Chronicles of America 

Geographical Background of America

During the glacial epochs the interior of Asia was well watered and full of game which supplied the primitive human hunters. With the advent of each interglacial epoch the rains diminished, grass and trees disappeared, and the desert spread over enormous tracts. Both men and animals must have been driven to sore straits for lack of food. Migration to better regions was the only recourse. Thus for hundreds of thousands of years there appears to have been a constantly recurring outward push from the center of the world's greatest land mass. That push, with the consequent overcrowding of other regions, seems to have been one of the chief forces impelling people to migrate and cover the earth.

Among the primitive men who were pushed outward from the Asian deserts during a period of aridity, one group migrated northeastward toward the Kamchatkan corner of Asia. Whether they reached Bering Sea and the Kamchatkan shore before the next epoch of glaciation we do not know. Doubtless they moved slowly, perhaps averaging only a few score or a hundred miles per generation, for that is generally the way with migrations of primitive people advancing into unoccupied territory. Yet sometimes they may have moved with comparative rapidity. I know about a tribe of herdsmen in central Asia which abandoned its ancestral home and started on a zigzag march of a thousand miles because of a great drought. The grass was so scanty that there was not enough to support the animals. The tribe left a trail of blood, for wherever it moved it infringed upon the rights of others and so with conflict was driven onward. In some such way the primitive wanderers were kept in movement until at last they reached the bleak shores of the North Pacific. Even there something--perhaps sheer curiosity--still urged them on. The green island across the bay may have been so enticing that at last a raft of logs was knotted together with stout withes. Perhaps at first the men paddled themselves across alone, but the hunting and fishing proved so good that at length they took the women and children with them, and so advanced another step along the route toward America. At other times distress, strife, or the search for game may have led the primitive nomads on and on along the coast until a day came when the Asian home was left and the New World was entered. The route by which primitive man entered America is important because it determined the surroundings among which the first Americans lived for many generations. It has sometimes been thought that the red men came to America by way of the Kurile Islands, Kamchatka, and the Aleutian Islands. If this was their route, they avoided a migration of two or three thousand miles through one of the coldest and most inhospitable of regions. This, however, is far from probable. The distance from Kamchatka to the first of the Aleutian Islands is over one hundred miles. As the island is not in sight from the mainland, there is little chance that a band of savages, including women, would deliberately sail thither. There is equally little probability that they walked to the island on the ice, for the sea is never frozen across the whole width. Nevertheless the climate may at that time have been colder than now. There is also a chance that a party of savages may have been blown across to the island in a storm. Suppose that they succeeded in reaching Bering Island, as the most Asiatic of the Aleutians is called, the next step to Copper Island would be easy. Then, however, there comes a stretch of more than two hundred miles. The chances that a family would ever cross this waste of ocean are much smaller than in the first case. Still another possibility remains. Was there once a bridge of land from Asia to America in this region? There is no evidence of such a link between the two continents, for a few raised beaches indicate that during recent geological times the Aleutian Islands have been uplifted rather than depressed.

The passage from Asia to America at Bering Strait, on the other hand, is comparatively easy. The Strait itself is fifty-six miles wide, but in the middle there are two small islands so that the longest stretch of water is only about thirty-five miles. Moreover the Strait is usually full of ice, which frequently becomes a solid mass from shore to shore. Therefore it would be no strange thing if some primitive savages, in hunting for seals or polar bears, crossed the Strait, even though they had no boats. Today the people on both sides of the Strait belong to the American race. They still retain traditions of a time when their ancestors crossed this narrow strip of water. The Thilanottines have a legend that two giants once fought fiercely on the Arctic Ocean. One would have been defeated had not a man whom he had befriended cut the tendon of his adversary's leg. The wounded giant fell into Bering Strait and formed a bridge across which the reindeer entered America. Later came a strange woman bringing iron and copper. She repeated her visits until the natives insulted her, whereupon she went underground with her fire-made treasures and came back no more. Whatever may have been the circumstances that led the earliest families to cross from Asia to America, they little reckoned that they had found a new continent and that they were the first of the Native Americans.

Unless the first Americans came to the new continent by way of the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, it was probably their misfortune to spend many generations in the cold regions of northeastern Asia and northwestern America. Even if they reached Alaska by the Aleutian route but came to the islands by way of the northern end of the Kamchatkan Peninsula, they must have dwelt in a place where the January temperature averages - 10 F. and where there are frosts every month in the year. If they came across Bering Strait, they encountered a still more severe climate. The winters there are scarcely worse than in northern Kamchatka, but the summers are as cold as the month of March in New York or Chicago.

Perhaps a prolonged sojourn in such a climate is one reason for the stolid character of the Indians. Of course we cannot speak with certainty, but we must, in our search for an explanation, consider the conditions of life in the far north. Food is scanty at all times, and starvation is a frequent visitor, especially in winter when game is hard to get. The long periods of cold and darkness are terribly enervating. The nervous white man goes crazy if he stays too long in Alaska. Every spring the first boats returning to civilization carry an unduly large proportion of men who have lost their minds because they have endured too many dark, cold winters. His companions say of such a man, "The North has got him." Almost every Alaskan recognizes the danger. As one man said to a friend, "It is time I got out of here."

"Why?" said the friend, "you seem all right. What's the matter?"

"Well," said the other, "you see I begin to like the smell of skunk cabbage, and, when a man gets that way, it's time he went somewhere else."

The skunk cabbage, by the way, grows in Alaska in great thickets ten feet high. The man was perfectly serious, for he meant that his mind was beginning to act in ways that were not normal. Nowhere is the strain of life in the far north better described than in the poems of Robert W. Service:
 

Oh, the awful hush that seemed to crush me down on every hand, As I blundered blind with a trail to find through that blank and bitter land; Half dazed, half crazed in the winter wild, with its grim heartbreaking woes, And the ruthless strife for a grip on life that only the sourdough knows! North by the compass, North I pressed; river and peak and plain Passed like a dream I slept to lose and waked to dream again. River and plain and mighty peak--and who could stand unawed? As their summits blazed, he could stand undazed at the foot of the throne of God. North, aye, North, through a land accurst, shunned by the scouring brutes, And all I heard was my own harsh word and the whine of the malamutes, Till at last I came to a cabin squat, built in the side of a hill, And I burst in the door, and there on the floor, frozen to death, lay Bill.

From "Ballads of a Cheechako.

The human organism inherits so delicate an adjustment to climate that, in spite of man's boasted ability to live anywhere, the strain of the frozen North eliminates the more nervous and active types of mind. Only those can endure whose nerves lack sensitiveness and who are able to bear long privation and the strain of hunger and cold and darkness.

Back to: A New World