Beringia: A Timeless Lesson On How Our Ancestors Dealt With Change

October 31, 2021
Photo of two ancestors from Alaska, world map in the background

In the book A Hunter-gatherer’s guide to the 21st century the authors recall the story of Beringia, the seafloor between Russia and Alaska that emerged around twenty thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, when lots of the Earth’s water became frozen in glaciers and caused sea levels to lower.  

A map of Beringia's former territory between Russia and Alaska

In a matter of time, people coming from Asia started to settle there. As the authors write:

“Beringia was a land of opportunity, a vast and open Grassland. A landmass four times the size of California [..], Beringia was not merely a temporary land bridge, a passage between Asia and the Americas. People did not scurry across, the rising waters lapping at their feet, nor was it a lifeless plain. Life was surely difficult, but for thousands of years, Beringia supported a population of people who made their home there.
[..] As the world warmed, though, the ice began to melt, sea levels rose, and Beringia began to disappear, the coastline encroaching on what had been home. Where to go?”

As the environment changed before their eyes, the people of Beringia had to make a difficult decision: they could either go back to Asia now as newcomers, having to negotiate territory with the people already living there, or heading east, towards what’s now known as America, stepping into a land completely unexplored at the time.

As the authors suggest, both options had pros and cons, but surely they were both extremely risky. Eventually, some decided to go back west, to the land they originally came from, while others ventured east, becoming the first native Americans. Both of them faced great difficulties but eventually survived.

The ones who didn’t survive, however, were the ones who didn’t move.

A painting of hunter gatherers living in tents during winter

The value of mobility

What can we learn from the story of Beringia? Even if it’s partly anecdotal, it contains a lot of wisdom and it’s relevant to the times we live in.

The main lesson for me is that in times of great change, mobility is an invaluable asset. The ability to move easily, both physically and mentally, is leverage against change.

It seems that lot of us have lost this leverage: due to of our sedentary lives, we're anchored to a single place, we accumulate things that weight us down, we get attached to them. What many don't realize is that material cluttering and sedentism have a high psychological cost: people become less inclined to move and to change.

That's a problem because mobility, both intellectual and physical, is still fundamental to our survival, just as it was for our ancestors in Beringia.

An eskimo kid with horns

Sure, maybe it’s not the land that is disappearing before our eyes, but our sense of normality is. Society is changing fast, so fast that it’s hard to keep up with.

In a way, I feel that we are also reaching a threshold moment where we have two options. On one hand, we can renounce progress, unplug from society, go off the grid and live a simpler life. On the other hand, we can try to keep up with change, embracing progress and the challenges that will come with exploring its "new territory".

Both choices have pros and cons, and both are risky: one one hand you can have a less stressful life, but you give up the benefits of progress. On the other hand, you might enjoy the perks of progress, but feel overwhelmed by the disruption it leads to.

A crossroad in the forest
Photo by Jens Lelie

Which choice is best? Both are legitimate options. But if there is something you can learn from the story of Beringia, is that you shouldn't stand still. Don’t stay in place hoping that everything will be fine. Probably it won’t.

Reclaim your intellectual and physical mobility and head east or head west. But by all means get moving.


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