Earliest Evidence of Pre-Last Glacial Maximum Human Presence in North America

By: Evan Scoboria, Last updated: June 12, 2023

The peopling of the Americas is a subject that has fascinated scientists, researchers, and enthusiasts for decades. The question of how and when humans first arrived in North America has been a topic of extensive study and ongoing debate. Recent discoveries and advancements in archaeological and genetic research have shed new light on the early human presence in the Americas, particularly before the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).

This article explores the evidence and theories surrounding the pre-LGM human presence in North America, delving into the fascinating discoveries that have shaped our understanding of early human migration and settlement. It examines the significance of archaeological sites, genetic studies, and interdisciplinary approaches in uncovering the complexities of human history on the continent.

By examining the evidence and analyzing the various theories and controversies, we aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the pre-LGM human presence in North America. This exploration deepens our knowledge of migration and highlights early human populations' adaptability, ingenuity, and resilience as they encountered and thrived in diverse environments.

By examining notable archaeological discoveries, the challenges faced in finding early evidence, and the implications for understanding human migration, this article paints a comprehensive picture of the complex and dynamic process of human colonization in North America. It is an invitation to explore the rich tapestry of human history and appreciate the remarkable journey of our ancestors as they traversed continents and shaped the world we inhabit today.

Earliest Evidence of Pre-Last Glacial Maximum Human Presence in North America

Bering Land Bridge and the Last Glacial Maximum

The Last Glacial Maximum

To explain more about the Bering Land Bridge and the Last Glacial Maximum, it is essential first to understand what the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) entails. The LGM refers to a period in Earth's history when glaciers were at their maximum extent. This period occurred around 26,000 to 19,000 years ago during the last phase of the Pleistocene epoch, often known as the Ice Age.

The climate was much colder than today during the LGM, with global temperatures averaging about 4-7 degrees Celsius lower than current levels. Large ice sheets covered significant portions of North America, Northern Europe, and Asia. This resulted in a substantial drop in sea levels, exposing vast areas of the continental shelf that are now submerged.

The Bering Land Bridge

One such area was Beringia, also known as the Bering Land Bridge. Beringia was a vast stretch of land, about 1,600 kilometers wide, that connected present-day Siberia in Russia and Alaska in the United States. This land bridge formed due to the drop in sea levels due to the extensive ice sheets locking up water.

Beringia was not a barren, icy landscape as one might imagine. Instead, it consisted of tundra and steppe-like vegetation, supporting a range of wildlife such as woolly mammoths, steppe bison, and horses. Beringia likely provided an enticing corridor rich with hunting opportunities for human populations living in northeastern Asia.

Significance for Human Migration

The Bering Land Bridge plays a crucial role in the story of human migration. It is believed that during the LGM, human populations migrated across this land bridge from Siberia into Alaska. These people were the ancestors of the indigenous populations that inhabited the Americas when Europeans arrived thousands of years later. This migration was possible due to the lowered sea levels and the ecological opportunities that Beringia provided.

The details of this migration, such as the exact timing, the number of migratory waves, and the routes taken once they arrived in the Americas, are subjects of ongoing research. However, the scientific community widely accepts the basic migration model via the Bering Land Bridge.

Understanding the LGM and the Bering Land Bridge is therefore essential to studying early human presence in North America and the subsequent peopling of the Americas.

Pre-LGM Human Presence

The existence of humans in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) is a subject of ongoing debate among scientists. However, recent discoveries and research provide compelling evidence to support this possibility.

A significant discovery was made in 2021 when human footprints were found in relict lake sediments near White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The impressions suggest a human presence dating back to the LGM, between 18,000 and 26,000 years ago, based on a well-constrained stratigraphic record and radiocarbon dating of seeds in the sediments. This discovery supports migration across Beringia into the Americas before the LGM.

Archaeological sites in the Americas, such as Bluefish Caves, Old Crow Flats in the Yukon Territory, and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania, have also been proposed to show signs of pre-LGM human presence. At Old Crow Flats, distinctive human butchery marks have been found on mammoth bones, with radiocarbon dates varying between 25,000 and 40,000 years BP. Additionally, stone micro-flakes indicating tool production have been discovered in the area.

However, the interpretation of these signs and the geologic association of bones at these sites has been questioned. Other sites, like Lake E5 and Burial Lake in northern Alaska, suggest a human presence in eastern Beringia as early as 34,000 years ago, according to biomarker and microfossil analyses of the sediments. These findings corroborate the inferences made from the Bluefish Cave and Old Crow Flats sites.

Furthermore, in 2020, evidence for a new pre-LGM site was found at Chiquihuite cave in Zacatecas State, North-Central Mexico, dated to 26,000 years BP based on numerous lithic artifacts discovered there.

Evidence for pre-LGM human presence in South America is partly based on the controversial Pedra Furada rock shelter in Piauí, Brazil. A 2003 study dated evidence for the controlled use of fire to before 40,000 years ago. The Luzia Woman fossil's morphology, initially described as Australo-Melanesian, has also been used as evidence. However, a 2018 DNA sequencing study contradicts this interpretation, showing that Luzia's ancestry was entirely native.

The earliest positively identified artifacts at the Meadowcroft site are safely within the post-LGM period (13.8k–18.5k cal years BP). Stones described as probable tools, hammerstones, and anvils have been found at the Cerutti Mastodon site in southern California, associated with a mastodon skeleton dated 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago. However, this claim has been met with skepticism.

In eastern Arctic Siberia, the Yana River Rhino Horn site (RHS) has dated human occupation to 27k 14C years BP (31.3k cal years BP), interpreted by some as evidence that migration into Beringia was imminent, supporting the idea of occupation of Beringia during the LGM. However, this date is from the beginning of the cooling period that led into the LGM, and other evidence suggests a retreat of humans southwards.

The oldest archaeological sites on the Alaskan side of Beringia date to 12k 14C years BP (14k cal years BP). Some propose a small founder population may have entered Beringia before this time. However, clear archaeological evidence from the LGM on the Siberian or Alaskan side of Beringia still needs to be provided.

In summary, while compelling evidence suggests a pre-LGM human presence in the Americas, this subject remains a topic of ongoing debate. 

Challenges in Finding Early Evidence

Challenges in finding early evidence of human presence in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) arise from various factors, including the nature of archaeological remains, the impact of climate change, and the limited availability of well-preserved sites.

One significant challenge is preserving archaeological sites over such a long time. Various factors influence the preservation process, including the local environment, geological processes, and human activities. In many cases, archaeological sites from the pre-LGM period may have been destroyed or altered by subsequent geological processes, such as erosion, sedimentation, or changes in sea levels. This makes it challenging to locate and excavate sites that can provide direct evidence of early human presence.

Additionally, the need for more well-preserved and undisturbed archaeological sites further complicates the search for early evidence. Natural forces and human activities can disturb or destroy archaeological deposits as time passes. For example, human settlements, agricultural activities, and urban development can destroy or disturb archaeological sites, making it challenging to recover artifacts or other traces of early human presence.

The remote and often harsh environments in which pre-LGM human populations likely lived also challenge archaeological investigation. The Arctic regions and other remote areas of North America present logistical challenges for conducting archaeological research, including limited accessibility, harsh weather conditions, and the need for specialized equipment and expertise.

The reliance on indirect evidence, such as tools, artifacts, and ecological data, adds another layer of complexity to the search for early evidence. While these indirect indicators can provide valuable insights, they only sometimes offer definitive proof of human presence and can be subject to alternative interpretations. Interpretations of tool use, butchery marks on bones, and other archaeological evidence require careful analysis and consideration.

Furthermore, the interpretation and dating of archaeological evidence are subject to ongoing debates and refinements. Researchers may interpret the same evidence differently, and new scientific techniques and methodologies may lead to revised understandings of chronology and human activities. These factors contribute to the complexity of establishing a clear and undisputed timeline of early human presence in North America.

Despite these challenges, ongoing research, technological advancements, and interdisciplinary approaches provide new insights into the pre-LGM human presence in North America. Integrating various scientific disciplines, including archaeology, geology, paleoecology, and genetics, is crucial in addressing these challenges and advancing our understanding of the continent's early human migrations and settlement patterns.

Notable Archaeological Discoveries

Exploring North America's archaeological sites has yielded several notable discoveries that provide valuable insights into early human presence and the peopling of the continent. These discoveries offer glimpses into ancient populations' lives, cultures, and technological advancements. Here are some of the notable archaeological findings related to early human presence in North America:

  1. Clovis Culture: The discovery of Clovis points in Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s, was groundbreaking. Clovis points are distinctive, fluted stone projectile points used by early Paleo-Indian cultures. These artifacts, dated approximately 13,000 years ago, provided the first strong evidence of widespread human occupation in North America.

  2. Monte Verde: Located in Chile, the Monte Verde site revolutionized our understanding of early human presence in the Americas. Excavations conducted in the 1970s revealed well-preserved remains of a human settlement dating back over 14,000 years, making it one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas. The discoveries at Monte Verde challenged the prevailing Clovis-first model and suggested the existence of pre-Clovis cultures.

  3. Meadowcroft Rockshelter: Situated in Pennsylvania, Meadowcroft Rockshelter is an archaeological site that has provided evidence of human occupation dating back at least 16,000 years. Excavations at the site have yielded stone tools, hearths, and the remains of plants and animals, offering valuable insights into the daily lives of early inhabitants and their interaction with the environment.

  4. Paisley Caves: Located in Oregon, the Paisley Caves contain stratified layers of sediments that have preserved evidence of human presence. Excavations in the 2000s revealed artifacts and coprolites (fossilized human feces) dating back over 14,000 years. The findings suggest that humans were in the area earlier than previously believed.

  5. Anzick-1 Burial Site: Discovered in Montana, the Anzick-1 burial site is associated with the Clovis culture. Excavations in 1968 revealed the remains of a young child buried with an array of burial offerings, including stone tools and animal bone artifacts. The site provides essential insights into Clovis burial practices and cultural traditions.

  6. Bluefish Caves: Situated in the Yukon Territory, Canada, the Bluefish Caves have yielded evidence of early human presence. Excavations in the 1970s revealed stone tools and bones with cut marks dating back over 24,000 years. These findings suggest that humans may have inhabited the region earlier.

  7. Topper Site: Located in South Carolina, the Topper Site is an archaeological site with stratified layers containing evidence of human occupation dating back at least 16,000 years. Excavations have yielded stone tools, bone artifacts, and proof of fire use, shedding light on early human activities in the Southeastern United States.

These notable archaeological discoveries, among others, have contributed significantly to our understanding of early human presence in North America. They have challenged and refined existing models, expanded our knowledge of ancient cultures, and deepened our appreciation for the rich and diverse history of human populations on the continent.

Theories and Controversies

The theories and controversies surrounding early human presence in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) revolve around the timing, routes, and modes of human migration into the Americas. Various hypotheses and competing viewpoints have emerged, leading to ongoing research debates.

One of the main theories is the Beringia Land Bridge hypothesis, which suggests that humans migrated from Northeast Asia into North America by crossing a land bridge called Beringia. This land bridge emerged during lowered sea levels due to the extensive glaciation of the Last Glacial Maximum. According to this theory, humans crossed from Siberia into Alaska, utilizing the exposed Beringian land bridge as a pathway into the Americas.

Support for the Beringia Land Bridge theory comes from several lines of evidence. Genetic studies have shown close genetic affinities between Indigenous populations in the Americas and present-day people in Northeast Asia, supporting a shared ancestral population. Additionally, archaeological sites such as Bluefish Caves in the Yukon Territory and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania have been proposed as evidence of the early human presence in the Americas before the LGM.

However, alternative theories and controversial interpretations challenge the Beringia Land Bridge hypothesis. Some researchers propose alternative migration routes, such as a coastal migration hypothesis, suggesting that early humans may have utilized a Pacific coastal route to travel southward into the Americas. This theory is supported by archaeological evidence from sites such as Monte Verde in Chile, which dates back to over 14,000 years ago and predates the widely accepted Clovis culture.

Controversies also arise from the dating of archaeological sites and the interpretation of the associated artifacts. The Clovis-first model, which posits that the Clovis culture represents the earliest widespread human occupation in the Americas, has long been the dominant view. However, the discovery of pre-Clovis sites, such as Monte Verde and others, challenges this model and raises questions about the timing and sequence of human migrations.

The interpretation of artifacts and their association with human activity also sparks debates. Some controversial sites, like the Pedra Furada rock shelter in Brazil, have been interpreted as evidence of pre-Clovis human occupation through the presence of hearths and stone tools. However, critics argue that the evidence is ambiguous and can be explained by natural processes rather than human activity.

Another contentious topic relates to the role of climate change and environmental factors in shaping human migration patterns. Some researchers argue that fluctuations in climate and ecological conditions, particularly during the glacial advance and retreat periods, influenced the timing and routes of human migration into the Americas. These factors could have created opportunities or barriers for human populations, impacting their dispersal and settlement patterns.

Theories and controversies surrounding early human presence in North America continue to evolve as new evidence emerges and scientific methodologies advance. Ongoing archaeological excavations, genetic studies, and interdisciplinary research efforts aim to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the people of the Americas and the complex processes involved in colonizing the continent.

Implications for Understanding Human Migration

The study of early human presence in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) has significant implications for our understanding of human migration and the people of the Americas. It sheds light on human movements' complex and dynamic nature across vast distances and challenging environments.

Researchers can gain insights into early human populations' adaptive capabilities, technological advancements, and cultural developments by investigating the timing, routes, and modes of human migration into the Americas. Understanding how and when humans first arrived in North America provides valuable information about their resilience, survival strategies, and ability to navigate and exploit new landscapes.

The pre-LGM human presence challenges the traditional view of a single, rapid migration event into the Americas associated with the Clovis culture. The discoveries of pre-Clovis sites indicate a more complex and nuanced picture of human migration. It suggests multiple waves of migration, potentially using different routes and occurring at other times, rather than a single "first" population.

This expanded understanding of human migration has implications for our understanding of the people of the Americas and the diversity of Indigenous populations. It highlights the complex interactions between different groups of early humans and their adaptations to diverse ecological and environmental conditions.

The examination of migration patterns also contributes to our knowledge of human dispersal and colonization processes on a global scale. Studying early human migration into the Americas can be compared and contrasted with other migration events in different parts of the world, providing insights into broader human movement patterns, adaptation, and cultural exchange.

Furthermore, the study of pre-LGM human presence enhances our understanding of the role of climate change and environmental factors in shaping human history. It illuminates the interplay between changing climates, sea-level fluctuations, and the availability of resources, which influenced the timing, routes, and success of human migrations. This knowledge has implications for our understanding of past responses to environmental change and the potential impact of future climate shifts on human populations.

Overall, investigating pre-LGM human presence in North America has profound implications for understanding human migration, cultural diversity, and the complex interactions between humans and their environments. It contributes to a more nuanced and comprehensive narrative of human history. It deepens our appreciation for the diverse ways in which early humans adapted, migrated, and shaped the landscapes they encountered.


The study of pre-LGM human presence in North America is a fascinating and complex field of research that continues to evolve with discoveries, scientific advancements, and interdisciplinary approaches. The evidence gathered from archaeological sites, genetic studies, and geological investigations provides valuable insights into the people of the Americas and the migration patterns of early human populations.

While ongoing debates and controversies surround the timing, routes, and modes of human migration, the accumulated evidence supports the presence of humans in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum. The discoveries of pre-Clovis sites, the exploration of ancient artifacts, and the analysis of genetic affinities between Indigenous populations all contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the diverse and complex history of early human settlement in the Americas.

These findings have broader implications for our understanding of human migration, cultural diversity, and the interactions between humans and their environments. They shed light on early human populations' adaptive capabilities, technological advancements, and survival strategies as they navigated and settled in new landscapes.

The study of pre-LGM human presence also highlights the importance of interdisciplinary research and collaboration. Integrating archaeological, genetic, geological, and ecological data is crucial in piecing together the puzzle of North America's human migration and cultural development. It requires ongoing dialogue, open-mindedness, and a willingness to reassess and refine our interpretations as new evidence emerges.

As the field of research continues to advance, it promises to unveil more insights into the complexity of human history in North America. Exploring archaeological sites, applying advanced scientific techniques, and engaging with Indigenous communities contribute to a deeper appreciation of early human populations' diverse narratives and contributions to shaping the Americas.

Ultimately, the study of pre-LGM human presence enriches our understanding of the human journey, expands our knowledge of ancient cultures, and highlights the resilience and ingenuity of early human populations as they ventured into new frontiers.


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