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The kelp highway hypothesis: Marine ecology, the coastal migration theory, and the peopling of the Americas

January 1, 2007

In this article, a collaborative effort between archaeologists and marine ecologists, we discuss the role kelp forest ecosystems may have played in facilitating the movement of maritime peoples from Asia to the Americas near the end of the Pleistocene. Growing in cool nearshore waters along rocky coastlines, kelp forests offer some of the most productive habitats on earth, with high primary productivity, magnified secondary productivity, and three-dimensional habitat supporting a diverse array of marine organisms. Today, extensive kelp forests are found around the North Pacific from Japan to Baja California. After a break in the tropics—where nearshore mangrove forests and coral reefs are highly productive—kelp forests are also found along the Andean Coast of South America. These Pacific Rim kelp forests support or shelter a wealth of shellfish, fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and seaweeds, resources heavily used historically by coastal peoples. By about 16,000 years ago, the North Pacific Coast offered a linear migration route, essentially unobstructed and entirely at sea level, from northeast Asia into the Americas. Recent reconstructions suggest that rising sea levels early in the postglacial created a highly convoluted and island-rich coast along Beringia's southern shore, conditions highly favorable to maritime hunter-gatherers. Along with the terrestrial resources available in adjacent landscapes, kelp forests and other nearshore habitats sheltered similar suites of food resources that required minimal adaptive adjustments for migrating coastal peoples. With reduced wave energy, holdfasts for boats, and productive fishing, these linear kelp forest ecosystems may have provided a kind of “kelp highway” for early maritime peoples colonizing the New World.

Publication Year 2007
Title The kelp highway hypothesis: Marine ecology, the coastal migration theory, and the peopling of the Americas
DOI 10.1080/15564890701628612
Authors Jon M. Erlandson, Michael H. Graham, Bruce J. Bourque, Debra Corbett, James A. Estes, Robert S. Steneck
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology
Index ID 70029934
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center