Oceania Theory: Overview

Instructor: Stacy Chambers
The Oceania theory says that humanity came to the Americas first by crossing the Pacific Ocean from Australia and the South Pacific islands. Learn why some archaeologists believe this theory shows us how humans discovered the New World.

Introduction

Since the first piece of archaeological evidence was discovered, scientists have wondered how the first people of the New World came to populate it and when. While several theories have been put forth, three main theories have held up due to their archaeological evidence. But which theory puts people in the New World first? That's what archaeologists and other scientists and historians hotly debate.

The Bering Land Bridge theory is the one most widely accepted. This theory postulates that the people of Beringia crossed a land bridge about 13,500 years ago, when sea levels were much lower worldwide due to the earth's latest Ice Age. Once in the New World, these people developed into the Clovis people.

Map of Gene Flow in and out of Beringia
Gene flow

Another theory is the Solutrean Hypothesis (also known as the Atlantic Crossing theory). This theory hypothesizes that people crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat and settled on the East Coast. The third theory is the Oceania theory, which theorizes that people crossed the Pacific Ocean to land in South America and move northward. Yet another theory supposes humans traveled along the western coasts of the Americas. This one is called the Pacific Coastal theory.

Developments

Recent developments in scientific testing, such as DNA analysis, have revealed more complexity in how people first arrived to the Americas. Geneticists are now able to track the origins of a skeleton, and some evidence has shown that there might have been a culture that preceded the Clovis. There are also more and more human and skeletal remains being discovered, along with other archaeological evidence, that contradict the Bering Land Bridge theory.

Monte Verde

The strongest evidence supporting the Oceania theory (also known as the Pacific Crossing theory) is the archaeological site in Monte Verde, Chile. The reason for this is that this site has been verified by archaeologists as the oldest known human site in the Americas, predating the oldest Clovis site by at least 1,000 years. (Clovis sites are sites that support the Bering Land Strait theory.)

Monte Verde Site Location
Monte Verde Location

It's possible that people crossed the Bering Land Bridge much earlier than previously supposed and traveled south earlier than we thought. But it's also possible that people crossed east over the Pacific Ocean from Australia and the South Pacific islands and landed in South America (the Oceania theory). This seems plausible, given how far south this site was found. Another theory postulates that people traveled along the Americas' western coasts, reaching South America in as little as a hundred years, but this doesn't explain how the Monte Verde predates all other archaeological evidence. Another site, found near the original, is thought to be even older, possibly as old as 33,000 years.

Region Differences and Scientific Testing

The skeletons found in different areas of the Americas have different features, suggesting that people came from different places, possibly at different times. But mitochondrial DNA testing suggests a single migration taking place about 15,000 years ago all along the western coast of the Americas. This falls in line with when the Monte Verde site was colonized, possibly supporting the Pacific Crossing theory. But a diversity in languages suggests there was more than one migration.

Conclusion

The Monte Verde site has given us a great deal of information we would not otherwise have had. One of its key differences from Clovis sites is that it gives us a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who lived in the area. The site showed wooden foundations for houses, animal bones (one with a piece of meat attached), and the remains of plants that the Monte Verde people would have eaten or used for medicine. It even showed a human footprint, probably made by a child.

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