Thursday, March 1, 2012

Were the First Americans from Europe?

Who were the first Americans?
Interesting article in today's New York Times outlining evidence that the Americas might have been settled by the Solutrean people of Iberia, sometime around 20,000 BC. A number of stone points and other tools have been found on the east coast, both on land and some miles out to sea, that have been indirectly but consistently dated to that time period, which is considerably earlier than most evidence for a migration via Siberia. A much larger Arctic ice cap and lower sea levels might have allowed a "coastal" voyage (i.e., along the edge of the ice cap) from Europe to North America, and the lower sea levels would explain the tools dredged up by fishing boats some miles offshore: they would have been on dry land when deposited. 

And so, there is speculation that the Solutrean people might have had skin-on-frame boats, and that they migrated east-to-west, living a kind of pre-Inuit maritime hunting culture and not stopping until they reached the relatively benign climate of the Chesapeake Bay.

Even if this speculation is correct, it doesn't imply that the Solutreans then went on the populate the Americas. A small East Coast colony might have remained for some time and then died out, leaving the Americas again unpopulated until about 15,000 BC, when the Siberian migration took place. 


  1. I hold the position that open water is a highway not a barrier. Lot of work on this being done regarding the European Atlantic coast and the North Sea.

    Admittedly the Atlantic is big but not that big if you have lower sea levels and ice shelfs to park on.

    When we get into more recent prehistory the Atlantic begins to seem very busy. Cod fishermen on the banks off Newfoundland were probably surprised to hear of the Cabots as being pioneers. Then there are the Carthaginians and all the White God stories in South America. Add in the speculations of Farley Mowat in his book "The Farfarers" (Alban Quest in Britain) of walrus hunters going across to America along with the possibilities of Irish monks and Vikings.
    Then of course we have all the activity from earliest times on the Pacific side.

    However, much more work is needed, as you indicated, to determine the genetic contribution of all these visitors.

  2. Bob - my compliments on this excellent blog, which I'm delighted to have discovered.

    I share the outlook that the seas have long provided access rather than imposing a barrier, and, given the evidence of deeply ancient sea crossings, I would further suspect that sails have been in use for tens if not hundreds of millennia. Any child who's watched a wind-blown leaf scudding across a pond has had the basic concept instilled in their memory.

    The belated acknowledgement reported above of flint-knapping travellers to N. America is perhaps a case in point. There is no good reason to suppose that those travellers lacked the skills and materials for producing seaworthy skin-on-frame vessels, but completing the ~5,000 mile journey in say a 25-week summer season (av 28.6 mls /day made good) would be a very hard slog indeed if canoe paddles were the only motive power. Particularly given the time needed to hunt rations, to find and haul-out on safe ice and make camp, to wait out bad weather, etc, as well as the absence of any hot food once the canoes' charcoal stocks ran out.

    No doubt it could be done as a challenge, but it is hard to see anything like enough families being motivated to do it to have generated the widespread artifact heritage now being found in North America.

    Vessels on the lines of a large well-ballasted umiak, with basic oiled leather lugsails (aka a 'square sail', of split walrus, seal or deer-hide) hung on larch-pole masts, would transform the journey into something more leisurely, with the crews able to fish and hunt on route, and camp up for a day or two per week. This in turn would explain the scale of the colonies now evidenced far more cogently than the default option of paddled S-o-F canoes, let alone wooden dugouts.

    (On a technical note, I suspect that Severin might have suffered from a pivotal mis-translation of the latin account of St Brendan's voyage, wherein the vessel's cowhide skin was supposedly sealed with 'fat', which he interpreted as lanolin, which he then applied to cured hides. If the latin for 'fat' were instead translated as blubber, then the option of using highly effective seal-blubber pitch on tight dried rawhide would be indicated for vessels making intercontinental passages).

    Given the predictable absence of archaeology of SoF sailing vessels it is mostly through the evidence of sea-crossings and cargo deliveries that their history can be inferred. Once that history is acknowledged, much that is still mysterious in 'prehistory' becomes explicable.

    So to this end, I wonder if you might be persuaded to launch an open-ended post focused on the issue, to gradually bring together all of the diverse cases of early sea-going capacities ? I'd hope it might be of real value in finally getting archaeology over the inherited obstructive hang-up with a post-neolithic superiority.

    With my regards and thanks,


    1. Lewis,
      Thanks for your kind and thought-provoking comments.
      The only clear example I can think of to begin to satisfy your request is the settlement of Australia some 80,000 BP (I think), which must have occurred by boat tens of thousands of years earlier than such boats should have existed based on our existing understanding of the development of technology. But exist they evidently did, so our model for the early development of technology must be wrong.
      I'm sorry that I'm not sufficiently well-read in paleoanthopology to take up your suggestion in a more substantial manner, but I'd be glad to have your input on this; perhaps you could take the lead on the discussion?