Bering Land Bridge: Evidence & Migration

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

During the last ice age, the Bering Land Bridge connected Siberia and Alaska. People were able to migrate from Siberia to North America across this land bridge. In this lesson, learn about this migration and the evidence for what happened when people first came to the Americas.

What was the Bering Land Bridge?

15,000 years ago in Northern Siberia, you could look toward Alaska and see nothing but dry land in every direction. You could walk from one continent to another and not even notice. In fact, many people did. Around this time, it is believed the first people crossed from Siberia into North America over dry land. The descendants of those first Americans would eventually spread out over two entire continents. How was this possible?

Between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago, the climate of the Earth was very different from today. During the peak of this ice age, global temperatures were lower and a lot more of the world's water was locked up in massive icy glaciers. Because there was less water in the oceans, coastlines throughout the world looked quite different from the way they look today, and many places that people and animals once lived are now under water.

Today, Alaska and Sibera are separated by the Bering Sea
Bering Sea

One such place is the Bering Land Bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. For thousands of years, the shallow Bering Sea has separated Asia and North America, but long ago, it was different. During the last ice age, the Bering Sea was not there. Instead, the regions we now know as Siberia and Alaska were connected by dry land. It is likely that people lived there for thousands of years, eventually crossing from Siberia into North America, where they would go on to populate two continents!

During the last ice age, Siberia and Alaska were connected by an area of dry land known as the Bering Land Bridge
bering land bridge

The First Americans

In the 1930s, scientists began to find evidence that people first entered the Americas through the Bering Land Bridge before spreading east and south to populate the rest of the continent, although this idea was not accepted by all scientists right away. Today, genetic evidence suggests that all of the indigenous people of North and South America descended from people living on the Bering Land Bridge. These people of Beringia were separated from northeast Siberia for a long enough time to develop genetic differences, which were passed onto Americans.

The people who crossed the Bering land bridge to North America passed on genes to the Inuit people who still live in Northern Alaska and Canada
inuit family

Core samples taken from the land that once was part of the Bering Land Bridge show that during this time, a wide variety of plants grew over this area. Fossils of large mammals dating to the time of the ice age have also been found on the Aleutian Islands in the middle of the modern day Bering Sea. All this evidence indicates that, even though it was cold, conditions were good enough for people to have lived on the land bridge itself during the ice age.

Siberia to Beringia

The most recent evidence seems to indicate that people first crossed from Siberia onto the Bering Land Bridge, also called Beringia, about 30,000 years ago. At some point after that, the climate became even colder and much of the land in northeastern Siberia became inhospitable. However, conditions were better on parts of the land bridge and people were able to survive there, although they were cut off from the rest of the world for thousands of years.

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