How Southeast Alaska is Essential for the Peopling of the Americas

During the Our Submerged Past: Exploring Inundated Late Pleistocene (10,600 - 17,000 years ago) Caves in Southeast Alaska with Sunfish expedition, the team searched for submerged entrances to ancient caves and rock shelters that would have been accessible to early inhabitants of the region. The discoveries and results of the expedition have the potential to help scientists answer an outstanding question in archaeology: how and when people migrated to the Americas. The outcomes also have the effect of validating the oral history of local indigenous tribes’ oral history of occupancy of the region.

The question of how and when people settled the American continent can be viewed in stages. These stages include when people began populating 1) the larger, now partially submerged, Beringian Continent; 2) Alaska; or, 3) south of the continental glaciers (i.e., the mainland United States). Exactly when people arrive in Southeast Alaska is not often part of the question, as Southeast Alaska is simply thought of as the route to access areas south of the glaciers.

People move and explore. At various times in the past, people could have taken many different routes to travel to the Americas (Figure 1). They could have taken a trans-Atlantic route, like later European settlers did; or followed a trans-Pacific route like that of Polynesians; or, moved along the ice-free inner continental corridor. They may have traveled along the ice margin of the North Atlantic, crossing the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic like the modern Inuit, or traversed the North Pacific Coast or Kelp Highway. The overarching question for the first people in the Americas focuses on which was the first route taken. New research continues to illuminate the possible answer.

Figure 1: These are five potential routes people may have used to reach the North American continent.
Figure 1: These are five potential routes people may have used to reach the North American continent. (Created by Dr. Monteleone, based on a similar map presented by E. James Dixon) Download largest version (jpg, 375 KB).

Currently, the coastal migration hypothesis, or Kelp Highway, is the widely accepted route that people used to migrate along to the Americas. The Kelp Highway is an ecological zone stretching from the Kuril Islands of northern Japan to the Channel Islands in California. The ecozone contains similar resources for humans to utilize or harvest. The resource zone helps support the coastal migration hypothesis from northeast Asia to the Americas, where people could have used similar technologies and traditional knowledge to hunt, gather, and thrive as they slowly migrated along the coastline.

One misconception is that people were intentionally “walking” from northeast Asia to the Americas as the glaciers retreated from the last ice age. As populations migrated along the coasts, people lived their lives in semi-sedentary communities, and these communities moved as resources and the environment changed or any internal or external conflict emerged. The migration to the Americas consisted of thousands of small, punctuated moves, which took place over hundreds or thousands of years, to better living and harvesting locations. People likely remained in the regions where others passed through. When theorizing about the peopling of the Americas, the story of how and when people migrated to the Americas includes how and when people settled in Southeast Alaska.

The resources below will help you learn more about the early evidence of people in Southeast Alaska:

By Dr. Kelly Monteleone, Our Submerged Past Co-Principal Investigator, University of Calgary
Published August 22, 2023