Science agrees on this much: For most of their history, the Americas were a vast land with no people. Our ancestors left Africa and populated the rest of the world — Europe, Asia, even Australia — but never set foot here.
The story of how humans eventually arrived has become a familiar one. During the last ice age, the planet’s sea level dropped, uncovering a vast land bridge between Asia and America and allowing the first bands of people to migrate from the Russian far east into what is now Alaska. Once the glaciers receded, the new arrivals drove south to the Great Plains and went on to people the Americas. Their descendants founded pueblo cities, drove horses across the grasslands, built empires in the Andes. By the time Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1492, he had missed discovering the New World by a span of time so vast it would have escaped his comprehension.
Now a pair of archeologists are upending that widely accepted narrative with a new one. Citing a series of puzzling finds along the East Coast — finely wrought stone tools made thousands of years before the land-bridge migration — they suggest that the New World’s discoverers may have come not from Asia, but from Europe. Some 20,000 years ago, a Stone Age people known as the Solutreans lived in the lands of today’s Spain and France, and their tools bear striking similarities to the ones being found on the East Coast.
In a new book, “Across Atlantic Ice,” archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley suggest that during the ice age, as the polar ice expanded far to the south, the Solutreans could have put to sea in sealskin boats and hunted along the biologically rich ice edge, eventually following it west to North America.
If their idea, called the Solutrean hypothesis, becomes widely accepted, it would mean dramatic revisions to the story of the ancient world. It would mean that the sea played a central part in the drama of human expansion out of Africa, with oceans serving more as roads than as barriers. And in the matter of “who came first” — a question with heavy moral and political overtones — it would mean that all the Americas would have a new origin story to contend with.
“This may be one of the most important discoveries in the history of North American archeology,” says Boston University’s Curtis Runnels, who is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Field Archaeology and was not involved in the work. “A completely new world is coming into distant view.”
THE CONTROVERSIAL HYPOTHESIS is part of a new intellectual ferment surrounding the question of how and when the Americas were populated. For many decades, the reigning orthodoxy was, in the shorthand of archaeology, “Clovis-first.” The name comes from Clovis, New Mexico, where a distinctive type of stone tools was first identified. These tools have been found at numerous sites, but never dating from earlier than about 13,000 years ago — precisely the moment in prehistory when a corridor in the northern glacier would have opened up, allowing people down from what is now Alaska. Clovis-first is a grand unifying theory of America’s deep history: The land bridge immigrants, the people who made the Clovis tools, the founders — they are all the same people.
In recent years, though, archeologists have come to accept a lengthening list of so-called pre-Clovis sites, places with signs of people that date back too far to be part of that story. Clovis-first now looks untenable. This has brought new theories and also a measure of discord, as the prize of precedence is up for grabs.
“A lot of archeologists would like to be known as the person who discovered the origins of an entire people,” says Metin Eren, an archeologist at the University of Kent.
Stanford didn’t set out to explode the field of archaeology; in fact, he was looking for ways to confirm the Clovis-first theory. Stanford, now director of the Paleo-Indian Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, spent a substantial part of his early career at inhospitable digs in Alaska, hoping to find stone tools that could fill in a crucial missing piece of the puzzle. Clovis-style tools appear around 13,000 years ago in the heart of North American continent, so one would expect to find clear predecessors along the land bridge route that brought them there. But after more than two decades of work in Alaska, no evidence was forthcoming — in fact, to this day nobody has found any. This left Stanford, and his longtime collaborator, Bradley of the University of Exeter, with doubts about the idea that whoever made the Clovis tools had their roots in the Asian immigration.Continued...