Along The Kelp Highway

7:39 minutes

close up of green kelp
Credit: Shutterstock

You may have heard of the land bridge connecting Siberia to North America. For years, researchers believed it was how ancient humans traveled to North America. But over the years, archeologists have sniffed around for other theories. Now, after several decades of mounting evidence, scientists have reached a different consensus. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers outline how the land bridge, known as Beringia, was not the earliest route taken. Instead, it was most likely a coastal route nicknamed the “kelp highway” for its food-rich ecosystem.

[How do we study the ancient Americans?]

Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor for Ars Technica, joins Ira to discuss the evidence it took to bring lead archaeologists to the latest conclusion. Plus, how Bronze Age Russian dog sacrifices hint at an ancient rite of passage for warriors, and how small news outlets can influence public opinion as much as major ones.

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’re going to talk about the delegates in Germany this week haggling over details of the Paris Climate Accord, what’s next now that the US plans to pull out. But first, it’s textbook changing time again. We’ve all grown up with the idea that the first people to arrive in North America traveled over that land bridge across the Bering Strait, right, connecting Asia to what is now North America.

But over the years, archaeologists have investigated other theories. And after several decades of mounting evidence, scientists have concluded that that land bridge was not the earliest route taken. It was, in fact, the Kelp Highway. That was the earliest route. Here to fill in the details of that story and other short subjects in science is Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica in San Francisco. Welcome back, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us what this Kelp Highway was.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So the Kelp Highway is a term for the route that people took along the coast from northern Asia up along Russia, what’s now Russia, and along the Bering Strait, and then down Alaska and into the United States. And it’s called the Kelp Highway because there was a rich ecosystem along the coast where these peoples, who actually had terrific boat technology, they had these reed boats that allowed them to just hug the coast– they weren’t, you know, going over open water– and the kelp forests along the coast would have been a rich source of food for them.

So there’s a great explanation here for why people would have taken that route, because all this kelp along the coast would attract fish and other animals that they could hunt. So those boats were not just a way for them to transit to the States, but also to hunt.

IRA FLATOW: So what kind of new evidence, or what’s happening right now that we’re getting to see settlements previously buried underwater that’s convinced scientists?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, it’s a super interesting set of discoveries. So really since the 1980s, there have been a lot of questions about this Bering land bridge idea because you really couldn’t have crossed from the Bering land bridge into North America until about 12 or 13,000 years ago, because there were just huge glaciers blocking the way.

So what scientists started to notice was that there were these campsites all the way down as far as Argentina that may be about 17,000 years old. And some scientists believe they’re even older than that. So a lot of the problem with finding this evidence is that, although some of these campsites are inland, usually along rivers that have come up from the ocean, from the coast, is that a lot of the campsites that people created as they took the Kelp Highway are now underwater, because water levels have risen– the Ice Age is over, you might have noticed–


ANNALEE NEWITZ: –and water levels have risen. And so now, there’s new techniques for investigating these underwater campsites. Everything from remote vehicles to underwater lasers are allowing archaeologists to dive down underwater and investigate.

IRA FLATOW: So the consensus has changed. It used to be one if by land, now it’s two if by sea, so to speak.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: And people did come by land, it’s just that they were the ones who came second. So they would have arrived in the Americas with people already here.

IRA FLATOW: That’s very, very interesting. Let’s move on to a group of archaeologists who have been excavating a site in Russia. And they found something really weird. Tell us about that.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, this is the kind of archeology mystery that may haunt your dreams, especially if you like dogs. So I apologize for that.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t set it up like that.


ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is a site that archaeologists have been investigating since the late 1990s. And they’ve finally pulled together enough evidence to talk about this one settlement that they found– it’s in the northern steppes of Russia– where they came upon this ancient structure that’s– it’s from the late Bronze Age, so it’s about 4,000 years old. And inside was a pit with the remains of 67 dogs who had been ritualistically sacrificed over a period of about 100 years, and always in the winter.

So they knew that this was something that was a kind of annual or semi-annual ritual. And what people had done was they’d sacrifice the dogs, they’d cut them up very ritualistically, and then cooked and eaten them. And this is not an area where, at that time, people would have been eating dogs regularly. So this was a kind of inversion of their normal eating activities. And that’s always– for archaeologists, any kind of inversion like that is always a sign of a ritual, because rituals are times when we do things very differently than the ordinary.

So their big question was, what the heck were people doing? Why were they ritualistically sacrificing them, why were they eating them. So the answer comes from mythology. And of course, we can’t be certain without a time machine, but it looks as if what this was was an Indo-European cultural rite of passage.

Indo-European culture was common throughout Europe and South Asia at the time. And many of these cultures had a ritual where boys became hunters and warriors by symbolically turning into dogs and wolves. And eating these dogs would have been part of that ritual, taking the dog or the wolf into themselves and becoming warriors.

And these dogs were very well cared for. They were older dogs, so they were probably beloved dogs. So it would have been a very emotional thing to sacrifice them and to take them in.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And as someone with four granddogs, I understand that. So that’s good.


IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: –the other great thing about this– yeah, it is interesting. The other great thing about this story that I’ll add really quickly is that it’s also thought, some scholars believe, that these rituals are connected to the myth of the werewolf. So we might actually be witnessing a kind of werewolf ritual taking place here over time.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I knew you’d weave Game of Thrones in here somehow.


Finally, there’s good news for journalists, evidence that small news organizations can influence public opinion as much as large newsrooms?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. A group of scholars at Harvard did a very long-term study where they looked at small media organizations, basically the opposite of the mainstream media, and found that, if three or more of those organizations wrote about the same policy topic that day, whether the topic was water or immigration or climate– they had a broad range of topics– if three or more of them covered that topic, discussion of that topic would rise by 62% on Twitter in the following week. So it was really affecting our public conversations.

And I talked to one of the researchers, Ariel White, who’s a political scientist at MIT. And she said if they’d done this study 100 years ago, they would have gone into public squares and listened to people yelling on soapboxes. And so they treated Twitter kind of like the soapbox of our time. And that’s why they chose to measure influence in that area. But it means that the non-mainstream media has a huge impact, and it’s not just the mainstream media that’s guiding the conversation.

IRA FLATOW: Fascinating. Thank you, Annalee.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Annalee Newitz, tech culture editor at Ars Technica in San Francisco.

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