Man’s first marks on the continent

Man’s first marks on the continent

History books generally start the story of America with the arrival of the first Europeans in the New World, and pay little attention to the preceding 30,000 years when earlier conquistadors (in the Ice Age) first discovered and settled our continent, amidst adventures that archaeology helps us imagine.

The enigma as to the origin of American man is one of the most stimulating chapters in scientific research. Archaeologists have argued at length over the arrival of groups of humans in the New World, and their discoveries change from one day to the next as a result of new research that is being done all over the continent, although many questions still remain unanswered. When and how did the first settlers arrive on the continent of America, and where did they come from?

It has been known since the early 19th century, for example, that our continent was settled from outside - from the Old World, that is. By the middle of the twentieth century, archaeology had become a scientific discipline and it had become possible for large quantities of information to be gathered together, which led archaeologists to the conclusion that America had been settled by various waves of immigrants long before the Spaniards arrived. But every true fact raises yet more questions. Did those humans walk from Asia across the Bering Strait? Did they sail canoes up the North Pacific coast via the Aleutian Islands? Did they come from Europe? Or did they sail right across the Pacific from the Far East? Or perhaps from Polynesia via Antarctica?

It is an exciting story, one we can piece together using the minor indications that archaeologists painstakingly unveil when they dig up buried remains, for there are no written documents dating back to such ancient times.

As a result of the most recent scientific work and archaeological discoveries, part of that enigma relating to the origin of American man can today be documented. We know that America was settled from outside, by human beings of the species Homo sapiens sapiens whose bodies and minds were already developed to the same extent as ours are today and whose instruments enabled them to face up to every type of environment. This happened at an extremely recent time, if we consider that mankind had a single origin in some remote part of Africa around four million years ago.

Archaeologists are almost unanimously agreed that the first Americans came from northern Asia and entered the New World by crossing the Bering Strait. The continent's first settlers could have arrived around 20,000 years ago, or perhaps a little more than that, since groups of humans are believed to have crossed over on several occasions during the final phase of the so-called Ice Age.

Men in those days - based on remains found in Siberia, in northern Asia - were hunters of large prey such as reindeer, bison, horses and woolly mammoths, but they also ate molluscs, plants, birds and other smaller mammals like rabbits, antelopes and deer. They must have arrived here by accident, as they pursued animals they depended on for their livelihood. At certain times during the Ice Age, in fact, Asia and America were not separated: the sea level fell and the seabed was taken up by plants and animals, and by those early hunters who were later to become the first Americans.

It was through Beringia, on land that is today submerged under the Bering Strait, that people with different customs and tools passed on various occasions; this explains why our continent has enjoyed great diversity ever since the very dawn of its history. Those people were in no hurry to get to our country - they simply discovered new land to live on, new environments to experience. The settlers gradually moved from one inhabited region to another, increasing in size and cultural diversity. And after many generations, some of them reached what is today Colombia.