Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

History

History & Culture

Ellis Island is a famous former Port of Entry to the United States, a place most Americans can picture in their minds; seeing ships as they sailed under the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor. Imagining the immigration of people on foot coming into America over the Bering Land Bridge requires a bit more imagination and study. Over 10,000 years ago people crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America not to follow their dreams but to survive. They followed herds of large mammals, many of them now extinct, to hunt them for food and shelter, expanding their civilization into a new land. The people and the land are intertwined, including the people today who make it their passion to discover the history of America's earliest immigrants.

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is a small remnant of the land bridge, also known as Beringia, protected for the study of these past cultures and to support the traditional lifestyles its residents present and future.

"Nothing changes more constantly than the past; for the past that influences our lives does not consist of what actually happened, but of what men believe happened."

Gerald White Johnson
American author

Woolly Mammoth

No creature more typifies or symbolizes the Pleistocene ice-age than the woolly mammoth. As its namesake suggests, this creature truly was an animal of mammoth proportions among the beasts to walk on the ice-age steppe. The creature holds so much fame and notoriety that paleontologists have even named an entire mammalian ecosystem after it: the mammoth steppe, i.e. the productive grasslands that swept across much of the northern latitudes of Pleistocene North America, Asia, and Europe.

Though woolly mammoth remains account for only about five percent of the fossil record from ice-age Alaska, it is known that the creature constituted over a third of the ecosystem's biomass with respect to mammals (Matheus, pp. 55). This was partly due to its sheer size and to the fact that it was one of the most common animals to be found on the ice-age steppe of Alaska.

The woolly mammoth, scientific name Mammuthus primigenius, is related to the modern African and Asian elephants. All three in fact, belonging to the subfamily of Elephantinae, are believed to have originated from Africa from a common ancestor who has been named Primelephas gomphotheroides (Noro, pp. 314).

Recently however a joint scientific venture involving scientists from Hokkaido University in Japan and the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, analyzed Ribosomal RNA gene sequences in all three species. Results of the study showed that the woolly mammoth is actually more closely related to the African elephant than to the Asian elephant (Noro, pp. 314).

The ice-age woolly mammoth, in contrast to its present day African and Asian cousins, was strictly an herbivorous grazer as it could no doubt be found consuming bunches upon bunches of grass and vegetation (Matheus, pp. 55). With tusks weighing next to 200 pounds, each of which measuring well over twelve feet in length (Matheus, pp. 55), the woolly mammoth was as important a species in ice-age Alaska as any.

Looking very much like a short elephant with a shaggy coat of insulating hair, the woolly mammoth had droopy hindquarters that eventually culminated to a domed shaped skull topped with a tuft of hair (Matheus, pp. 57). While its back end had a tiny hairy tail, - there would be no reason to have a long tail in such a cold climate as ice-age Alaska - its front end sported a bifurcated trunk that was split at the tip. Like the thumb and fingers of your hand, the trunk would easily grab the clumps of vegetation that could be found underfoot. Some postulate that the mammoth may have also used this very same technique to put snow in its mouth for water (Matheus, pp. 57).

Both sexes carried a pair of ivory tusks which among other things, were used to display status and fitness. As has been observed amongst the behaviors of modern elephants, woolly mammoths are also believed to have engaged in heated physical battles often leading to fatal injuries. Evidence for this may in fact be shown in the fossil record seeing as how many fossilized mammoth tusks have been found broken, shattered, or worn (Matheus, pp. 57) though this is by no means any direct proof of such behavior.

Much of the attention and notoriety that the woolly mammoth has garnered in recent years has come from archaeological findings of mammoth remains, particularly mummified remains. Many cases of mummified mammoth remains have taken place in Alaska and Russia. Mammoth mummies form when a specimen becomes buried by sediments relatively quickly following its death. At the same time, a rise in the permafrost table has to take place, at which point the carcass would freeze while suspended in a more or less preserved state on account of the sediments (Matheus, pp. 58).

What results in turn, is the mummification. Over the course of millennia, the dry frozen soil sucks moisture out of the carcass, a process that University of Alaska at Fairbanks paleontology student Paul E. Matheus says is analogous to freezer burned meat. "Just imagine what an unwrapped moose steak would look like after being left in a freezer for 30,000 years (Matheus, pp. 58)." What you get ultimately, is a naturally mummified mammoth that is almost completely intact, save for the fact that it would be gnarled and deflated from eons of time under the frozen Earth.

Many of the things which we now know about wooly mammoths would be nonexistent if this natural mummification process were not to have taken place. That is how the mammoth's hand-like trunk and toupee-like tuft at the top of its head were discovered. Mummies from about ten other species of Pleistocene mammals have been discovered in Alaska including steppe bison, caribou, muskoxen, moose, voles, horses, lynx, hares, pikas, and ground squirrels.

-Information found within this piece was accrued from research from the following publication(s):

Matheus, Paul E. "Pleistocene Mammals." Alaska Geographic. 1994: 21

Noro, Miyuki et. al. "Molecular Phylogenetic Inference of the Woolly Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius, Based on Complete Sequences of Mitochondrial Cytochrome b and 12S Ribosomal RNA Genes." Journal of Molecular Evolution 23 July 1998: 46.

 

Other Migration Theories

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is perched upon the northern most reaches of the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska. It is by all accounts, one of the most remote and isolated wilderness areas on the face of the Earth and one of the least visited of the National Park units in the nation.

Despite all of this, it could be argued that the meaning and the purpose behind the Preserve's establishment represents one of the most important notions with regard to America's identity and its myriad of present-day cultures.

As the Preserve's namesake suggests, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve not only commemorates a physical remnant of what once was the Bering Land Bridge but it also preserves the culture, history, and the lifestyle of the humans that crossed the land bridge thousands of years ago; the people who would ultimately populate the North and South American continents and become the "first Americans."

Over the last half-century, archaeologists concurred more or less that those "first Americans" indeed did migrate over to North America from Asia more than fourteen to twenty thousand years ago via an overland route across the Bering Land Bridge.

The evidence for this long-held theory spawned from the discovery of spear points that were found near Clovis, New Mexico. Based on what was thought to have been solid carbon dating of these spear points to over 13,500 years ago, these findings were considered among many archaeological circles to be direct proof of this near twenty thousand year-old overland migration (Parfit, pp. 48).

However, the present discourse surrounding the story of the "first Americans" has come into a new light in very recent years; one the likes of which will no doubt challenge long held theories and replace them with shockingly new and exciting ones.

With these new theories, the question regarding the story of the "first Americans" needs to be asked again: i.e., if those proverbial "first Americans" didn't populate the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge, who were they, where did they come from and when, and how did they get here?

One archaeological discovery which took place relatively recently in 1997, had a panel of blue-ribbon archaeologists visiting the site of Monte Verde in Chile. The panel was unanimous in their opinion that the archaeological materials they found dated to around 14,500 years ago (Parfit, pp. 48). This effectively shattered the initial theory of the Clovis people being the first actual group of humans to settle in the new world.

The Monte Verde discovery holds that humans not only came to the Americas more than 1,000 years earlier than once thought but that they also were able to settle as far south as Chile in South America. Many archaeologists however, have expressed strong dissent with the findings at Monte Verde and needless to say, the true story of the "first Americans" remains a hotly contested issue.

Nonetheless, the Monte Verde findings bring up some interesting questions. Namely this: if humans settled in the Americas much earlier than previously thought and at such a southerly location as Chile, is it possible that these humans may have come to the new world via a different route?

One radical theory posited by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian and archeologist Bruce Bradley claims that it is possible that the first Americans didn't cross the Bering Land Bridge at all and didn't travel by foot but by boat, across the Atlantic.

Though the evidence for this theory is meager, Stanford and Bradley argue that the artifacts that were developed by an earlier and still more ancient European culture; the Solutrean, bares an uncanny resemblance to that of the Clovis tools found in the United States. All in all, this very well could suggest that humans may have entered America from the east via a route that has been dubbed the Atlantic Maritime route (Parfit, pp. 61).

Still another theory of an alternate route for the "first Americans" delves into the area of modern day cultural studies. Many in the field of modern cultural anthropology and linguistics claim that there exists a striking resemblance between the cultures of Australia, Southeast Asia, and South America. This ultimately suggests that perhaps a pan-Pacific journey brought the "first Americans" to our shores.

Supporting this theory is the "Kennewick Man"; skeletal remains of a 9,500 year old individual who was found as far North as Washington State. Some physical anthropologists argue that "Kennewick Man's" remains bear striking resemblance to the facial features of modern Ainu peoples of Japan. This ultimately lends some credence to the case of a pan-Pacific journey to the Americas (Parfit, pp. 65).

Anyway you look at it, the search for the "first Americans" represents a puzzle that as of yet is no where near being solved. The present discourse regarding the hunt for the "first Americans" will always be subject to interpretation and there aren't necessarily any right or wrong answers. Ironically then, uncertainty appears to be the only certain factor in this hunt.

What is Beringia?

About 12,000 calendar years ago, during the Last Ice Age, the water level of the oceans were lower, exposing land that today is under the Bering and Chukchi Seas. During the glacial epoch this was part of a migration route for people, animals, and plants. Most archeologists agree that it was across this Bering Land Bridge, also called Beringia, that humans first passed from Asia to populate the Americas. The Preserve's western boundary lies 42 miles from the Bering Strait and the fishing boundary between the United States and Russia.

Beringia still exists today in the people of Northwest Alaska and the Russian Far East. Though they are separated by water the people of these two areas have common language, traditions and depend on the same environment.

Collections

The museum collection of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve contains a range of natural history specimens and cultural artifacts representing several disciplines and specialties such as biology, geology, paleontology, archeology, ethnology, history and archives.

Although referred to as a "museum collection," a more accurate description would be "research collection," as the vast majority of the cataloged objects are specimens resulting from scientific studies. The archives are largely administrative records.

As of 2005, items in the collection include -

Archeological artifacts: 41,909

Ethnographic items: 25

Historical items: 57

Archival items: 2,086

Biological specimens: 13861

Paleontological specimens: 7

Geological specimens: 38

Total items: 57,983

Ice Age Wildlife

Bering Land Bridge National Preserve stands as a conserved remnant of what once was the Bering Land Bridge and what is now today a protected ecosystem complete with a diverse collection of animal species including brown bears, muskoxen, caribou, and moose. While most of these present-day animals were relative newcomers to North America , some are actual vestiges of a more ancient land when a very different variety of creatures roamed the tundra.

A large sample of these ancient animals can be grouped into a category known as the ice-age Mammoth Fauna; creatures that thrived during the Pleistocene epoch thousands of years ago. The most famous of which is the woolly mammoth. What did these animals look like and how were they able to adapt to an ice-age environment? What follows is a brief foray into the story of these ice-age creatures as well as a description of some of their adaptations.

The Wisconsinan glaciation, which took place between about 100,000 years ago to around 10,000 years ago, is the general period in which most ice-age fossils are found. At that time, much of the northern and interior reaches of Alaska and all of the land which constituted Beringia (the land mass that connected present day Asia and North America) was an ice-free steppe (Matheus, pp.55).

This steppe, aptly named the mammoth-steppe likely contained a rather productive grassland which was very accommodating to ice-age grazers like the woolly mammoth. Sporting over 12-foot-long tusks that weighed next to 200 lbs., the woolly mammoth resembled the modern elephant (Matheus, pp. 55). 

As opposed to having an exposed hide as does today’s modern elephant however, the woolly mammoth was covered in a shaggy coat of warm insulating hair complete with a tuft at the top of the head. Unlike modern elephants, the woolly mammoth was exclusively a grazer, roaming the steppe in large herds as it grasped with ease the vegetation underfoot. The woolly mammoth did this using a bifurcated end of its trunk much in the same fashion as your hand with an opposable thumb can grab something (Matheus, pp. 57).

One creature whom you would no doubt come across when embarking on a safari of the ice-age Alaskan steppe is the steppe bison. Similar in several ways to the modern prairie bison that roam the plains of North America today, the steppe bison differed in its foraging behavior. This is a simple result of the varying vegetative patterns between modern day North America and that of the ice-age steppe (Matheus, pp.59).

Ultimately, the steppe bison didn’t need to adapt to be long-range migratory foragers when it came to finding food, as the modern day bison of North America are. The steppe bison moved about in short distances and in smaller groups as they searched for the intermittent yet more or less year round supply of vegetation they could find (as opposed to wide open plains covered with large yet seasonal tracks of grasses that the plains bison feed on today) (Matheus, pp. 59).

A third major Pleistocene animal on the mammoth-steppe would be the ice-age horse. After bison, horses were the second most commonly occurring mammal in ice-age Alaska . During the late Pleistocene, when fossils are most abundant, evidence points to two species of horse existing on the ice-age steppe. One was a type of miniature horse and the other was slightly larger, similar in appearance to the wild Asian ass of the modern day (Matheus, pp. 62).

Horses had grazing strategies that made the ice-age steppe a perfect habitat for them. As a result of the fact that the horse had a single stomach, their diets allowed for them to settle for rather low-quality vegetation (which was often common fare on the ice-age steppe); they just needed to eat a lot of it (Matheus, pp. 62). 

In contrast, the steppe bison were ruminants (animals with multi-chambered stomachs) and as such, they didn’t need to eat as much food but they simply needed to incorporate higher quality plants into their diets. This curious quantity/quality dynamic amongst the diets of the ice-age horse and the steppe bison ensured that the two species could more or less co-exist peaceably without any substantial food competition between the two of them (Matheus, pp. 63).

After discussing the ice-age grazers, what is there to be said about the ice-age carnivores? For one thing, the diversity of herbivorous grazers on the steppe meant more meat for the predators. Steppe lions could probably be found stalking bison in the hills while saber-toothed cats could be found in ravines and brush aimed at taking down larger pray. On the flats and the plateaus of the steppe, the cheetah’s quick bursts of speed allowed them to predate on the horses (Matheus, pp. 67). 

One monster carnivore, the giant short-faced bear, likely out-competed any of the other carnivores for food. They were twice the size of a modern-day grizzly and they were strong enough to be able to crack open and eat the innards of bones. Why however, do so many of these ice-age predatory beasts become absent as we approach modern times? Much of it has to do with the fact that meat-eaters, unlike the grazers had very specialized diets (Matheus, pp. 68). 

As the numbers of herbivores shrunk throughout the late Pleistocene, the meat-eaters lost food source after food source. To add to this, many of the predators that you would find on the ice-age steppe of Alaska wouldn’t have been “behaviorally wired (Matheus, pp. 68)” to adapt to an herbivorous or omnivorous lifestyle mainly as the result of a relatively small brain as is the case with the saber-toothed cat.

There is a relatively abundant collection of herbivores in Alaska today like muskoxen, moose, and caribou to name a few but, in terms of their predators, the list is shorter. Lynx, wolves, and both brown and black bears are some of the big examples of the modern day predators that you’ll find up in Alaska today.

The brown and black bears of Alaska and North America are perfect examples of predators that were able to adapt and survive. Why? They have adapted their diets to accommodate plants and berries in the months with sparse prey; i.e., the winter months (not to mention the fact that hibernation plays a major role as well). It is as simple as that. All in all, whether you’re in ice-age

Alaska

or in present-day

Alaska

, the name of the game is adaptation first and foremost.



 

-Information found within this piece was accrued from research from the following publication(s):

Matheus, Paul E. “Pleistocene Mammals.”

Alaska Geographic. 1994: 21