What is Beringia?
Ten to twenty-five thousand years ago, during the period known as the Pleistocene Ice Age, glaciers up to two miles thick covered large parts of North America, Europe, and Asia and much of the earth's water was locked up in the glaciers. The sea level dropped significantly - up to 300 feet - and some areas that are now under water became dry land. The result was a land bridge connecting the continents of Asia and North America in the present day Bering Strait area and extending into the Bering and Chukchi seas. The bridge formed a flat, grassy treeless plain that was not a narrow isthmus, but the stocky shoulders of two continents stretching one thousand miles from north to south. Scientists believe that Beringia was at its widest point about 21,000 years ago.
When the earth went into its climate warming cycle, the glaciers began to melt. The melt waters raised the level of the world's oceans and submerged the land bridge connecting Asia and North America. Today the only remaining land visible from the central part of the Bering land bridge are the Diomede Islands, the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George, St. Lawrence Island, and King Island.
During the time of its existence, the land bridge played a vital role in the spread of plant and animal life between the continents. Many species of animals - the woolly mammoth, mastodon, scimitar cat, Arctic camel, brown bear, moose, muskox, and horse - to name a few - moved from one continent to the other across the Bering land bridge. Birds, fish, and marine mammals established migration patterns that continue to this day.
The people who became the first North Americans followed the earlier movements of land mammals and plants. Unlike later migrations from Europe to North America, these migrations were not conscious efforts to populate a new continent, but rather a simple pursuit of food and shelter - the basic necessities of life. Long after the land bridge was submerged, the peoples of Beringia remain united by language, tradition, and their environment.
This area provides an unparalleled opportunity for a comprehensive study of the earth and human history. Its unusually intact landforms and biological and cultural remains may reveal the character of past climates and histories and the ebb and flow of earth forces at the continents' edge. David Hopkins, the great Beringian scholar, wrote that, "The history of Beringia has long excited the interest of geologists, biogeographers, anthropologists - and even medical geographers, for the first men to colonize North America brought their diseases and parasites over the Bering Land Bridge with them." As one of the world's great ancient crossroads, Beringia may hold solutions to puzzles about who were the first people to populate North America, how and when they traveled, and how they survived under such harsh climatic conditions.