Bering Land Bridge: History, Definition & Facts

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over something known as the Bering Land Bridge. You'll learn where it's located, how it came to be, why it no longer exists and how it's important in human history.

Bering Land Bridge

How did the people who were to become Native Americans reach the Americas a very long time ago? One theory states that it was by crossing the Bering Land Bridge, an ancient terrestrial connection between what is now Asia (specifically Russia) and what is now North America (specifically the state of Alaska).

Let's find out more about the history of this theory and some additional interesting facts!

Early History

Let's go back to a time around 21,000 years ago. This was a very different time on Earth. What is now the great American Southwest was far wetter than it is now. What is the great American Northwest was way drier than we know it to be today. So you should have lived in Seattle about 21,000 years ago to avoid all that rain!

This was also a time during the Last Glacial Maximum. This was a period of Earth's history where global ice volume was at its peak and, at the same time, sea levels were at their lowest. How much lower? They were about 300-400 feet lower than today. This is because the amount of water on Earth is basically constant. So when ice forms, it 'sucks up' the Earth's water like a sponge into the ice-sheet and away from the body of water itself.

This, in turn, allows vast areas of land lying underneath shallow water to be exposed to the air. Such shallow areas of land are found in the Bering Strait, the waterway that today separates Alaska from Russia. As the global ice volumes increased long ago, the shallow and gradually sloping lands of the continental shelves underneath the waters of the Bering Strait were exposed to reveal a vast land bridge between the two continents. A continental shelf is an underwater landmass that borders and extends from a continent.

This land bridge formed an extensive and flat tundra, a type of environment found in cold regions, one that is devoid of trees and full of bare rock and low vegetation like mosses and shrubs. During its peaks, this land bridge was a lot wider than what we imagine a bridge to be today. While bridges we build are something like 50 or 100 feet wide, this land bridge was up to 1,000 miles wide! It was part of an ancient landmass called Beringia, which also included Alaska, parts of Canada, and Russia.

The Bering Land Bridge

Later History

As the ice melted over the ensuing millennia, the bridge obviously became narrower as more and more of it became submerged. But not before one species of animal (among others) apparently crossed it.

Exactly when humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into North America is a subject of great debate. The consensus seems to be roughly 13,000-20,000 years ago and closer to the former number. Although, numerous earlier migrations have been proposed as well as a theory that people lived on the bridge for as long as 10,000 years! Many of the clues to the real answer are probably quite a ways under water at this point.

It's likely that the first people that came to North America using this bridge didn't do so out of tourism or pure curiosity. Evidence suggests they went to North America because Alaska contained large dry grassland steppes where lots of big game, like woolly mammoths roamed. In other words, they were following the food supply.

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