The first humans to settle in North America are thought to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge.

Who Were the First Americans?

The continents that are now called North and South America first received their name from a 15th-century Italian merchant and explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. However, the history of the Americas goes back much further than the late 1400s and European colonization. The continents of the "New World" were all inhabited by a litany of tribes and civilizations that predate the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years. However, even today, more information is emerging that could put once commonly held theories about human migration in the Americas into jeopardy. So, who were the first people to arrive in the Americas?

From Russia to Alaska

A stamp printed in USA showing first Americans crossed over from Asia and the Bering land bridge
A stamp commemorating the supposed first crossing of humans into North America. Image credit Roberto Lusso via Shutterstock

The most widely believed theory about the human settlement of the Americas made headway in the mid-1920s. The theory suggests that the first humans to settle in North America did so by crossing a land bridge between what is today Eastern Russia and Alaska. Proponents of this theory, propose that this bridge formed during the last Ice Age thanks to lowered sea levels and a colder average temperature that froze much of the bodies of water that would have existed on this land mass.

The first notable migration took place as long as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Once arriving in what is Alaska and Western Canada the first humans in the Americas moved south through a series of corridors that existed between the massive glacial sheets. Another theory proposed that these early Americans hugged the coast and used primitive boats and rafts to travel as far as Chile in South America.

The Clovis People

hands of an anthropologist revealing human skull from dirt
An archeologist digging up human remains.

These people thought to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge in the last Ice Age are often referred to as the Clovis People. These people received their name from an archeological site that is in Clovis, New Mexico. Artifacts such as stone-tipped spears and remains of a flute were first found in this area in the 1930s. Since this discovery other sites have been located across North America with similar findings.

These sites are most likely the remnants of the first peoples who migrated across the Bering Straight and then spread out across the continent. However, archeologists have questioned the accuracy of the carbon dating on many of these artifacts, including the original site in Clovis.


red prehistoric drawings on the wall in a cave
Prehistoric cave paintings.

Despite the widely accepted theory of the Clovis People, new discoveries in 2011 have called into question the accuracy of these claims. A handful of stone tools found in Buttermilk Creek, Washington along with findings of animal-hide tents in Chile, predate the supposed arrival of the Clovis by hundreds and even thousands of years.

Researchers have challenged the accuracy of the carbon dating for these materials as well but there is still a significant number of archeologists that stand by these findings. This could mean that perhaps the Clovis people had migrated into the Americas much early than previously imagined, or that an entirely different group of people stumbled onto the continent before them.

More evidence for this new theory continues to grow every day. Nearly 19,000 pre-Clovis artifacts have been supposedly found by researchers. This could be something as simple as a stone blade or as significant as clothes and other personal belongings. If this new pre-Clovis theory is correct then this would push the date of human arrival in the Americas as far back as 15,000 to 18,000 years ago.

Additional Theories

Female archaeologist digging up ancient pottery object at an archaeological site
An archeologist digging up ancient pottery on site.

When dealing with such a large gap of time it is difficult to get an accurate understanding of what really happened. Unlike the history of the past 1,000 years or so, there are zero written records and the artifacts discovered are so old that many have called into question the accuracy of the carbon dating.

Theories are emerging that the Clovis People are not a second wave of migrants from Asia but rather the descendants of those who arrived earlier. Others have proposed that perhaps various groups of migrants settled along the coasts of the Americas at different times using early boats and rafts, hugging the shallow waters of the coasts as they went. These people could have come from areas like Siberia and East Asia. There are even those who think a naval crossing from Europe could have been feasible.


Only as more evidence continues to emerge will archeologists and historians get a clearer picture of what really took place. If this newfound theory does turn out to be correct then it could put the current understanding of human history on its head. Not only could it mean that the arrival of humans in North America took place thousands of years previous to when originally thought, but also that human beings as a species could be much older too.


More in History