A Material Case for a Late Bering Strait Crossing Coincident with Pre-Columbian Trans-Pacific Crossings

by Jordan Paper


For several decades there has been a continuing debate among Americanists regarding trans-Pacific contacts prior to the European invasion of the Americas. Scholars have tended to split on the issue of diffusion and independent origination, interpreting the sparse and uncertain data according to these viewpoints. A few Chinese scholars have entered the controversy on the side of diffusion. Arguments have included maritime technology, oceanography, and botany, but, in the main, have focused on art decor and motifs. Presumed Asian sources for these motifs in Meso and South America have ranged from northern China, through Southeast Asia to India, with a time span ranging from 3500 B.P. (Before Present) to 1000 B.P. (see Jett 1983 for summary).

On reflection, certain points can be made with a fair degree of confidence (predominantly in accord with Needham & Lu 1985). First, it has been adequately demonstrated that the technology existed for humans to travel by sea from both Asia and the Mediterranean to the Americas for the last several thousand years. However, no civilization in the Americas contained a core complex that can be identified with East, South or West Asian, or Mediterranean civilizations. Rather, there is enough archeological evidence to suggest that civilizations originated in the Americas based on the independent discovery of agriculture, metallurgy, and so forth. Furthermore, there is sufficient commonality in ideology to identify a uniquely American core of religious understanding, one that relates in its underlying concepts and practices to those of East and Northeast Asia, suggesting a common paleolithic ur-structure. It is to be understood that the above points are controversial and part of an ongoing scholarly debate.

It is most probable that ships with living humans, either inadvertently or deliberately, reached the Americas from both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, given that they reached populated lands with their own well established cultures, influence would have been minimal at best. For example, it is certain that Japanese artifacts as well as shipwrecked Japanese fishermen were occasionally washed up on the shores of present-day British Columbia. Two-way travel, however, seems never to have been established; only the most imaginative of interpretations can find in either Chinese or Mediterranean texts references to such journeying.

Other probable trans-Pacific contacts have not been a major part of this debate. For example, given the pattern of Polynesian expansion, there is no reason to assume exploration stopped with Hawaii. If Polynesian ships did reach the American coasts, they came into contact with populated lands rather than the unpopulated islands of their previous experience. Hence, the crews of these ships are more likely to have been absorbed by the indigenous cultures, leading to the traditions fusing together. There are a number of diverse cultural correspondences between Polynesian culture and those of the northwest coast of North America, as well as possible genetic relationships between the respective populations.

Secondly, material artifacts are not the only source of data. It was demonstrated nearly seventy years ago that there are similar myths with quite specific details in early China and California (Erkes 1926), and Raven as a culture hero specifically related to the sun is a circum-Pacific mythic element from central China to northern California.

Last, as the dating for human migration across Bering Strait is pushed further and further back in time, there is a tendency to forget that such migration was not a single incident, but rather a continuing one. Until modem hostilities developed between the former Soviet Union and the United States, communication across the Strait was an ongoing process; it did not require a land bridge:

Similar cultural developments on both sides of Bering Strait suggest that the people had been moving back and forth across it for thousands of years. Indeed, human migration and interaction between Chukotka and Alaska probably have been more or less continuous ever since the straight was most recently formed, some 14,000 years ago. (Burch, Jr. 1988: 227)

It has long been accepted among scholars that proto-Athapaskan speaking people were the last Native Americans, excluding Polar peoples, to cross into the Americas. In this paper, it will be suggested that this migration took place within the time span covered by trans-Pacific contact studies, and a major Asian technical complex, the most advanced form of archery, among other cultural aspects was brought with them as far south as northern Mexico.