First Americans May Have Been European
By Bjorn Carey, LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 19 February 2006 08:16 pm ET
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ST. LOUIS—The first humans to spread across North America may have been seal hunters from France and Spain.
This runs counter to the long-held belief that the first human entry into the Americas was a crossing of a land-ice bridge that spanned the Bering Strait about 13,500 years ago.
The new thinking was outlined here Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The tools don’t match
Recent studies have suggested that the glaciers that helped form the bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska began receding around 17,000 to 13,000 years ago, leaving very little chance that people walked from one continent to the other.
Also, when archaeologist Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution places American spearheads, called Clovis points, side-by-side with Siberian points, he sees a divergence of many characteristics.
Instead, Stanford said today, Clovis points match up much closer with Solutrean style tools, which researchers date to about 19,000 years ago. This suggests that the American people making Clovis points made Solutrean points before that.
There’s just one problem with this hypothesis—Solutrean toolmakers lived in France and Spain. Scientists know of no land-ice bridge that spanned that entire gap.
The lost hunting party
Stanford has an idea for how humans crossed the Atlantic, though—boats. Art from that era indicates that Solutrean populations in northern Spain were hunting marine animals, such as seals, walrus, and tuna.
They may have even made their way into the floating ice chunks that unite immense harp seal populations in Canada and Europe each year. Four million seals, Stanford said, would look like a pretty good meal to hungry European hunters, who might have ventured into the ice flows much the same way that the Inuit in Alaska and Greenland do today.
Inuit use large, open hunting boats constructed from animal skins for longer trips or big hunts. These boats, called umiaq, can hold a dozen adults, as well as several children, dead seals or walruses, and even dog-sled teams. Inuit have been building these boats for thousands of years, and Stanford believes that Solutrean people may have used a similar design.
It’s possible that some groups of these hunters ventured out as far as Iceland, where they may have gotten caught up in the prevailing currents and were carried to North America.
“You get three boats loaded up like this and you would have a viable population,” Stanford said. “You could actually get a whole bunch of people washing up on Nova Scotia.”
Some scientists believe that the Solutrean peoples were responsible for much of the cave art in Europe. Opponents of Stanford’s work ask why, then, would these people stop producing art once they made it to North America?
“I don’t know,” Stanford said. “But you’re looking at a long distance inland, 100 miles or so, before they would get to caves to do art in.”
• Ancient People Followed ‘Kelp Highway’ to America, Researcher Says
• Possible Fire Pit Dated to Be Over 50,000 Years Old
• By Amy Geier Edgar, Associated Press
• posted: 18 November 2004 09:09 am ET
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• COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — In the growing debate about when people first appeared on this continent, a leading archaeologist said Wednesday he has discovered what could be sooty evidence of human occupation in North America tens of thousands of years earlier than is commonly believed.
• University of South Carolina archaeologist Al Goodyear said he has uncovered a layer of charcoal from a possible hearth or fire pit at a site near the Savannah River.
• Samples from the layer have been laboratory-dated to more than 50,000 years old. Yet Goodyear stopped short of declaring it proof of the continent’s earliest human occupation.
• “It does look like a hearth,” he said, “and the material that was dated has been burned.”
• Since the 1960s, anthropologists have generally accepted that hunters migrated to North America about 13,000 years ago over a land bridge into Alaska following the retreat of Ice Age glaciers.
• But other sites, including the Topper dig in South Carolina, have yielded rough stone tools and other artifacts suggesting that humans lived in North America thousands of years earlier when the climate was much colder. While there is no ironclad proof that an older culture existed, scientists are increasingly open to the idea that humans arrived from many other directions besides the northwest, perhaps even sailing across oceans.
• But a 50,000-year-old fire pit would scorch the prevailing occupation theory.
• Goodyear’s evidence was examined by other scientists, who performed radiocarbon tests on samples to determine their age. However, he made his initial case for the fire pit Wednesday in a news conference rather publishing data in a scientific journal edited by other researchers.
• Goodyear, who has worked the Topper site since 1981, discovered the charcoal layer in May.
• Thomas Stafford, director of Stafford Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., then took samples of the substance for tests at the University of California at Irvine.
• The results showed that wood varieties — oak, pine, red cherry and buckeye — had been burned in a low-temperature fire at least 50,300 years ago, he said.
• Stafford described the burnt layer as measuring 2 or 3 inches thick and about 2 feet wide. Rather than a simple black band in the soil, Stafford said the layer had the “shape of a very shallow plate.”
• He said it could have been the result of a fire tended by humans, or the ashes could have been deposited by wind, rain or flooding.
• Other researchers were more skeptical of Goodyear’s discovery, noting that previous claims of very old occupation at other sites never have been verified.
• “We still need to be cautious,” said Vanderbilt University anthropologist Tom Dillehay. “I would not yet rewrite the books. The find is very significant and shows that there is much we don’t understand and can’t easily reject or accept.”
• Other scientists were blunter.
• “I think it’s a 50,000-year-old geologic deposit,” said University of Texas archaeologist Mike Collins. “It has almost nothing to do with the story of the peopling of North America.”
• Modern humans are believed to have emerged from Africa 100,000 years ago and spread around the world, elbowing out less capable human cousins like Homo erectus and Neanderthals.