Did the First Americans Take a Ride on the Kelp Highway?


Until recently, it was widely thought that the first humans arrived in North America via a land bridge between what is now Russia and Alaska. Now, anthropologists think America’s earliest humans didn’t arrive by land at all. (Science)

Why did humans migrate to the Americas? Use our activity to explore ancient push-pull factors.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

The solid red arrows on this map indicate the suggested “kelp highway” coastal route taken by seafaring people from Asia. The blue arrows indicate the older “Clovis-first” land-bridge theory.
Map by National Geographic


Archaeological finds indicate that pre-Clovis people arrived in the Americas before 13,500 years ago, likely via the “kelp highway.” The red markers indicate the shape of projectile points found at the associated sites.
Map by J. You and N. Cary, courtesy Science


Discussion Ideas

  • The “kelp highway” theory has nearly displaced the “Clovis-first” theory about how the Americas were populated. What is the Clovis-first theory?
    • As its name implies, the Clovis-first theory suggests that the ancient Clovis people were the first humans to settle in North America (and, later, South America).
      • The Clovis people, named after the town in New Mexico where their characteristic tools were first identified (take a look at those here), were nomadic hunter-gatherers who arrived in North America by crossing the Beringia land bridge about 13,500 years ago. (Learn more about Beringia here.) There, Clovis people and their descendants hunted large game and spread rapidly through the New World.


  • What is the “kelp highway” theory?


The kelp highway is always a busy thoroughfare. Look at that biodiversity!
Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, National Geographic
Click here for more labeled and unlabeled illustrations of kelp forests and other marine ecosystems.
Illustration by Doris Dialogu, National Geographic


  • Why is the kelp highway theory more accepted than the Clovis-first theory at this point?
    • Archaeologists and anthropologists have identified several pre-Clovis sites in both North and South America. In particular, scientists point to the Monte Verde site on central Chile’s coast, which was occupied as early as 18,000 years ago. (Interestingly, the Monte Verde site is marked by the presence of kelp in the hearths of dwellings.)


  • If most anthropologists agree, why hasn’t there been abundant evidence for the kelp highway theory?
    • Sea level rise! “Testing the kelp highway hypothesis is challenging because much of the archaeological evidence would have been submerged by rising seas since the last glacial maximum about 26,500 years ago.” The most promising sites may still be underwater and under meters of seafloor silt.
    • Anthropologists aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for, as pre-Clovis sites lack the signature cultural artifacts (those gorgeous projectile points!) that define Clovis. “The small sample of pre-Clovis sites has yet to produce a coherent technological signature with the broad geographic patterning that characterizes Clovis.”
    • Lesson: We need more underwater archaeologists!



Science: Finding the first Americans

Nat Geo: Exploring Ancient Human Migrations

University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History: Kelp Highway Hypothesis

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