settlement of the Americas

It’s believed that humans first arrived in the Ame­r­i­c­as approximately 20,000 years ago, having come across from northern Asia over the Bering land bridge that emerged during the Late Glacial Maximum between about 26,000 and 19,000 years ago. In September 2021, it was reported that some ancient fossilised footprints had been discovered in New Mexico, which could be dated back to between 22,860 and 21,130 years ago.

From that northwesternmost part of North America, humans spread through the Ame­r­i­c­as relatively quickly. It’s believed that they’d settled throughout North America by 16,000 years ago, and reached the southernmost tip of South America by about 14,000 years ago.

There is a proposal that the Yeniseian languages of Siberia and the Na-Dené languages of North America can be grouped together under a common macrofamily. It seems like on the whole, linguists regard this connection as more likely than not, but it’s not yet settled science. However, there is also DNA evidence to support this theory: a genetic marker that is very common among Yeniseian people and uncommon among other north Asian people is practically universal among Amerindian people.

Another theory for how humans got to the Ame­r­i­c­as is that of a coastal migration along the Pacific coast. It’s hard for experts to gather supporting evidence for this theory because the coastline in question, along which there presumably would be archaeological evidence of settlements, has been submerged by seawater as sea levels have risen since the end of the LGM.

One of the earliest Paleoamerican cultures that we know about is the Clovis culture, which existed in the vicinity of what’s now New Mexico c. 13,500 years ago. Experts used to think that this was the first culture in the Ame­r­i­c­as, and that all the others were from descendents who had dispersed thr­ough the continents (this being the Clovis-first hypothesis), but the further discovery and dating of earlier sites (like Monte Verde in Chile, which dates back at least 14,500 and maybe up to 18,500 years ago, and a range of sites in US states like South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wash­ing­ton and Oregon which date back ~15,000 years) means that it’s now believed the Clovis culture was just one of numerous early civilisations.

Some believe that there might have been two separate migrations to the Ame­r­i­c­as – an initial one 40,000 years ago, and the one we’re much more sure of 20,000 years later, which significantly bolstered the numbers of those first settlers. There is some evidence for this, although the evidence isn’t unambiguously of human settlement. For example, charcoal deposits at Pedra Furada in Piauí, Brazil have been dated back pretty reliably to between 48,000–32,000 years ago, but there is disagreement as to whether they’re actually left over from human-made fires or just natural wildfires. There are also some ancient stone pieces dating back to a similar time which some argue are evidence of prehistoric human tools, but others argue may have been made by monkeys (capuchin monkeys are known to make similarly crude stone tools), or even just be the result of rocks that fell from great heights and cracked open along sharp lines. There is unambiguous evidence of human settlement at Pedra Furada dating back to 12,000 years ago, however.