Glacial ice sheets were a major though seldom mentioned factor in this middle period of human prehistory. Over the past 2.6 million years planet earth has experienced repeated glacial ice ages separated by warmer interglacial thaws. The last one, beginning 95,000 years ago—well inside humankind’s tenure—covered northern reaches of both Siberia and North America, gouging out the Great Lakes and thousands of smaller Canadian lakes. These vast ice sheets reached their peak roughly 21,000 years ago, when glaciers were continuous from Pacific to Atlantic and a mile thick over present-day Chicago. The ice began melting as Earth began warming between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago, and North America was mostly ice free when our still-current warm interglacial period began around 11,000 years ago.
Needless to say, these natural events had enormous bearing on the peopling of northerly climes around the world. Even as the ice was receding humans were pushing northward, their culture adapting to new hunting opportunities. Adaptation to the harsher cold climes pushed our intrepid ancestors to improve their tools, such as flaked flint for cutting and scraping animal hides, and better bone needles for sewing the hides into warm clothing.
Modern humans reached the virgin Americas between—it is thought—about 15,500 and 11,000 years ago. But such immigration may actually have begun as early as 18,000 years ago, possibly much more—persistent archeologists keep digging up ever older campfires, and tools made of stone and bone. These arrivals may have happened four separate times by four separate routes, two of which certainly would have been affected by the ice sheets. As to what drove them, why they kept migrating, we can only speculate. Does the human psyche have some compelling drive to go see what’s there, just beyond the visible horizon, just over that next hill? Is curiosity our species gift—curious for no reason at all, just curiosity for itself per se? These early explorers had fully evolved brains quite the same as ours, therefore their mental capacities were equal to ours—so, speculating empathically across the ages, why would we choose to do what they did?
Probably the oldest, original immigrants arrived from Asia by way of Beringia, that old land bridge between Siberia and Alaska that the new Bering Sea submerged as the dying glaciers’ meltwater raised ocean levels worldwide. These people are believed to have walked across low lying Beringia—camping, hunting-gathering and dallying for generations—finally arriving in Alaska, from whence they moved southward through an ice-free corridor that just happened to happen as the Canadian ice sheets were melting.
This route’s primacy as “first-in-America,” however, is by no means proven. They might (might not) also have meandered down the long west coast of the Americas over a few dozen generations. By 16,000 years ago those shores were ice free from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, offering up plentiful shellfish and other shore food. We can’t dig up their campsites to check their artifacts because, like Beringia, they too now lie under fathoms of ocean that wasn’t there when the water was locked up in the continental ice sheets.
Another (first or second?) probable wave of immigration involved early Europeans who walked across the future North Sea—then as dry and grassy as Beringia—into and across merry ole pre-England, thence to and across pre-Eire-land to its far western coast, which was at the time quite farther west than today, with no wet feet the whole way. These unknown adventurers could then have sailed—and probably did—across the North Atlantic which is not all that far from North America. They might have done this many centuries before, using the same winds and currents later used by those latecomers Eric the Red (tenth century CE), his son Leif Ericson, and—according to Celtic lore—the monk Brendan as early as the sixth century CE. And then there’s all those other early Eurosailors—Celt, Norse etc—whose names nobody remembered or wrote down…
It is instructive to compare the bodily and facial structures of Native Americans of the northeast, such as the Algonquin, Cayuga and Haudenosaunee, with those of the far west and north such as the Apache, Navajo, Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Chinook. For dramatic examples, compare paintings of (eastern) Chief Logan, and 19th-century photographs of his fellow Cayuga, with photos of (western) Geronimo and his fellow Apache. They do not look alike. To see look-alikes, compare northeastern tribes with photos of Europeans. Then compare northern-western tribes with photos of modern Japanese, Mongols and Tibetans—all long in place before the Han Chinese overfilled that part of the world.
Further compare all these with photos of Chile’s indigenous peoples, whose ancestors are said to have arrived on boats sailing eastward from Oceania. A fourth comparison is all the above to the dark-complexioned indigenous peoples of Amazonia and the Caribbean.
These four geographically dispersed groups of indigenous Amerindian peoples, all looking distinctly un-like each other, do however look quite a lot like peoples in, respectively, Europe, Asia and Oceania. And each group has, on average, its own distinct body-facial build and appearance, not to mention genetic markers. Reasonable inference suggests their pre-historical ancestors arrived thousands of years ago, respectively, 1) from Europe by sailing across the north Atlantic to northeastern America; 2) from Siberia by walking across the Beringian land bridge and down Canada’s ice-free corridor; 3) from Oceania in successive waves that pushed eastward over centuries from southeast Asia full across the Pacific Ocean. And then there’s # 4)…
…Given the Atlantic trade winds, as Cristoforo Columbo found out in 1492 CE, it’s really not very far from the African-European mouth of the Mediterranean Sea to the front door of the Americas located in the Caribbean region. It is reasonable to ask whether the Homo sapiens who first came to the Caribbean islands and Amazonia derived from those who had previously reached the western and northerly regions of the continent, or whether—more likely on the face of it—they arrived at the front door from the east, by crossing the central Atlantic. And if so, from whence might they have come?
Of cause and effect: A great flood
Evidence is fairly overwhelming that a massive flood of all-time proportions occurred on the recent end of pre-history and left very long lasting impressions around the world, particularly in the Middle Eastern regions just east of the Mediterranean Sea. This evidence says that that around 11,000 years ago an extraordinary flood traveled full around the planet. Indeed, in every populated nook of the earth, in both hemispheres, are indigenous peoples whose oldest group memories, preserved in their mythologies, say that their ancient ancestors passed down the story of experiencing an enormous flood. This flood inundated and destroyed a great deal on most continents, in many areas including all people but the fortunate few on hilltops when the waters arrived. In hundreds of locally-variant versions, the legends all feature a core event of unprecedented flooding accompanied by torrential rains that lasted weeks, months, or “a long time.”
Eleven thousand years later, in 1928, British archeologist Leonard Wooley excavated the ancient city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia—modern Iraq—and found a layer of fine alluvial clay more than eight feet thick lying forty feet below the present surface. Finding a deposit of fine-grained clay this thick is significant, finding it this deep is anomalous, and finding it free of human artifacts is strikingly unusual.
The clay—deposited at a level far deeper than the tombs of ancient Sumerian kings, which the dig uncovered at much lesser depths—contained no artifacts of any kind. This sterile clay discovery constitutes mute and incontrovertible testimony of onrushing massive waters capable of laying down a band of fine silt to a depth of more than eight feet, still with enormous erosive force after surging eastward the length of the Mediterranean Sea.
When one hears the word flood, one thinks of extended rains followed by floods, in that order. But the old legends are inconsistent about sequence. Those less likely to have been tampered with imply or say outright that 1) the flood happened and 2) then the rains came—torrential rains, they say, that lasted “a long time”—in an unnatural reverse order.
The German scientist Otto Muck, a member of Wernher von Braun’s Peenemunde rocket research and development team, took special interest in this prehistoric flood legend. Muck conducted extensive research into the matter—the most extensive by any serious scholar to date, in fact—and then collected his extraordinary findings in a popular 1954 book. Ranging over two dozen or so categories of earth sciences, the book’s chapters describe detailed scientific evidence that a large asteroid struck the earth about 11,000 years ago, causing enormous tidal waves that swept around the earth leaving devastation of mythic proportions. The flood was followed, says Muck, by extended torrential rains.
In his deeply researched book, Muck calculates that the flood waters which precipitated the clay deposits at Ur had to be at least twenty times the deposit depth and, at least transiently, potentially a thousand or more feet deep. Such flooding could have risen to cover entire hills and low mountains in the region, and on this specifically, Gilgamesh and Noah—written several thousand years apart and both written millennia after the flood—are in complete agreement. It is not rational to offhandedly presume our ancient pre-historical ancestors made up such dramatic stories, so consistently, in so many places, and handed them down over dozens of generations just for the fun of it. Worldwide versions of the flood legend, from many times and places, tell us an all-time mighty flood really did happen. If they are true and it did, a large asteroid strike is a logical cause.
Muck calculated that the asteroid arrived from eastward at a low angle and disintegrated into many fragments just above the Atlantic Ocean due west of Portugal, striking at a point very nearly above the mid-Atlantic Ridge. That great underwater ridge, an area of constant geologic instability, marks the rupture where the European and American continental plates are continuously pulling apart, releasing magma from the mantle.
Directly under the explosive disintegration, the asteroid’s strike utterly obliterated an unfortunate island—a quite large island said to have been three times the size of Ireland. The strike left a scar on the ocean floor that can be seen on modern topographic charts of the Central Atlantic. The roughly-circular scar lies adjacent remnant volcanic peaks we know today as the Azores…and it is approximately three times larger than Ireland.
Rocky fragments from the asteroid’s incoming disintegration are thought to have caused what are called the “Carolina Bays,” some 500,000 depressions that form ponds and lakes from Maryland to Texas and the Carolinas to Nebraska, and in the Atlantic floor off our east coast. These are oval-shaped, as would be expected from rocky asteroidal fragments coming in hard at an angle. Extrapolating from the sum of these bays’ dimensions plus the scars left on large areas of the ocean floor, Muck estimated the asteroid to have been up to six miles in diameter. This size is consistent with the damage the legends say it caused. By comparison, the asteroid that sent the dinosaurs extinct was half again bigger.
In addition to colossal tidal waves sent roaring in all directions, the asteroid’s impact triggered massive volcanic eruptions throughout the mid-Atlantic and adjacent regions. As reported by Plato (in Timaeus and Critias, 350 BCE) citing much older Egyptian sources, the central and eastern Atlantic became so heavily laden with floating volcanic pumice and ash that ships were unable to sail west of Gibralter for several centuries. The island destroyed by the asteroid is said to have been heavily populated, and its only survivors were those who happened to be away—far away—from home at the time.
Sharing this tragic common heritage, survivors who managed to come back together over time were almost certainly those peoples who eventually become known around the Mediterranean as “Phoenicians”—a seafaring and trading people “of mysterious unknown origin” as they were viewed in Roman times nine millennia later. It is said that many descendants of these Phoenicians eventually settled in the region known today as Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Scholars of prehistory know that the abundant old tribal legends of a catastrophic great flood are not hard to find. Among the hundreds of sources preserving the legend worldwide is one called Genesis, Chapter 7. For searching to get you started on these hundreds, enter the key word: “Noah.”