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ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH on the banks of a western Idaho river gives evidence that the first North Americans arrived around 16,000 years ago, three millennia earlier than previously thought. This reassessment of migration across the ancient Bering land bridge suggests more than an earlier arrival. It also suggests that the earliest Native Americans migrated inland by water routes, not overland.

The reason for this is palaeogeographic: It was around 14,800 years ago that a receding Ice Age gave an ice-free corridor away from the coasts.

Here are tidbits from “First People in the Americas Came by Sea, Ancient Tools Unearthed by Idaho River Suggest,” by Lizzie Wade in Science, August 29, 2019.

Our Most Recent Ice Age. There have been at least five major ice ages in Earth’s history. The most recent one is the Quaternary glaciation. According to Wikipedia, this alternating series of glacial and interglacial periods began 2.58 million years ago and is on-going. That is, since Earth still has ice sheets, geologists say we’re living in an interglacial period.

Around 14,000 years ago, a glacial period of the Quaternary gouged out North America’s Great Lakes. It also covered what is now Canada.

An Ancient Site in Western Idaho. AAAS Science’s Lizzie Wade writes, “About 16,000 years ago, on the banks of a river in western Idaho, people kindled fires, shaped stone blades and spearpoints, and butchered large mammals.”

Ancient people apparently followed rivers inland from the Pacific coast into western Idaho. Image by Loren Davis from Science, August 29, 2019.

This ancient site is now Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, where ten years of archeological research has uncovered “dozens of stone spear points, blades, and multipurpose tools called bifaces, as well as hundreds of pieces of debris from their manufacture.”

A 2.4-in. blade is among the oldest unearthed at the Idaho site. Image by Loren Davis et al. from Science, August 29, 2019.

“Although the site is near the Salmon River,” Wade notes, “most of the ancient bones belonged to mammals, including extinct horses.”

Getting There—by Rivers. Loren Davis is the archeologist at Oregon State University who led the Cooper’s Ferry excavations. He suggests, “As people come down the coast, the first left-hand turn to get south of the ice comes up the Columbia River Basin. It’s the first off-ramp.”

It’s an inland trek of more than 300 miles, but the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon Rivers lead to Cooper’s Ferry.

The Village of Nipéhe. The Niimíipuu, the Nez Perce Native Americans, are familiar with this. As Wade recounts, “They know Cooper’s Ferry as Nipéhe, an ancient village founded by a young couple after a flood destroyed their previous home, says Nakia Williamson, the tribe’s director of cultural resources.”

Image by Donald Healy.

Williamson says, “This is not just something that happened 16,000 years ago. It’s something that is still important to us today. Our stories already tell us how long we’ve been here…. this only reaffirms that.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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