So about the Land Bridge Theory…
In a shocking reversal of the traditional model of the peopling of the Americas, Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of the Archaeology Division, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, has claimed that the people who made the famous Clovis points, first discovered near Clovis, New Mexico in 1929, did not come from Asia. Probably they came from northern Spain. His interesting March 12, 2012 lecture given at Gustavus Adolphus College is available on YouTube.
Dr. Stanford, an expert on Clovis archaeology, begins his talk with an overview of the traditional Clovis First theory, which developed after sophisticated bifacial fluted points were found near Clovis and other sites in the American west in the 1930s. Subsequently, Clovis points – very distinctive in their style – were found in almost every state east of the Mississippi River. Note how both sides are worked all the way across the stone in the photo.
Based on those finds, archaeologists concluded that people arrived in the Americas by way of Beringia, the land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska during the Ice Age, and from there, they spread across and down the Americas. That’s a strange conclusion when you realize there was never any evidence of the Clovis people coming from Asia. Even stranger was the assumption of direction of human migration from north to south – during the Ice Age – and west to east. Yet the theory has been repeated so many times in the past seventy years that it’s assumed to be fact. An illustration something like this appears frequently in history texts.
However, after spending decades looking for the origins of Clovis points in Siberia, Stanford and other archaeologists realized that ancient Siberian technology was completely different from Clovis points. Instead of the distinctive bifacial fluted quartz crystal points the Clovis people used, ancient hunters in Siberia used pieces of bone that had sharpened stone shards driven into them.
As research on Clovis points continued and the findings from many different sites were compiled, archeologists found the vast majority of Clovis points were discovered on the east side of North America, especially in the areas now known as Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware and through the Appalachian region.
Further, the Clovis people seemed to have moved from the east to the west, or at least their technology did, not the other way around. The eastern sites tend to be quite large, supporting large populations, while the western sites are much smaller and more scattered.
Making the Solutrean Connection
In studying the sites along the east coast, Stanford found artifacts very similar to those made by the Solutrean Age people of northern Spain/southern France, especially the fluted bi-facial points. (See photo.) According to Stanford, working both sides (faces) of a spear point or knife is relatively uncommon. Most ancient people worked only one side of the stone. Flutes are the hollowed-out sections in the points that allowed them to be hafted (attached) to a spear or dart.
In addition to bi-facial points, Solutrean Age people in northern Spain and southern France developed atlatls (dart throwers), eyed needles, all-weather clothing, and extensive cave art dating back to 35,000 years ago, such as the famous paintings in Lascaux, El Castillo, and Altamira caves. Stanford points out that sites in coastal Maryland have yielded Solutrean-style points and other artifacts dating from 17,000 to 21,000 years ago. Scallop fishermen working seventeen miles off the Virginia coast in 1970 pulled up a mass of Mammoth bones with a Solutrean style point more than 18,000 years old embedded in one of the bones.
Stanford’s conclusion is that Clovis points were the next generation of Solutrean technology brought to the Americas by people from northern Spain/southern France. He backs up the theory with references to the rarity of bi-facial points, the similarities between Solutrean points and Clovis points, and the finding of Solutrean style points along the east coast of North America, the coast of Newfoundland, and off the coast of France and the Netherlands.
There are several points worth noting from Dr. Stanford’s talk:
- Clovis people did not come from Asia.
- They didn’t migrate south and east across the Americas.
And several other points worth considering though not included in his talk:
- Clovis people were clearly not the first people in the Americas, no matter where they came from. Cactus Hill (Virginia) and Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Pennsylvania) as well as important sites in South America, including Pedra Furada (Brazil) and Monte Verde (Chile) all predate Clovis by a very long time. Dr. Al Goodyear, digging at the Topper site in South Carolina, found Clovis points dating to 13,000 years ago. A meter deeper, he found numerous pre-Clovis stone artifacts dated by an outside team of geologists to 16,000 years ago. Five meters down, he found artifacts similar to the pre-Clovis tools, dated to 50,000 years ago.
- The study of Clovis points should not assume that the people traveled with the points. Maybe they did. Or maybe the technology spread in trade.
- Any single point of origin theory of human migration into the Americas should be suspect. It’s pleasantly simple and therefore seductive, but it’s limiting. It encourages archaeologists to ignore data that doesn’t fit within its clean, simple lines. Why do people have to arrive in the Americas from only one place of origin? If people were in the southern tip of Chile 30,000 years ago, probably they came by boat across the Pacific. If people were in northeastern Brazil 60,000 years ago, probably they came across the Atlantic from Africa. If people were in coastal Maryland 18,000 years ago, perhaps they came from Spain. If they were in Alaska, they probably came from Asia. These possibilities and many more can exist side by side. The evidence must determine the conclusion, not the theory.
- Many early settlements probably failed, for any number of reasons including natural disasters such as the Younger-Dryas Event, known as The Big Chill, which occurred between 12,800 and 11,500 years ago. People who lived in failed settlements would not be recorded in DNA lines of current inhabitants. Nevertheless, those people lived.
In his talk, Stanford briefly acknowledged that other people, before and after the Clovis people, may have arrived by boat along the west and east coast. However, he stopped short of opening the door to multiple migrations over a long period of time. He is a longtime Clovis advocate. It was a setback for him to realize that Clovis people didn’t come from Asia. But the Solutrean hypothesis allows him to form a new Clovis Theory and to connect Clovis points found in North America with the fabulous cave art and advanced building techniques of the Solutrean peoples of northern Spain and southern France. Certainly, the new theory is an improvement on the original Beringia story.
The debate over Clovis, while interesting, is ultimately only one chapter in a very complicated story. The past is far older than the beautiful Clovis points and more complicated than we like to admit. That’s what makes it fascinating.
Sources and interesting reading:
Dennis O’Neil, “Early Modern Human Culture” Behavioral Science Department, Palomar College, California, <http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_5.htm>
“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, November, 2004, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11
Dennis Stanford’s talk on the Clovis-Solutrean Connection http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLV9A8P00bw&list=LPfQThQ0_E_Vw&index=3&feature=plcp
“Clovis Point,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clovis_point
Ian Sample, “First humans arrive in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought,” The Guardian, July 7, 2010 <http:// www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jul/07/first-humans-britain-stone-tools>
“Aurignacian” Wikipedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurignacian
Richard A. Lovett, “Footprints Show 1st Americans Came 25,000 Years Early? National Geographic News, June 6, 2008, <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080606-ancient-footprints.html>