Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Did first Americans float here or walk?

By Lee Bowman
February 20, 2006

ST. LOUIS - Generations of schoolbooks have portrayed the arrival of the first modern humans to America as an epic ice-age hike across a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, then a dash between glaciers covering the west and east of Canada.

But scientists who have devoted much of their careers over the past several decades to better understanding of the peopling of the Americas are increasingly doubtful that the first arrivals only walked into the hemisphere, if they walked at all. Instead, evidence is growing that they paddled, or floated, much of the way, perhaps via the Atlantic as well as the Pacific.

"The coastal-migration theory has yet to be proven with hard evidence, but we have been finding earlier and more widespread evidence for coastal settlement around the Pacific Rim," said Jon Erlandson, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon who spoke during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here over the weekend.

In particular, his team shows how migration routes may have followed giant kelp forests growing along Pacific Rim coastlines even in the deepest freeze of the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago.

On the other side of the continent, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington over the past decade or so has seen a growing list of archaeological sites from Spain and Britain and from Florida to Virginia to Wisconsin lend support to his theory that bands of sea-mammal hunters living on the edge of Europe reached the New World in numbers sufficient to found colonies 5,000 years or more before any land bridge might have been available.

"The objection has been that people living in the far north couldn't have gotten across the Atlantic because they didn't have boats; that they didn't venture out into the ocean ice. But they did have boats, and if they were anything like those the Eskimos have been using for thousands of years, some of the boats could carry 18-20 adults hundreds of miles," Stanford said.

The discoveries reflect change in the way researchers are going about studying prehistoric culture, turning to colleagues who have expertise in everything from ancient climate and prehistoric animals to ecologists.

Paleoanthropology has traditionally been mostly about stone tools, particularly blades more or less skillfully flaked into knives, spear points and axes. How a tool was made, and from what sort of material, tells experts a lot about who made it; a little radiocarbon dating of organic material, often charcoal, found around the tools, tells them when they were made, usually within a few hundred years each way.

Until recently, most of the older stone implements found in North and Central America seemed to have been made with the same technique by people dubbed the Clovis culture, for the first material found in New Mexico during the 1930s, and dated back to no more than about 11,500 years ago.

A few sites in Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that held tools of different styles that seemed to be as much as 10,000 years older had been largely written off, until more old tools coming from layers dating back 14,000, 17,000, even 50,000 years ago started turning up along the East Coast. And diverse sites in South America have yielded artifacts dating to 33,000 years ago, although controversies about methods used to date sites are a staple of the field.

Stanford, who has spent much of his career studying cultures around the Arctic, was among the first to note that spear points and other tools found on the East Coast have a lot in common with points made by a Stone Age culture known as Solutrean, centered in what's now Southwestern France.

In recent years, he and colleagues have found strong evidence in the form of bones, paintings and other items in coastal caves of Spain that Solutreans used harpoons and boats to go out into icy waters and hunt seals, walrus and auks. And they've worked with ancient-climate specialists to establish that sea icepack extended that far south in the Atlantic during the last ice age.

One of the problems in proving this frozen-highway theory in the Atlantic has been that any coastal camps the hunters may have used now lie submerged well out on the continental shelf due to rising sea level. However, Stanford noted that some promising artifacts - along with walrus bones - have turned up recently at new sites around the Chesapeake Bay, for instance.

In the Pacific, Erlandson and many other paleoanthropologists have found and excavated camps of marine hunters at many spots along the coast, particularly offshore islands. What's been missing is something to connect them as a migration route.

It is known that seafaring people lived at least as far north as Japan at the height of the last glacial period, but a team of marine biologists and other specialists helped Erlandson demonstrate how the fish- and mammal-rich kelp forests ran in an arch all the way from the Kurile Islands to Alaska and along all or most of the Pacific Coast. The kelp beds not only ensured food, but also could have helped protect small boats from big waves and served as mooring points.

"The fact that these productive kelp forests are found adjacent to some of the earliest coastal archaeological sites in the Americas really enhances the argument that the first Americans didn't walk here, they floated. In essence, they may have utilized a sort of kelp highway," Erlandson said.

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Respectfully, the hypothesis that the Solutrean culture in Spain and France, dating between 24,000 and 16,500 years ago during the height of the Ice Age, may have managed a transatlantic Solutrean migration as Dr. Dennis Stanford has proposed is highly intriguing but untenable, notwithstanding the exciting resemblance of the Solutrean fluted spear points technology with the Clovis point technology and earlier Cactus Hill/Meadowcroft technology developed by the native Americans. The search for a Solutrean “Christopher Columbus” is a dry hole. Putting aside the possibility of a tiny Pacific island-hopping migration to South America post-Clovis migration of 13,500 years ago – the peoples who migrated to the Americas came through the Bering Strait land bridge, although not at the same time. Geneticists analyzing mt-DNA of living Native Americans have found four distinctive lineages, A, B, C and D, all sharing common human ancestors in Siberia and northeast Asia. Three of the four main ancestral groups A, C and D, separated from their Asian ancestors at least 20,000 years ago, evidence of a huge time gap in these migrations, and suggesting passage into North America even before the Ice Age took hold. These mt-DNA studies demonstrated that the first Americans crossed over from Asia in at least four separate waves of migration. In fact, it was likely numerous separate migrations if one counts small groups of hunters that ventured across the Bering Strait and possibly back again. The first small migration to the Americas occurred some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago from Asia and settled in the Yukon or followed the Pacific coast rim of North America. These early genetic studies themselves tend to refute the hypothesis that the Solutreans brought over Clovis spear point technology from Europe some 20,000 years, who had somehow managed, on that speculation, to cross thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean to reach America. The human race did not possess such Viking-like seafaring skills and ships capable of transatlantic passage so long back, notwithstanding the brave passage to Australia some 50,000 years ago in canoes, following the African exodus of Homo sapiens. But that passage was less than 100 miles back then -- not 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean. Dugouts and rafts could navigate the former if they had extremely good luck over the open seas, but never the latter. Eskimo-style boats of wood, sealskin and whale oil did not exist in the Solutrean culture.
The only other scenario for Solutrean transit from Europe would have required these brave folks back 20,000 years ago to hike across the Arctic tundra. Though adventuresome humans during that age may have ventured far north towards the brutal Ice Age Arctic, there was no return for these stragglers, and they either froze to death or died from starvation even before reaching the Circle. No caribou furs could protect a man from such harsh Arctic conditions on foot over snow and ice or in open paddle boats, even if bundled up as tightly as was the 5,300 year old “Ice Man” discovered in 1991 on a barren Alpine pass in Italy near the Austrian border, as shown in a mock-up exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. Such a journey through the Arctic was impossible in the Solutrean day and age.
No, Native Americans all derive from Asians who crossed over from Siberia (putting aside a small few Pacific island-mariners post-Clovis) in multiple waves of widely spaced migrations. Still, there is an uncanny resemblance between the Clovis spear points in America and the spear points of the Solutreans in Europe, both made from a similar technique. It is furthermore noteworthy that the Clovis spear point in North America was nothing like the spear points of Asia and Siberia made from small razor-like flints called micro-blades embedded in a bone handle, though a fluted bifacial point was discovered at Uptar in northeastern Siberia from 8,260 years ago. But the dissimilarity of weaponry between the Siberian and Clovis hunters does not signify that the Clovis people did not cross over from Siberia. They did. What it means is that these Chukchi hunters who migrated to North America were enormously innovative and developed a killer weapon that could tear through the hide of even the toughest mammoth. This weapon permitted mankind to populate both North and South America within the space of a thousand years. Peoples in Europe also figured out the same general weapons technology, but did so independently.
Simultaneous development in different parts of the globe should not be so surprising if it is kept in mind that Providence guided the human migrations and, frankly, much of human activities. Consider the fact that painted hand stencils or spray-painted hands appear in early cave paintings in Cueva de las Manos (“cave of the hands”) in Argentina, Patagonia region as they do in the caves of Roucadour in France and Australia. But that similarity does not suggest that the hand-stencil artists came from the same culture, only that they both had the same idea. Humans are like that.
On the other hand, the prospect that a handful of Pacific island-dwellers surrounding Australia or the Polynesians Islands, at some point in time, traveled over to South America on small boats remains open. But it is impossible that such Pacific island-hoppers made the trip to South America in pre-Clovis days (11,500 B.P.) or that they possessed the seafaring skills or canoes to make the enormous trans-Pacific journey, before 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. For even two islanders to cross thousands of miles of Pacific seas during that age in a canoe or catamaran boat would have been utterly miraculous. But it was possible, and this author is of the view that it did happen thousands of years ago post-Clovis, but all in all only in extremely small numbers, under 10 individuals, prior to the last thousand years. Such island voyagers to the Americas would have likely left their genetic imprint.
The Polynesians' primary voyaging craft in later years was the double canoe made of two hulls connected by lashed crossbeams. The two hulls gave their craft stability over the rough oceans and the capacity to carry heavy loads of families and their supplies and equipment; a central platform laid over the crossbeams provided the needed working, living, and storage space. Sails made of plaited leaves drove this ancient forerunner of the modern catamaran swiftly through the waters of the Pacific. Long steering paddles enabled Polynesian sailors to stay on course. These mariners developed a highly sophisticated navigation system based on observations of the stars, the ocean swells and currents, the flight patterns of seabirds and other natural signs to find their way over vast stretches of open ocean. And, as they moved farther away from the centers of Southeast Asia and New Guinea and finding familiar flora and fauna diminished, they developed a portable agricultural system whereby plants and animals they had domesticated were carried along in their canoes for transplantation onto new shores.
Tx for your comment.

I would like to know if you autorize me to transform this comment in a reply article to "Did first Americans float here or walk?"
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