National Geographic : 1939 May
EXPLORING FROZEN FRAGMENTS OF AMERICAN HISTORY On the Trail of Early Eskimo Colonists Who Made a 55-Mile Crossing from the Old World to the New BY HENRY B. COLLINS, JR. Leader of the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Archeological Expedition to Bering Sea With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author CHILL spray blew in our faces as our tiny boat tossed in the choppy, treacherous waters of Bering Strait. We were heading straight for the western most point of the North American main land, Cape Prince of Wales, marked by the gray granite mass of Cape Mountain, loom ing like a giant beacon out of the sea. Two thousand years ago, or more, in exactly the same kind of boat and head ing for that same landmark, the first Eski mos came to the New World. It was a rare thrill to realize that I was re-enacting the Eskimos' first voyage to America-a voyage which took place many centuries before Leif Ericson or Columbus reached the continent's eastern shores. The re-enactment had its anachronistic touch, however. For though our 25-foot umiak of walrus hide stretched over a drift wood frame was unchanged from the type used by the earliest Eskimos, it was pro pelled by a droning outboard motor, which seemed as out of place as a Diesel engine in one of Columbus's caravels! That did not worry my Eskimo crew, however. Returning to the Alaskan main land from a visit to Little Diomede Island, in the middle of Bering Strait, we were covering the 25 miles in three hours instead of paddling laboriously for an entire day as had their ancestors, and they found no fault with that! AGE-OLD CROSSROAD OF WORLD TRAVEL We were sailing in a region that for un counted ages has been a true crossroad of the world. Through this "bottleneck," where Asia and North America are only 55 miles apart across Bering Strait, humans have dribbled from the Old World into the New for more centuries than we probably will ever know (map, p. 638, and p. 642). The earlier comers, ancestors of the American Indians, may have crossed on dry land between the two continents, when the sea was shallower than now because of the enormous quantities of water tied up in the great glaciers of the Ice Age.* Later arrivals, like the Eskimos, crossed in small skin boats, as we were doing, using the two Diomede Islands in the strait as stepping stones (page 637). Those who came by boat must have landed at or near Cape Prince of Wales, since it is the first land in North America seen by anyone crossing the strait. Earlier migrants, crossing on the land bridge, also would have entered America somewhere in the Bering Sea region. Therefore this area is a strategic place to search for traces of early man in the far north, and also to study the problem of the origin of the Eskimos, who were compara tively late comers to North America. In recognition of this fact, the National Geo graphic Society and the Smithsonian Insti tution jointly sponsored our summer expe dition to this region. MYSTERY OF THE "FROZEN PEOPLE" The Eskimos, northernmost inhabitants of the earth, are a fascinating and mysteri ous people. Though numbering now under 40,000, they are scattered over 7,000 miles of territory from northeastern Siberia along the northern fringe of the American Con tinent across Alaska and Canada to Labra dor and the east coast of Greenland. The Eskimos are perhaps the world's best example of a people who have made good under handicaps. They live in a land which offers little in the way of comforts. Through the long winter there are almost continuous darkness and bitter cold. * See "America's First Settlers, the Indians," by Matthew W. Stirling, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1937.