Around 20,000 years ago, what is now the sea between Siberia and North America was a land bridge. For several thousand years, during an ice age, a small population of humans lived there. A pause in history as a handful of men and women billowed into perfectly habitable hinterland, locked between two forbiddingly cold continents.
Today, the land bridge is submerged in hundreds of feet of water, but at the time it would have been lush, temperate, and coated in high grass and clusters of fragrant purple flowers. Pleistocene horses, oxen. American mountain lions. A now-extinct species of pine tree. Artemisia, willow, and woolly mammoths.
Imagine a young woman in this time. Living at the cusp of prehistory, in the years before the Holocene glacial retreat. Imagine her 30 years of killing, collecting, and cloud-gazing on the Bering Strait. There would have been nothing glamorous about her life; after all, there’s a reason we don’t make period pieces about the Pleistocene. Likely nasty, brutish, and short, in the words of one coiffed philosopher. Undeniably painful, and undeniably hard. Those many thousands of days are distant now, dissolved into strands of dirt and DNA.
None of us would trade places with her, not least because our depictions of cavemen have never been particularly flattering. In our stories, they moan and limp, dragging misshapen clubs through dust. Illiterate, un-Enlightened, and as vapidly ignorant of their semi-nakedness as boorish Adam and Eve.
But I can’t stop thinking about the land bridge, and the young woman who lived there. In my fantasy, she is strong, focused, sharp. Her body and mind, part of a chain of forebears forever lost. Not any less gifted than modern Man, and not any less flawed. Gathering bouquets of fireweed on the steppes with gray stone chipped into a hand ax. Watching the wind glide moodily through the grass. Her imagination spilling out like guts when she casts her gaze onto the lavender landscape. A mind not primitive, but boundless. Moving through the world like magic.
What brought this into being for you?
Em edit: Thanks for asking 🙂 It’s such a good question. This particular entry had a specific inspiration: “Body Count,” by Radiolab. It’s an episode of their podcast that tries to answer the question of how many human beings have ever lived/died. About halfway through they talk about the Beringia Refuge and I was totally enchanted. Here’s the link, if you’re interested.