First Peoples to North America?

II. What are some of the scientific certainties or speculations regarding the Bering Strait Theory?

III. What other theories are presented within the reading?

IV. What method would prove with certainty that the Bering Strait Land bridge existed and was used?