While Christopher Columbus may have been the first European to discover the Americas, he was not the first to step foot on the continent. When he arrived, he found that American Indians already inhabited the continent, but how did these indigenous peoples get here? Although the date of the first peopling of the Americas remains in question, most archeologists agree that the first humans arrived to the continent by crossing the Bering Land Bridge. Evidence confirms this migration, and despite being underwater now, the Bering Strait or Beringia continues to hold valuable resources possibly dating from more than 40,000 years ago. Today, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve protects and interprets the cultural and natural resources that chronicle the history of America’s first immigrants.
Spanning approximately 55 miles between Siberia and Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, the site of the Bering Strait was not always beneath the sea. During the Pleistocene Ice Ages, humans could make the trip between present day Russia and Alaska entirely on foot. Estimated to have formed when the sea level fell 300 feet during the Wisconsinan Glaciation, the landmass that linked the Americas to Asia was approximately 1,000 miles wide. The Wisconsinan glacial period ended roughly 10,000 years ago. Some archeologists believe that since the Pleistocene Ice Age began 1.6 million years ago, it is possible that humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge at different intervals between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago. Since the sea level has risen one foot per century for the past 10,000 years, archeological remains that would prove this hypothesis true are currently under water.
Archeologists have discovered artifacts that provide evidence of human activity in North and South America dating roughly 12,000 years ago. Although dates still are a question for debate, artifacts found throughout Bering Land Bridge National Preserve offer important insights about the different cultures that peopled America at this time. Believed to have originated in Africa, early humans began to migrate northward after the discovery of fire. With the ability to stay warm in the colder regions, people began to move toward the Mediterranean Sea, and eventually, as these cultures began developing insulated shelters and wearing warmer clothing, they crossed over to the arctic coast in the Americas.
These first Americans survived by practicing subsistence living, a way of life that continues among Native Alaskans today. Although known for its glaciers and below zero temperatures, Alaska has grasslands and a large population of terrestrial and marine life. Like the humans who crossed the Beringia, animals and plants also moved between the continents during and after the continental Glaciation period. Prehistoric Alaskans and their modern day descendants have sustained their families by whaling, hunting walruses, muskoxen, lemmings, and other marine mammals, and by ice fishing, which was often reserved for women, elders, and children. The Inupiat Eskimos of the Seward Peninsula continue to hunt bowhead whales, and the walrus still sustains the Native Alaskans of the Diomedes and St. Lawrence islands.
Although the subsistence lifestyle remains, the present-day Inupiat who follow ancient traditions use modern tools. Like their ancestors, the modern Inupiat hunt whales with harpoons, but they also carry rifles with them when they hunt. Alaskans still navigate the arctic waters in sealskin-covered kayaks, otherwise known as umiaks, and use dog sleds to move across the tundra. Despite the influence of some modern technologies, the Eskimos of the Beringia coast practice ancient beliefs, which include spiritual respect for the animals of the land and sea and the old tradition of sharing and distributing food with neighboring communities.
At Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, visitors can participate in a number of outdoor activities independently or with park rangers. Bird watching, fishing, camping at the bunkhouse, bathing in the Serpentine Hot Springs, and hiking the granite tors that surround the springs are popular. Visitors are welcome to photograph the wildlife and plant life while they participate in the park’s nature observation activities. During the winter, people can tour the preserve on snowmobiles, dog sleds, and by cross-country skiing. Exploring the remains of the Gold Rush Era and the preserve's archeological sites provide opportunities to learn about the history of the area and the earliest Americans.
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is in one of the most remote areas of Alaska. Information about the history of the preserve, the story of the peopling of the Americas, and the culture of the Native Alaskans is available at the National Park Service visitor center in Nome, Alaska. The visitor center offers a wide range of inter-active displays, films, and exhibits on the history and culture of the Bering Strait and Nome, Alaska. The Nome Alaska Visitor’s Center website provides information on what to see and do and why there is "No Place Like Nome."
Bering Land Bridge National Monument, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located in Alaska. The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve Visitor Center is on the first floor of the Sitnasauk Building on Front St. in Nome, AK. The visitor center is open daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm and closed on all federal holidays. Access to the actual preserve is limited; it can only be accessed by plane, small boat, on foot and in the winter, by dog sled. The preserve is open year-round. There is no admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Bering Land Bridge National Preserve website or call 907-443-2522.