History of the Bering Land Bridge Theory

Map of eastern Russia and Alaska with an outline of Beringia.
Map of eastern Russian and Alaska with a light brown boarder depicting Beringia.

The continent of North America has been inhabited by humans for at least 16,500 years. As early as the 1500s, early settlers and European thinkers were interested in discovering how humans had come to populated North and South America. One theory suggested the migration of Norsemen across Greenland into North America. Another theory proposed the island of Atlantis as the origins of human life in the New World. Yet another idea proposed that the inhabitants had generated out of mud. However, by the early 1800s scientists and theorists began discussing the possibility of a land bridge that had spanned between Asia and North America thousands of years ago. The theory of a land bridge has fueled the imagination of explorers and scientists for centuries.

Early Theory of Fray Jose de Acosta

In 1590, the Spanish missionary Fray Jose de Acosta produced the first written record to suggest a land bridge connecting Asia to North America. The question of how people migrated to the New World was a topic widely debated among the thinkers and theorists of his time. Acosta rejected many of the theories proposed by his contemporaries. Instead, he believed that hunters from Asia had crossed into North America via a land bridge or narrow strait located far to the north. He thought the land bridge was still in existence during his lifetime.

The Bering and Cook Expeditions

During the eighteenth century, Peter the Great, the Russian Czar from 1682 to 1725, chartered an exploration of the eastern borders of the Russian Empire. He recruited the Danish explorer Vitus Bering to lead an expedition in the Bering Strait region. Before the expedition, maps of Siberia sometimes contained a large landmass across the water from the Chukchi Peninsula; however no definite account of travel through the strait had been recorded by the early seventeen hundreds.

The two voyages of Bering, the first in 1724 and the second in 1741, confirmed what many people living on the Chukchi Peninsula already knew. That there was land and even people across the water; people who had been trading and traveling across the Bering Strait for thousands of years. The second explorer to confirm the existence of present day Alaska was the Englishman, Captain James Cook. On his 1778 expedition he produced detailed maps of the Alaskan coast. The results of his exploration helped enlighten the outside world about the Bering Strait region. As news about Bering and Cook's travels reached Russia, Europe, and other parts of the world, theories of human migration between Asia and North America gained strength.

The Land Bridge Theory

The conformation of a strait between Asia and North America fueled an interest in the possibility of a wide plain that might have connected the two continents. Beginning in the early 1800s, American scientists and naturalists started investigating archeological sites on the east coast of the United States, slowly working their way towards the west coast. The findings of these forebearers to modern archaeology suggested that people hadn't originated in North America but had populated the continent from another place. However, from where and how had yet to be discovered. From about 1890 to 1925, research, discussion, and inquiry about the peopling of North America stalled because of inconclusive data. It wasn't until the mid-1920s that scientists would finally restart the search for evidence of how people came to North America.

David M. Hopkins

David M. Hopkins studied geology at the University of New Hampshire before accepting a position with the U.S. Geological Society in 1942. His first trip to Alaska planted a seed of fascination for the wild and beautiful landscape of the area. During his lifetime, Hopkins spent many of his summers on the Seward Peninsula often researching geology in the area that later became the preserve. He made several key contributions to the study of Beringia; he helped publish two books that contained papers written by researchers from a wide range of backgrounds and collaborated with many scientists and researchers to make groundbreaking discoveries about the Bering Land Bridge.

For years, scientists speculated about the different types of vegetation that might have been found on the land bridge. Some scientists believed the land bridge contained uniformed vegetation similar to the current arctic plain vegetation. Hopkins and several other scientists were convinced the land bridge had supported a more diverse vegetation, with plants growing in response to elevation variations and the amount of surface water. Hopkins worked with Mary Edwards, Claudia Hofle, and Victoria Goetcheus Wolf,
to confirm the age of plants frozen in a layer of ash from an eruption at Devil Mountain 18,000 years ago.The age of the plant matter found in the ash coincided with the last proposed opening of the land bridge. The ash covered a wide area of what would have been the middle of the land bridge (north to south) 18,000 years ago .The findings from their collaboration helped to confirm that the type of vegetation on the land bridge had been more diverse than originally thought.

Hopkins had a special ability to forge connections between scientists and researchers from many backgrounds. He linked research conducted by people across many different disciplines to strengthen the concept of the Bering Land Bridge Theory. Hopkins reached out to scientists and researchers studying the Chukotka Peninsula and brought their work to the attention of researchers and scientists studying the Seward Peninsula. He recognized the need for interdisciplinary study to understand the whole picture of Beringia. His passion for the Bering Land Bridge was instrumental in not only creating the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve but also in building interest in the Bering Land Bridge Theory.

Last updated: August 22, 2017

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