Another book, Another controversy

MV migration_map

 

The Misfits and Heroes novels were born out of my belief that humans arrived in the Americas by many different routes at different times.  That went against the theory widely taught in school: that the first humans to reach the Americas walked across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska about 13,000 years ago. They followed big game and wandered down an ice-free corridor between mile-high ice sheets.  Eventually they populated all of the Americas.

I never doubted that some people arrived that way, but not many.  The land simply couldn’t support many.

Then I read about other finds – in Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Florida.  They all seemed to predate that ice-free corridor in Alaska and the Yukon.  Further, some prominent geologists and paleo-anthropologists claimed the ice-free corridor, if it ever existed, wasn’t passable until 10-12,000 years ago, long after the first settlements in North America.  Consider Topper Hill, South Carolina (50,000 years old), Pedra Furada, Brazil (32,000 – 48,000 years old), Monte Verde II, Chile (at least 18,500 years old), Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Pennsylvania (17,000 years old), and Huaca Prieta, Peru (15,000 years old).  Given the antiquity and sophistication of these sites, it seems absurd to hold onto the theory that development and culture moved solely from the north to the south, beginning 13,000 years ago.

But the belief persisted, mainly because it’d been repeated so many times people assumed it had been proven beyond any doubt.  At one point, I questioned the whole concept of the “Clovis People” and “Clovis Culture,” since Clovis points were a lithic style, a technological improvement that spread from the southeastern US across North America and down to Venezuela.  My argument was that iPhones have spread across the globe, but their presence does not indicate either a “people” or a “culture.”  It’s simply a very useful bit of technology.  However, my opinion struck a nerve among archaeologists, some of whom claimed they had a bookshelf full of volumes explaining the Clovis people and their culture.  So I let it go.  But in my heart, I think the Clovis points were a valuable trade item that was held in such high esteem it was included in grave goods.  (I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today since technology changes so rapidly. When I started working, really rich people had huge speakers for their component sound system.  Today, a system the size of a shoe-box delivers far better sound.)

Olmec head unearthed

When I visited the Olmec site at La Venta (at least 3500 years old), near Villahermosa, Mexico, I was struck by the amazing sculptures there.  Later, in an attempt to drum up interest in my new Latin American Literature class, I took pictures from La Venta into my composition classes at Mott College in Flint, Michigan.  Without telling the students anything more than dimensions, materials, and probable age of the pieces, I asked what they thought of them. Olmec mask 4

Every group had the same responses: “They’re African” or “They’re Asian.”  It was so consistent, it made me wonder.  What if African explorers came across the Atlantic to the Americas?  What if Asian explorers came across the Pacific?  What if they met somewhere – perhaps in the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, and the fusion of cultures created the fire that forged a brand new civilization?

Those questions (and one more) became the basis of the Misfits and Heroes novels.

West Africa

 

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa

The first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, tells a tale of people forced to learn quickly when their boat is swept out into the open sea.  They end up heroes not because they were born with special powers but because they rose to the challenge and made a new life in a new world.

The journey itself has been repeated many times.  Katie Spotz rowed a bow across the Atlantic – solo.  Axel Busch sailed across the Atlantic – solo – in 21 days.  You can watch his video on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses  In 1970, Thor Heyerdahl took Ra II, a reed boat modeled after Egyptian sailing vessels, from Morocco to Barbados, in the Caribbean.

In 2006, English adventurer Anthony Smith put an ad in The Daily Telegraph, reading “Fancy rafting cross the Atlantic?  Famous traveler requires three crew Must be OAP (Old Age Pensioners).  Serious adventurers only.”  Smith, with a bit of whimsy and a nod to Heyerdahl, named his raft the An-tiki.  In 2011, the group floated 2,763 miles across the Atlantic, surviving storms and a lost rudder, and ending up on St. Martin, in the Caribbean.  Smith did exactly what he wanted to do – replicate the journey of two British seamen who survived drifting for 70 days in a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by a German warship in 1940.

Clearly, all these people were able to cross the Atlantic from West Africa because the current and winds were in their favor. Why then wouldn’t it be possible for ancient people to make the same journey, carried by the same currents?  Long-standing prejudice held that ancient people couldn’t take boats across open water, but new evidence shows that our cousins, the Neanderthals, did exactly that, crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 175,000 years ago.

Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.

 

The South Pacific

The second book in the series, Past the Last Island, takes an even bigger leap: it says that the great navigators of the South Pacific found their way across the Pacific Ocean to the Americas in ancient times – not by going all the way north and following the coast down North America, but by traversing open water.  The boat in the illustration is Polynesian.

map Polynesian boat

 

Clearly their ancestors learned to use boats early on.  Homo Floresiensis, or The Hobbit People as they’re known because of their short stature, occupied an island on the far eastern edge of what is now Indonesia between 50,000 and 190,000 years ago.  Getting there required crossing deep ocean water.

For island people, water was the road, the connection, the wide world.  They had to learn how to use it.

Polynesian star compass

The area encompassing Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and Polynesia would have been a melting pot of peoples and cultures, in which sea prowess would have played an important role in identifying leaders.  The person who could use the wind and waves to travel was admirable.  The voyager who could find a way back, even at night, was probably worth elevating to the status of leader.  Knowledge was power.  A Polynesian star compass is pictured.

Even after Europeans colonized the South Pacific islands and forced people to stay put, native knowledge of the winds, stars, and currents was passed on, sometimes in secret.  When a famous European sailor agreed to sail hundred of miles with native Polynesian navigators, the European was so worried he brought his sextants and charts with him and hid them, but he never needed to use them.  Despite the European characterization of the people as “primitives,” their knowledge of the sea astounded seasoned European sailors.

It’s now clear that South Pacific seafarers reached Hawaii (possibly following migrating flocks of golden plovers) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) long before European sailors even knew the places existed.  Recent studies of sweet potato DNA suggest trade existed between Polynesia and South America long before the conquistadors arrived.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875Ancient Polynesian DNA retrieved from some Botocudo skulls in a Brazilian museum seems to indicate the presence of Polynesians in Brazil long before the 13,000 BP land bridge was supposed to have opened up in Alaska. (Drawings of Botocudo man shown)

In 2015, Harvard geneticist Pontus Skoglund discovered DNA links between Amazon Indians and the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea.

 

The site at Monte Verde, in southern Chile, supports this claim.  Despite ferocious resistance from American archaeologists, the site is now recognized as being at least 18,500 years old.  Further, finds at the site suggest that the settlement was one of several that enjoyed a trade network.  So, how did people get to southern Chile?  Either they went all the way down the coast from Alaska, a very long journey, or they came across the southern Pacific.

As with the first book, I’m suggesting that some people would purposely seek out the unknown.  Perhaps they were outcasts, thrown out of their villages and left to survive if they could.  Many probably died, but some didn’t.  Or perhaps, just like modern people, some simply wanted to know what lay beyond the edge of the world.

Past the Last Island – Click on the picture for the Amazon link.

 

The Merger of Asian and African

The third book takes the biggest risk of all – suggesting a merger of the two groups.  But that seems to be what happens when different groups of people occupy the same area.  For many years, scientists claimed it wasn’t possible for Neanderthals and modern humans to mate, but most of us carry Neanderthal DNA, so clearly, they could and did mate.  And they probably learned a great deal from each other.

If a small group arrived in the Americas and started a settlement, they’d eventually fail unless they found new blood to add to the tribe.  I’m guessing that a group of 12 or 15 people couldn’t thrive.  In that case, a stranger would be both a threat and a promise.  A Meeting of Clans shows both responses.

Complicating this story is the presence of yet another group – outcasts who have become so violent they understand nothing else.

A Meeting of Clans

 

 

The Outsiders

MV Solutrean

The fourth book grew out of a strange theme in Mesoamerican and South American art – the bearded stranger who looks nothing like the others in the group.  Yet he (and it’s usually a male) is clearly in a position of authority.  So I combined this idea with part of the Solutrean Hypothesis put forth by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter.  Their theory suggests that humans from what is now northern Spain and southern France reached the Americas and brought several technological innovations with them, including the dart thrower (atlatl – illustrated below), eyed needles, and a thin, bi-faced point that supporters claim became the inspiration for the famous Clovis points that spread across North America.

Atlatl-illustration-1024x460

 

As you would expect, detractors abound.  Many complain about Stanford’s proposed route, which went north from Europe, skirted the ice and ended up in northern North America.  Since most of the very promising sites on the eastern coast of North America are in the south, I agree that the ice route is unlikely.  However, the idea of people crossing from northern Spain to the Americas is still very possible.  For one thing, the vast majority of the Clovis-style points have been found in the southeastern US.

clovis_continent_647kb

If the originators came from Asia, the majority should have been in the northwest.  For another, the travelers in my book would be following approximately the same route Columbus did, except a whole lot earlier!  It seems fitting somehow.

So the theory is a wild one, but it’s the basis of the newest book in the series.  And the hero is truly a misfit!

A Family of Strangers 

 

The Misfits and Heroes series

All the books are the children of controversy.  And that’s fine, at least with me.  They’re fiction.  They’re meant to open up new ideas for the reader’s consideration.  For too long we’ve repeated a story about everyone coming to the Americas across the Land Bridge from Asia about 13,000 years ago.  But with so much evidence to the contrary, we can no longer cling to that tale.  So the books present another possibility.

Much of what we thought we knew is changing.  New studies suggest modern humans may have arisen as far back as 300,000 years ago, perhaps in more than one place.  The story of human origins seems to have a great many subplots.

In the next ten or twenty years, the dates of very early settlements in the Americas will probably keep leaping backward as new finds surface.

 

If you haven’t already read the books, I hope you’ll check them out on Amazon or other on-line sellers or ask your local bookseller to get them.  Whether or not you subscribe to any of these theories, you can enjoy the books.  They’re just good stories, full of human drama and adventure. If you like them, tell others or leave a review – or both.  And thanks to those who have!

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Many of these topics are also covered in earlier posts on this blog, and sources are listed for each.

“Anthony Smith (explorer)” Wikipedia, htps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Smith_(explorer)

Axel Busch sail across the Atlantic video, You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPL35Ul0Ses

Botkin-Kowacki, Eva. “A final blow to myth of how people arrived in the Americas,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 August 2016,  https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/0810/A-final-blow-to-myth-of-how-people-arrived-in-the-Americas

Bower, Bruce.  “People may have lived in Brazil more than 20,000 years ago,” Science News, 5 September 2017, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker-stone/stone-age-people-brazil-20000-years-ago?utm_content=buffer8976dd&utm_medium=social&utm_sour

Doucleff, Michaeleen.  “How the sweet potato crossed the Pacific way before the Europeans did,” NPR, Food, History, and Culture, 22 January 2013, http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/16998044/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus

Gannon, Megan. “Study: The First Americans Didn’t Arrive by the Bering Land Bridge,” Mental Floss, 10 August 2016, http://mentalfloss.com/article/84506/first-americans-didnt-arrive-bering-land-bridge-study-says

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks blog, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reviews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

“Homo Floresiensis”  Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis

Hilleary, Cecily.  “Native Americans Call for Rethink of Bering Strait Theory,” VOA news, 19 June 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/native-americans-call-rethink-of-bering-strait-theory/3901792.html

“New Evidence Puts Man in North America 50,000 Years Ago,” Science Daily, 18 November 2004, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away populations stir up a Palaeoamerican mystery,” Nature, 01 April 2013. http:///www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-polynesians-1.12710

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest: Prehistoric axes found on a Greek island suggest that seafaring existed in the Mediterranean more than a hundred thousand years earlier than thought,” National Geographic, 17 February 2010, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

“Solutrean Hypothesis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis

Vialou, Denis, Mohammed Benabdelbadi, James Feathers, Michel Fontugne, “Peopling South America’s center: the late Pleistocene site of Santa Elina, Antiquity, 08 August 2017, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/peopling-south-americas-centre-the-late-pleistocene-site-of-santa-elina/04FF561EBC1883B6

Yirka, Bob. “Evidence suggests Neanderthals took to boats before modern humans,” Phys.org   1 March 2012, https://phys.org/news/2012-03-evidence-neanderthals-boats-modern-humans.html

Wade, Lizzie.  “Traces of some of South America’s earliest people found under ancient dirt pyramid,” Science, 24 May 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/traces-some-south-amercias-s-earliest-people-found-under-ancient-dirt-pyramid

Overthrowing Old Theories

We’ve long thought of ancient people as a little (or a lot) less sophisticated than we are.  Maybe the March of Progress illustration is to blame, but we see the folks who came before us as kind of dull-witted.  I mean, they didn’t have iPhones, right?

Worse is the assumption that they also lacked intelligence and emotional complexity, even language.  This despite extensive evidence to the contrary, including new finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa, including engraved red ochre blocks, ochre mixing kits, shell beads, as well as bone and stone tools dated 70,000 to 100,000 years ago!

Let’s take a boat

And why do we assume that our ancient ancestors had to walk everywhere when evidence of their boating ability abounds?

Humans crossed open sea and reached Australia by boat 50 – 75,000 years ago. (Kimberly rock art shown in photo)

Homo kimberley-hand-stencil 40,000 kya

Thomas Stasser and Eleni Panagopoulou’s work on Crete uncovered stone artifacts over 130,000 years old.  Their conclusion: modern humans were not the first to sail the Mediterranean.  Neanderthals, or perhaps even earlier hominins arrived before them.

Homo map Crete at center

Map of Mediterranean – Crete at center

Even earlier evidence points to hominins’ ability to sail.  Homo Floresiensis, the so-called “Hobbit People” for their diminutive size, braved treacherous deep sea waters to reach the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia.  Some artifacts on the island are 800,000 years old.

England enjoyed at least four waves of colonizers, starting 800,000 years ago.  The Boxgrove site on the southern coast yielded the oldest hominin remains: a leg bone and two teeth from what might be Homo heidelbergensis, considered the ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

But in the Americas

On the other hand, the peopling of the Americas is always described as a plodding migration of humans along a single path.  According to the theory most often taught in school, Ice Age hunters followed big game across what was then the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, known as Beringia.

It wasn’t a new theory.  Jose de Acosta of Spain first proposed it in 1590.

The Smithsonian vs. Clovis First

The Smithsonian Institution has had an interesting relationship with Clovis First.  Although the first “Clovis” point was discovered in 1906 by George McJunkin, a self-educated African-American cowboy and former slave, it didn’t come to the attention of the Smithsonian until the 1920s when Jess Higgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, found a similar point embedded in an extinct bison. In the 1930s more points like these were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, which gave its name to the famous lithic style.  The theory that grew out of these finds stated that the first Americans came across the Land Bridge from Asia and from there spread throughout the Americas.

Ales Hrdlicka, taking over from William Henry Holmes at the Smithsonian, used his considerable influence to squash any research into the Clovis theory.  But the evidence kept piling up that modern humans were in North America at the same time as mammoths and Ice Age bison, about 13,000 years ago.

clovis_continent_647kb

The Paleoindian Database of the Americas map above shows the distribution of Clovis points found in North America.  The highest concentration is in the middle south.

So the push was on, with renegade western archaeologists pitted against the stodgy Eastern establishment.  The theory eventually proved so popular that it was accepted as dogma.  In a strange turn of events, anyone who questioned Clovis First was ridiculed by the archaeological establishment.  Its force became so strong that any study that produced results conflicting with it was considered flawed.  Scientists learned to ignore results that didn’t fit the model.

Thousands of maps like this one, courtesy of Bing, were created, presenting an over-simplified and probably incorrect picture of the peopling of the Americas.

Homo beringamigration

Over the years, finds that conflicted with Clovis First kept coming in.  Clovis points are concentrated in the southeastern part of the USA, not the west, as would be expected from the Clovis First migration theory.

In yet another strange turn-around, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now claims there was never any evidence of Clovis points originating in Siberia.  He now claims that the points are Solutrean, and the colonizers came from northern Spain to the eastern coast of North America.

And now to South America

When Tom Dillehay came up with a date of 14,800 years ago for the Monte Verde site in Chile, the archaeological community, in a fit of collective panic, said they simply couldn’t accept evidence that refuted their favorite theory.  No site in South America could predate the opening of the ice sheets in North America.

Homo monte-verde-chile

CREDIT: KENNETH GARRETT/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, 1997 TOM D. DILLEHAY, STANDING, AND MARIO PINO LEADING A SCIENTIFIC TEAM THAT FOUND EVIDENCE IN MONTE VERDE IN CHILE THAT HUMANS HAD BEEN IN THE NEW WORLD 1,300 YEARS BEFORE PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. 

And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.

This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong.  Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.

upside-down-americas-250x300

But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama:  Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas?  Not just coastline huggers.  True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.

Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea.  Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.

PTLI new cover

That’s the premise of the second book in my series, Past the Last Island.  A group of explorers, driven away from their homeland by natural disasters, purposely sets out into the open ocean to find whatever lies beyond the edge of the world.  I believe that’s a human trait.  It’s what took us to the moon and someday, I hope, to Mars and other planets.

If we grant the people from long ago the same intelligence and complexity we value in ourselves, we open up new possibilities in our history, and our collective story becomes that much richer.

 

(The next big shake-up in the ancients’ world is going to come from China. Stay tuned.)

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave

Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012, news.discovery.com/human/evolution/ancient-hominids_sailors_seas.htm

“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis.html

Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/who-arrived-in-the-americas-first.html

Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141923.

Dixon, Jim, “Vicariant models for the initial colonization of North America,” People Colonizing New Worlds, 1st Harvard Australian Studies Symposium, 17-18 April, 2009

“First Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought,” New Scientist, Daily News, 24 March 2011, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20287-first-americans-arrived-2500-years-before-we-thought?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref+online-news

Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/

“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Anthropology.net: Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009, http://anthropology.net/2009/06/12/100000-year-old-incissed-ochre-found-at-blombos-cave/

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reiews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/?no-ist

Meltzer, David. “Why don’t we know when the first people came to North America?” American Antiquity, 54(3), 1989, 471-490.  (This article is interesting but out of date.)

Map of Clovis points distribution, PIDBA, Paleoindian Database of the Americas, web.utk.edu/~dander19/clovis_continent-647kb.jpg

“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,” Discovery.com, 13 December 2012, newsdiscovery.com/history/archaeology/Neanderthals-sailed-Mediterranean-121115.htm

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010,  news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v333/n6173/abs/333554a0.html

“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog, http://peregringo.com/?attachment_id=315

Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-top-five-human-evolution-discoveries-from-england-6792571/

Wilford, John Noble.  “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html

 

 

 

Monte Verde Mysteries

Monte Verde is an archaeological site in southern Chile, currently situated some 35 miles (45 kilometers) east of the Pacific coast on Chinchihuapi Creek. It doesn’t look extraordinary, but discoveries made on both sides of this little creek are shaking up the archaeological world. After twenty years of challenges from doubting archaeologists, especially those supporting the Clovis First theory, the evidence from Monte Verde still supports the thesis that this site was occupied by humans at least 14,800 years ago, which makes it the oldest widely accepted site of human habitation in the Americas.

Monte Verde siteMonte Verde map

The site, incredibly well-preserved by a bog, challenges many – make that almost all – of our preconceptions about ancient explorers in the Americas. And it raises many questions without easy answers.

 

 

 

Question 1

Is the site 14 ,800 years old – or more than twice that old?

The oldest human habitation date that archaeologist and anthropologist Tom Dillehay suggested – and subsequently defended against loud criticism from fellow American archaeologists – was 14,800 years ago, the date he and his colleague, geologist Mario Pino, connected with the bottom layer of the first excavation. In this area, they found stone artifacts including points, bola stones, and a drill, the remains of wood frame structures apparently covered in hides and floored with rough planks, ropes and knots, two large fire pits, animal bones and fur, remains of tubers, seeds, nuts, berries, mushrooms, seaweed, algae, and leaves. The finds included 15 species of aquatic plants and 45 other plant species. It was an extraordinary discovery.

But it was complicated by an even more extraordinary find just the other side of the creek, where Dillehay and Pino found stone tools and evidence of hearths that were over 30,000 years old. Dillehay knew that 14,800 year old date would be extremely controversial, so he chose to effectively ignore the earlier finds.

Pino and Dillehay(Pino, left, and Dillehay, right, in photo)

“I don’t yet see any reason to believe people were in the Americas and that far south 30,000 years ago,” Dillehay remarked. In his report, he acknowledged the presence of the stone tools and carbon scatters consistent with hearths but refused to make the much earlier claim.

Mario Pino, on the other hand, did make the claim. So how old is Monte Verde? “There’s no doubt about the age – it’s 33,000 years old,” Pino said in a New York Times article in which he noted the age of the sediment layers bearing the apparent artifacts.

Now that most of the archaeological powers that be have reviewed the evidence of the first site and grudgingly accepted it, opinions are softening somewhat toward the older site. “We’ll open up that level and see what’s there,” Dillehay said in a more recent interview.

So Monte Verde is 33,000 years old – maybe, or 14,800 years old – probably – at least.

 

Question 2

What does the variety of food and medicine found at Monte Verde say about the people?

MV close-up map

Mastodon bones sticking out of a washed out riverbank first drew attention to the Monte Verde site. Experts estimate the animal that went with the tusk fragment weighed two tons. Finds also included a chunk of mastodon meat, remains of llama, shellfish, fish, small mammals, edible seeds, mushrooms, tubers, berries, stalks, and wild potatoes. In all, remains of 45 different plant species were found on site, over 20% of them originating over 150 miles away. Some of the plants came from the coast – 56 miles (90 km) to the west back then; others from marshes, forests, and arid grasslands. So either the people gathered food from very distant sources and brought it back to their village or they engaged in trade with other people in other locations. In either case, these people understood seasonal availability and enjoyed a varied diet.

And about all that seaweed …

At least nine different species of seaweed, both edible and medicinal, were originally found at the site. Later exploration of the site provided evidence of many more. Dillehay’s 2008 Nature paper indicates they found 19 seaweed species, five of which came from the coast. The following list includes some of the seaweed species discovered at the site, all of which are still used as a good source of minerals and protein, fertilizer, wound dressing, and medicine:

 

Durvillaea – a large kelp (“bull kelp”) found between Chile and Antarctica that is able to float because of air held within its honeycomb blades. It forms large rafts that can cross the open sea. It provides essential minerals and acts as an antioxidant. Currently, it’s used to promote heart and kidney health and to slow cellular degeneration associated with aging.

Porphyra – red/black algae from the south and west, edible. Called nori in Japan, it’s commonly used to wrap sushi. In Asian medicine, it’s combined with other seaweed species to treat goiter, cysts, tumors, lymph node swelling, liver and spleen enlargement. It’s currently the most valuable marine crop in Asia, worth over $1billion dollars.

Mazzaella – edible red, iridescent seaweed from the coast, currently used as a thickening agent and a commercial fertilizer

Sarcothalia (Luga negra) – currently harvested off the coast of Chile. David Horgen of Hawaii Pacific University is studying the ability of waixenicin A, a compound in Sarcothalia, to fight cancer.

The four species listed above are from west and south of Monte Verde.

 

Garcilaria – seaweed found in near shore tide pools and reef flats, believed have come from the Philippines and Hawaii, a sea vegetable with anti-viral qualities, currently used to fight herpes and HIV

Gigartina – near shore seaweed used as a sea vegetable. In medicine, it’s used as an anti-viral and immune booster, helpful in controlling skin lesions, herpes, and other infections.

The two species listed above come from the coast.

Currently, Gracilaria, Sarcothalia, Gigartina, and Porphyra are considered four of the most important seaweed species Chile harvests and sells. They’re used in the production of food and medicine, as well as fertilizers and filters.

MV giant kelp

Macrocystis – giant kelp, (photo left), an incredibly fast growing plant of cooler waters along the coast of North and South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. The plant’s long stalk, up to 160’ tall, is held up by a gas bladder. Large stands form kelp forests that support a wide range of wildlife. Rich in iodine and potassium, it’s long been used as a food source and wound dressing.

This seaweed grows offshore.

Sargassum – a seaweed originating in Japan, capable of surviving in a variety of habitats, including open water. Sargassum forms large floating mats at sea, which may explain how the species has successfully invaded shore areas around the world. Medicinally, it’s useful for treating goiter, tumor, pain, and swelling.

 

Sargassum is most commonly found in open water, not by the shore. Interestingly, most of these seaweeds come from the south and west of Monte Verde. Both Sargassum and Durvillaea form large floating mats that can cross open water. (photo, below)

Lines_of_Sargassum

Trentepohlia – a green alga (often appearing orange) that grows on tree trunks, buildings, and shore rocks. Recent research has shown it to be a powerful anti-microbial agent against five species of bacteria and five species of fungi, including agents of human, animal, and plant diseases, mycotoxin producers, and food spoilage agents.

What an interesting combination of plants! It seems we’re just now catching up with our relatives from long-ago in understanding their value.

The “cuds”

While it’s impossible to infer their uses for all of these, we can be fairly sure they used some as medicine because of the “cuds” found at the site – partially chewed mixtures of plants still bearing the mark of the chewer’s upper palate.

These “cuds” suggest the people of Monte Verde were familiar with properties of different seaweed species.   In addition, they went great distances and faced considerable difficulties of harvesting coastal and open water species. “This is suggestive of a fairly sophisticated knowledge of coastal ecosystems,” Dillehay remarked.

Or perhaps they traded with others who lived on the coast. Presence of material not found locally, such as quartz and tar, support the idea of a trade network. In 2007, the discovery of another site nearby, Pilauco Bajo, led to the theory that the two sites were associated. If Monte Verde was part of a trade network, it must have been the southern terminus. During the Ice Age, glaciers covered the southern tip of South America.

 

Question 3 – Where did the residents of Monte Verde come from?

This question brings up lots of other questions and even more arguments.

The Land Bridge Route

 paleomigration map

The most common theory of migration into the Americas involves the Land Bridge from Asia known as Beringia. According to this theory, the first people in the Americas walked across from Siberia to Alaska, following big game. From there, they found their way south and east through an ice-free corridor that opened up between mile-high ice sheets around 13,000 years ago. (Red line in map)

But see there’s a problem now, if a site in southern Chile is older than the ice-free corridor. Actually, the Beringia theory is so widely accepted that some archaeologists declared the Monte Verde dates to be impossible because they came before the Beringia dates.

 

The Coastal Route (pink line on map)

Then another theory surfaced – the coastal route. Harvard archaeologist Carol Mandryk said the ice-free corridor idea through Canada wouldn’t work because even after the ice sheets began to melt 13,000 years ago, vegetation would have been too scarce to support big game. Instead, she said, people came down the coast in small boats. In this case, people came from Asia but rather than walking, they took the sea route, hugging the edge of the coast and ice, until they reached what’s now Oregon, which was ice-free. From there, people populated the rest of the Americas.

But at 14,800 years old, Monte Verde predates the known sites in Oregon. Well, some argued, rising sea levels had covered all evidence of earlier passage. Or the bands of people were so small, they left no trace. They were “archaeologically invisible.”

 

The Kelp Highway

Proponents of the Kelp Highway hypothesis say that early explorers traveled by boat from Asia to South America following the kelp beds. This would explain the knowledge of different seaweed species, especially giant kelp, found at the Monte Verde site. However, giant kelp, Macrocystis, is typically found in open water rather than shallow coastal waters. “It was blown ashore in storms,” proponents explain.

MV Solutrean

The Solutrean Solution

Dr. Dennis Stanford, head of Archaeology of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, a former Clovis Firster, changed his mind and came up with what’s been called the Solutrean Solution, claiming that people from northern Spain/southern France brought advanced technologies like weaving, sewing, painting, atlatls, and stone work across the North Atlantic by taking boats north from Europe toward Greenland and then south, hugging the shore/ice until they reached modern-day southeastern USA. This Solutrean stonework then turned into the famous Clovis points that spread east to west across the continent with trade. (Solutrean path is marked in red on map)

An interesting theory – with many critics. However, in order for those people to reach Monte Verde, they would have had to go the length of the Americas and around the tip of South America to the west side, during the Ice Age, when the Patagonian ice sheet covered the whole area.

MV mysterious Pedra Furada art

The West from Africa Route – The Pedra Furada Dilemma

Pedra Furada is actually a large cluster of sites in the Serra de Capivara Park near the northeast coast of Brazil. Its presence, and the tenacity of its principal investigator, Niede Guidon, have become a serious problem for the Clovis/Beringia theorists. Pedra Furada sites have consistently returned dates of 32,000 to 48,000 years ago. Since these did not fit with the Beringia theory, archaeologists from the US, in a terrible example of academic blindness and resentment, refused to consider it.

Pedra Furada

One look at Pedra Furada on a globe will show the closest land mass is – West Africa, not Asia. But this migration route would involve open water travel, which archaeologists seem reluctant to believe despite the evidence that people traveled over open water to Australia in an even earlier time period. Ocean currents and prevailing winds would take a boat traveler from West Africa directly to South America. Now a few maps include a west from Africa route, but not many.

But even the West Africa Route would not explain Monte Verde. The Andes stand in the way.

 

The South Pacific Route

If Monte Verde is indeed 33,000 years old, and the oldest date in North America is 20,000 younger, it seems to indicate some other migration route: across the South Pacific. This would explain the knowledge of open ocean seaweeds. Ocean currents would take people from the Pacific Islands south and then swing north as they neared South America. (Southernmost route marked on map)

Multiple routes map

 

Actually, a shocking discovery points exactly there.

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.

Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent.

 

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

(The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.)  Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro.  To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry.  A second lab confirmed the findings.  Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”

Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released.  Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed.  DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people.  Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.

Easter Islanders have Polynesian DNA. Apparently Polynesian navigators found a small island about 2618 miles (4229 KM) from Tahiti. If ancient navigators could take on open ocean voyages to Easter Island, they could probably find a continent.

Response

And yet, here’s the official response: “No scholars seriously consider the possibility that the early Americans landed first in South America. All linguistic, genetic and other evidence points to the Bering Strait as the most likely point of entry” (John Nobel Wilford). “No archaeologists seriously consider the possibility that the first Americans came by sea and landed first in South America.” (Charlie Hatchett).

Well, perhaps they should. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should consider the antiquity of sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, and South Carolina which predate sites on the west coast. Perhaps they should abandon their strange allegiance to a theory that has proven desperately incomplete on so many fronts.

 

What if the answer is many answers?

Evidence from Pedra Furada, Monte Verde, Topper Hill, Paisley Caves, Cactus Hill, and other sites points to multiple points of entry into the Americas, at different times.  If so, the diagram would look something like the one above.  Actually, it might have a lot more arrows on it.

Monte Verde gives us a new and very different view of early visitors to the Americas. Perhaps further research will answer some of the thorny questions Monte Verde has posed.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Avila, Marcela, and others, “Economic feasibility of Sarcothalia cultivation” Hydrobiologia 16th International Seaweed Symposium, 1999.

Buschmann, Alejandro H. and others, “Seaweed cultivation, product development and integrated aquaculture studies in Chile,” World Aquaculture, (36) September 2005

Curry, Andrew. “Ancient migration”: Coming to America, Nature news feature, 2 May 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/ancient-migrations-coming-to-America-1.10562

Dillehay, Tom D. and others, “Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America,” Science, 9 May 2008 (320) 764-786, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/320/5877/784. Or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nnih.gov/pubmed/18467586

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Seaweed Industry Association, http://seaweedindustry.com/seaweed/type/durvillaea-antaractica

“Durvillaea Antarctica,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durvillaea_antarctica

“Edible seaweed,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edible_seaweed

“Evaluation of In Vitro Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Activities of Green Microalgae Trentepohlia umbrina,” ScienceAlerts.com http://sciencealerts.com/stories/2065293/

“Gracilaria,” Invasive Algae Database, http://www.bishopmuseum.org/algae/results3.asp

Hames, Raymond. “Chilean Field Yields New Clues to Peopling of Americas, New York Times, 25 August 1998, http://www.unl.edu/rhames/monte_verde/monte_verde1.htm

Hatchett, Charlie, “Monte Verde Excavation: or Clovis Police Beat a Retreat,” Archaeology Fieldwork.com, http://www.archaeologyfieldwork.com/afe/message/topic/2830/discussion/monte-verde

Hirst, Kris, “Monte Verde Photo Essay: Seaweed Exploitation at Monte Verde II”   About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/preclovissites/ss/monte_verde_4.htm

Hirst, Kris. “Pacific Coast Migration Model” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/

Hirst, Kris. “Kelp Highway Hypothesis: A variation on the Pacific coast migration model of colonizing America,” About.com Archaeology http://arcgaeology.about.com/od/kterms/pt/kelp_highway.htm

Lovgren, Stefan, Earliest Known American Settlers Harvested Seaweed,” National Geographic News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/15550150.html

“Macrocystis,” Natural History Museum, http://nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/biodiversity/climate-change/macrocystis

“Monte Verde Archaeological Site, UNESCO World Heritage Center, http://whc.unesco.org/

“Medicinal Uses,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, http://www.seaweed.ie/uses_general/medicinal uses.php

“Monte Verde Archaeological Site,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, http://whc.unesco.org/

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Verde

Oppenheimer, Stephen. “Archaeological Evidence in South America that humans crossed into the Americas before the Ice Age,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis-text.html

“Pedra Furada sites,” Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedra_Furada_sites

Rose, Mark. “The Importance of Monte Verde,” Archaeology, 18 October 1999 http://archive.archaeology.org/online/feautres/clovis/rose1.html

“Sargassum muticum, Wireweed,” The Seaweed Site: information on marine algae, maintained by M.D. Guiry, 2000 – 2014.

“Sargassum,” Wilipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sargassum

“Science dean continues research at National Cancer Institute-designated facility,” Hawaii Pacific University News, March 2013 http://www.hpu.edu/HPUNews/2013/03

“Seaweed confirms Monte Verde dates, but also migration patterns?” Geotimes, July 2008, http://geotimes.org/july08/

Swaminathan, Nikhil, “America, in the Beginning,” Archaeology, Secptember/October 2014, 22-29

 

 

The Writing Process Blog Hop

Thank you, Jessica Knauss, editor, translator, and author of Seven Nobel Knights, Providence stories, and other works, for inviting me to participate in this blog hop about the writing process.

What are you working on?

I’m currently getting A Meeting of Clans, the third book in the Misfits and Heroes series, ready for publication. In this book, members of the two original settlements – one on the southern coast and one on the northern coast of what is now southern Mexico – meet for the first time.  The book, like the others in the series, is set about 14,000 years ago.

Editing and polishing are the little known step-children of the writing process, but they’re important.  With this book, I was lucky to have the help of a professional proofreader who not only spotted wording and spelling errors but also marked problems with consistency and pace with margin notes like “Wow, this action comes out of the blue,” or “You’ve been going over this argument for four pages now,” or “This character died fifty pages ago.  Did you mean her sister?”  Very helpful.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

Since the Misfits and Heroes stories are set 14,000 years ago, they fall into the Prehistoric Fiction category, but since nothing is really pre-history, I suppose they’re speculative historical fiction with elements of fantasy.  Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of Horses, and other books are also set during the Ice Age, but they take place in Europe and tell very different stories.

Why do you write what you do?

I want to show early explorers in the Americas as complicated, flawed, yet ultimately heroic people.  While 12,000 BC seems like a long time ago, it’s really not, in terms of human history.  Archaeological finds in Blombos Cave, South Africa, show humans making pierced, dyed jewelry out of shells and mixing red ochre, fat, and ground limestone to make a red paste probably used for body decoration 80,000 years ago. Blombos Cave jewelry (See photo)

The fabulous cave paintings in northern Spain and southern France were created 32,000 – 40,000 years ago. (Photo)

Lascaux horse with dots

The first mathematical tally stick, the Lebombo bone, is at least 35,000 years old (South Africa/Swaziland). (Photo)

Lebombo bone

Open water navigators

It’s now clear that our distant relatives crossed open ocean into Australia at least 50,000 years ago, into Okinawa, Japan 32,000 years ago, and into Flores Island, Indonesia, at least 80,000 years ago.

Migration into the New World

In the Misfits and Heroes books, groups of explorers come from West Africa across the Atlantic and from what is now Indonesia across the Pacific.  They meet in the third book, A Meeting of Clans.  In the fourth book (not yet written), a small group from the north of Spain will join them.  All of these explorers cross the sea to reach the New World.

While I don’t doubt that some people walked across the Bering Land Bridge to the New World, the theory that everyone came to the Americas by that route doesn’t fit the evidence.  The earliest settlements in the Americas are in coastal South America (southern Chile and northeastern Brazil).  The oldest settlements in North America are on the east coast (South Carolina and Virginia).  If everyone came through Alaska, why aren’t the oldest sites lined up along that route?  The coastal settlements seem to indicate access by water, not land.

We sorely underestimate the abilities of ancient people, partly out of an ingrained sense of superiority.  One person asked me if people were even talking 14,000 years ago.  Well, they organized hunting parties and trade routes, built villages and boats, navigated rivers and open water, learned game patterns and plant characteristics, preserved food, even painted images on walls and carved series of notches into bones.  It’s hard to imagine any of these being possible without an accurate and sophisticated communication system.

Actually, the ancient peoples had far more abundant natural resources than we do.  All they had to do was learn to work together to harvest them.

Pedra Furada deer

Rock art deer from Pedra Furada in northeastern Brazil, first occupied over 40,000 years ago (photo)

How does your writing process work?

Like Jessica, I like a routine.  I work in the same place and listen to the same pieces of music all the way through the writing of a book.

I also talk to myself as I write (as long as no one else is around).  I just say what I want to write and my fingers type the words.  When I taught composition, I encouraged students to try this technique.  Interestingly, some tried it with their children who were struggling with writing.  They started by having the child talk about something while they wrote the words down, then moved to having the child talk into a tape recorder, play it back, and write down the words.  In the last stage, the children learned to slow down their speech and speed up their writing so they could write (or type) their words as they spoke them. The technique worked very well, even for children with learning difficulties.

It also helps with proofreading.  Try it. If people give you strange looks when they hear you mumbling over your papers, tell them it’s “speech-directed writing.”  That sounds more impressive than talking to yourself.

Look for Emma Right’s post in the blog hop on her blog, Books for Young Adults, www.emmaright.com on March 17, and check back with Jessica Knauss to read about her thoughts on the writing process at her blog at http://jessicaknauss.blogspot.com   And cheers to all the writers out there!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Humans Crossed Ocean Barrier?” Popular Archaeology Magazine, http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/09012013

Bednarik, R.G. “Replicating the first known sea travel by humans: the Lower Pleistocene crossing of Lombok Strait, Human Evolution (journal) 16, 229 – 242 (2001)

Bellwood, Peter.  “Special Report: Ancient Seafarers,” Archaeology Magazine March/April 1997, http://archive.archaeology.org/9703/etc/specialreport.html

Mayell, Hillary. “Early Humans May have Crossed Sea to Leave Africa” National Geographic News, 13, May, 2005 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/s9713086.html

Pringle, Heather. “Did Humans Colonize the World by Boat?” Discover Magazine, June, 2008, http://discovermagazine.com/2008/jun/20

Than,Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, June, 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614

“Very ancient mariners: Early human ancestors were more advanced than first thought and sailed the high seas,” The Daily Mail (UK) 19 August 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2027619

The March of Progress

You’ve probably seen the image or one of hundreds of parodies of it.  The original shows fifteen males, starting with an ape on the far left and ending with a modern human on the far right.

March_of_Progress - full version

The simplified version frequently uses only six. The artist who painted the original illustration, Rudolph Zallinger, said it wasn’t meant to imply a straight or simple path from ape to human, but in fact that’s exactly what it did.  From the moment it appeared in Early Man, the 1965 Time-Life book, it became conflated with the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection.  Currently, the article “What is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?” on Livescience.com sports a simplified March of Progress illustration right at the beginning, one of many such references.

Criticism of the image is loud and ongoing.  All of the figures are male, culminating with a contemporary white male.  It’s sexist, racist, ethno-centric, and stupidly self-congratulatory.  Though so common it’s hardly noticeable anymore, it reinforces Social Darwinism, grossly over-simplifies the story of human history, and blinds us to the abilities of our ancestors.  Its only saving grace is that it spawned dozens of funny variations, including these:

Homersapien

Survival of the Fittest

Implied in the original March of Progress illustration is the theory of Survival of the Fittest.  Darwin noted that more individuals of every species are born than can survive.  Therefore, the ones that have an edge, perhaps through an adaptation, are more likely to survive than the others.  Those who survive are more likely to reproduce.  He uses many examples from the natural world, including the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands.

Darwin's finches

Though they share a common ancestor, they have developed different beak shapes and sizes to help them reach and process the different foods they eat.  Thus, adaptation allows for survival.

Social Darwinism

In the 19th century, Darwin’s idea of survival of the best-adapted, or fittest, was frequently applied to social situations, especially as a way to explain why some people had all the money and power while others starved to death.  It was simply Nature’s plan, the rich people argued, unfortunate, perhaps, but inescapable.

Survival of the Fittest – and Luckiest

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Gould modified the idea of survival of the fittest by saying that chance also plays a huge part in the success of individuals and species. His book, Wonderful Life, published in 1989, explores the concept using the fossilized sea creatures in the Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia, Canada, as examples.  He points out that they were well-suited to their environment yet all perished because of an overwhelming environmental change.  Basically, he thought survival was a function of luck as much as ability.

About that Linear Progress

Another problem with the March of Progress image is its assumption that the hominids that preceded us were much less capable than we are.  New finds challenge that idea.  In fact, they pretty clearly indicate that long before there were modern humans, there were great explorers.

The oldest dates for modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens) are hard to pin down because experts argue over what defines a modern human and because new evidence contradicts older theories.  According to skull shape, modern humans first appeared in East Africa somewhere between 115,000 and 160,000 years ago.  According to genetic studies, anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago and first migrated out of Africa 125,000 years ago.  According to Archaeologydaily.com, modern humans arrived in Europe between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.

And yet, consider these finds:

Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia – hominid remains dated to 1.8 million years ago which show dental wear consistent with frequent use of a toothpick.  Also thousands of extinct animal bones and a thousand stone tools

The Sima del Elefante rockshelter in the Sierra de Atapuerca of northern Spain – remains of Homo antecessor, dated to 1.1 million years old

Happisburg, near Norfolk, England – 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into cutting tools, dated to between 840,000 and 950,000 years old

Pakefield, near Lowestoff in Suffolk, England – flint tools dated to 700,000 years old

Boxgrove, England – stone, antler, and bone tools dated to 500,000 years old

A cold phase that began around 470,000 years ago probably killed or forced out the resident hominid populations in Britain.  New settlers arrived during the next warm spell.

Swanscombe Heritage Park, northwest Kent, England – hand axes and skull fragments dated to 400,000 years old.  The skull, dubbed “Swanscombe Man,” was subsequently found to belong to a woman.

Bilzingsleben, Germany – 200,000 stone artifacts and hundreds of bone, wood, and antler artifacts, fragments of two hominid skulls, probably Homo erectus, remains of a circle of oval huts, all between 320,000 and 412,000 years old, a fragment of elephant tibia incised with lines (illustration)

 Bilzingsleben bone

Schoningen, Germany – wooden throwing spears found with 16,000 animal bones, the first evidence of active hunts, dated to 300,000 years ago

So these ancestors were apparently long-distance explorers with a social structure, counting and building skills, as well as collective hunting ability.  Those assume some sense of geography and an accurate communication system (language).  Since rivers were the easiest way to get from one forested or mountainous area to another, boat building was probably also necessary for survival.  If they were out after dark, some form of navigating by the moon and stars would enable them to return to their village or camp.

Hardly grunting dim-wits.

Oldest cave art, in Spain

It’s curious now that research has shown many of us to be related through our DNA to the Neanderthals or their Denisovan cousins, attitudes toward them have changed.  Suddenly, the earliest cave art in Spain, a painting of two seals, and a series of negative hand prints and rows of red dots, have been ascribed to Neanderthal painters.

We have a fascinating history that we’re only beginning to understand.  Perhaps someday, instead of the March of Progress, we’ll come up with an equally compelling but far more accurate illustration of that story.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Britons were earliest northern Europeans,” Natural History Museum (UK), 07 July 2010

Borenstein, Seth. “Cave art suggests that Neanderthals weren’t such Neanderthals, after all,” The Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 2012

“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.”  All about Science.  http://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com

“Devon jawbone reveals earliest NW European,” Natural History Museum (UK) 02 November 2011

“Evolution,” Wikipedia

Gould, Stephen Jay.  Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.  Norton & Co., 1989

Hirst, K. Kris, “Bilzingsleben (Germany)” About.com Archaeology

Hirst, K. Kris, “Lower Paleolithic Sites in Europe,” About.com Archaeology

“Homo heidelbergensis” Wikipedia (an excellent article)

“Hunting for the first humans in Britain” British Archaeology magazine, May 2003.  http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba70/feat1.shtml

“March of Progress,” Wikipedia

“More Findings Emerge from Oldest Known Hominin Fossils Outside of Africa” Popular Archaeology, 07 October 2013 http://popular-archaeology.com/issur/09012013

O’Neil, Dennis. “Early Modern Homo sapiens.”  Evolution of Modern Humans: Early Modern Homo sapiens.  http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm

“Recent African origin of modern humans” Wikipedia (an excellent article)

“Resourceful Neanderthals in France,” Popular Archaeology, 01 November 2013

Sample, Ian.  “First humans arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought,” The Guardian. 07 July 2013 http://the guardian.com/science/2010jul/07/first-humans-britain-stone-tools

Than, Ker “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic Daily News, 14 June 2012

Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil

Map of Pacific Ocean When Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer and botanist, went to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva for his honeymoon in 1936, he was fascinated by the indigenous people’s legends that told of their ancestors arriving across the sea from the east.  The only land east of there was South America.  He also noted that island plants such as papaya, breadfruit, pineapple, sweet potato, pumpkin, and wild cotton were native to South America.  Early European explorers noted these plants already growing in the Polynesian islands when they arrived, so Heyerdahl saw their presence as evidence that ancient seafaring people had come from South America to Polynesia, probably floating with the current.  

When scholars refused to take his theory seriously, Heyerdahl had a 45’ long boat made of balsa logs and other native materials, which he named Kon-Tiki, built in Peru.  Boating “experts” all agreed that it would sink within a week.  Yet, 100 days later, on August 7, 1947, Kon-Tiki landed on Raroia Atoll in the South Pacific.  It had covered 4300 miles of open water.
Kon-Tiki crew

Based on this voyage and excavations he made on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), he concluded that people from an ancient advanced civilization from South America had traveled west across the ocean to the South Pacific islands.

Later, fascinated by the common design of reed boats from Egypt and South America, he launched Ra I and later Ra II to show that travel between Africa and South America would have been very possible using reed boats.  Ra I ran into structural problems and had to be abandoned, but in 1970, Ra II made the trip from Morocco to Barbados, off the coast of South America, in 57 days.  It had covered 3,270 nautical miles.

Despite these feats, several very popular books and a movie version of the Kon-Tiki adventure, most of his theories were never taken seriously.

Ancient Mariners

However, some of his ideas  are now enjoying a long-delayed nod of appreciation.  He noted the “bird-man” figure so common in Polynesian petroglyphs was also found on Easter Island, indicating at least some form of communication between them.  Actually, DNA studies have now shown Easter Island (Rapa Nui) native inhabitants to have Polynesian origins.

Perhaps Heyerdahl’s vision was too one-sided.  He saw the people drifting from South America to Polynesia, but they may well have sailed from Polynesia to South America and back again.

Chickens, Coconuts, and Gourds

Chickens likely originated in Southeast Asia, China, or India and spread across the South Pacific with seafaring people.  Interestingly, chicken bones discovered in an archaeological site in southern Chile match 2000 year-old chicken bones found in American Samoa in the South Pacific.  According to Brendan Borrell in the journal Nature, “The discovery of chicken bones with Polynesian DNA at an archaeological site in Chile has added hard, physical evidence to the controversial theory that ancient seafarers from the South Pacific visited the New World long before Columbus.”

Coconuts

Spanish conquistadors reported coconut palms growing in South America when they arrived.  Coconuts originally came from the Philippines.

Bottle gourds

calabash or bottle gourdThe calabash, or bottle gourd, is such a handy water carrier that it spread with human migrations from Africa to Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  The earliest bottle gourd found in an archaeological site in South America is in Ecuador, dated to 9300 years ago.

All of these seem to point to ancient navigators crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the Americas.  A possible route across the Pacific is marked on the map, indicating how people could have traveled, island-hopping across the Pacific to the west coast of South America.  The red line marks another possible water route, from Asia to northern North America.

map of South Pacific migrations

Interesting New Evidence

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent. (The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.)  Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro.  To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry.  A second lab confirmed the findings.  Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”

Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released.  Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed.  DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people.  Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.  Finally we get to see one of many missing chapters with the Brazilian study.

Yet even now, many are unwilling to admit that ancient people had the seamanship and navigational skills to cross vast areas of open sea. Perhaps that will change someday.

cover of Past the Last Island

This writer is particularly pleased with the study finding Polynesian DNA in now-extinct Brazilian Indians since Past the Last Island, the second book of the Misfits and Heroes series, follows a group of South Pacific explorers 14,000 years ago who purposely choose to go past the edge of the world.  And (spoiler alert) they wind up in the New World.

It’s too bad Thor Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, didn’t live to see at least some of his theories become more widely accepted.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl Dies,” National Geographic News, 19 April 2002

Borrell, Brendan. “DNA reveals how the chicken crossed the sea: Ancient Polynesians may have brought birds to the Americas,” Nature 447, 620-621 (7 June 2007), published online 6 June 2007

Choi, Charles Q.  “Polynesian DNA found in ancient Native American bones,” PNAS First Look Blog,  1 April 2013 http://firstlook.pnas.org/polynesian-dna

Hirst, K. Kris. “Trans-Pacific Connections: Was there Pre-Columbian Contact between Polynesia and  America?” About.com Archaeology  http://archaeology.about.com/od.transportation/a/trans-pacific.htm

“Kon-Tiki,” The Kon-Tiki Museum: Thor Heyerdahl’s Research Foundation  http://www.kon-tiki.no/Images/NOENTY.pdf

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away population stir up a Paleoamerican mystery”  Nature News, 1 April 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-Polynesians

“Thor Heyerdahl”  Wikipedia

Ancient explorers in the South Pacific

I seldom use this blog for its original purpose – promoting the Misfits and Heroes series of ancient adventures, but today I will.  The second book in the series, Past the Last Island, is now available in paperback and in e-book format on Kindle, from Amazon.com.

cover 2

Past the Last Island is the story of a group of explorers who set out to discover what lies beyond the edge of the world.

They start from the area that is now called Indonesia, 14,000 years ago.  With the end of the Ice Age, their world has suffered wrenching changes.  Wild seas drowned their old village, killing many, including the chief and his wife.  As the story begins, only treetops sticking out of the water mark where the old village stood.  Later, a comet appears, identified by the shaman as the white face of the goddess of death with her terrible white hair spread out behind her.  Shortly after the sighting, the new chief falls from a cliff and lies unresponsive, between life and death.

Terrified, many villagers turn to the strongest man in the village to guide them, though he hungers only for war and revenge.  Others come, gradually, to a different vision.  They see the flood, the comet, and the chief’s fall as a sign telling them to leave the life they knew and find something completely different.

Some history of the area

The South Pacific, 14,000 years ago, had long been the crossroads of migrants from Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia.  Homo erectus people occupiedmap of Homo erectus migrations China and Southeast Asia over a million years ago, leaving behind evidence of hunting, fire use, and flaked stone tools  (See Homo erectus migrations map).

The Denisovan hominids lived in eastern Eurasia, Asia, and Southeast Asia between 50,000 and 170,000 years ago.   According to David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard University, DNA sequencing of a finger bone found in Denisova Cave in Siberia showed that Denisovans are distant relatives of the Neanderthals, who occupied western Eurasia.   According to his findings, modern people in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Melanesia, as well as Australian Aborigines are related to Denisovans.   This indicates a very long history of migrations over a very large area.

The so-called “Hobbit” people, Homo Floresiensis, occupied the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia, from 94,000 to 13,000 BC.  Despite their small size (about 3’ 6”/1.06 m tall), they successfully hunted pygmy elephants and large rodents.

Past The Last Island makes several references to people from long ago who left their marks on the land.  Their presence, even if only in handprints on a wall or skeletons in a cave, is reassuring to the travelers, reminding them they’re not truly  alone, even when there’s no one else there.

The crossroads of cultures 

By 14,000 years ago, the South Pacific Islands would have been a crossroads of cultures and a hotbed of innovation, especially regarding boats and navigation.  As the sea level rose, boats became necessities.   While the islands would have provided both shelter and abundant resources, the sea would have been the highway that went to everywhere else.  The navigator would have been the most respected person in the group because he understood the sea and its mysteries, including dangerous currents and star guides.

The Explorers

While we think of ancient people as sedentary, archaeological evidence points to the opposite.  Many were bold, long-distance travelers, from the Homo erectus explorers who first explored the area to the later South Pacific mariners, who became the greatest open water navigators in the world, traveling thousands of miles to Fiji, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

The heroes of my book are not super-heroes, born with all the answers.   They’re heroes because they rise to the challenges they face.

I hope you enjoy it.  While you don’t have to have read the first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, the ending of the second book will mean a lot more to you  if you have.

Kathleen Flanagan Rollins

Some sources and interesting reading:

Karen L. Baab, Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, New York, “Homo Floresiensis – Making Sense of the Small=Bodied Hominin Fissils from Flores”  The Nature Education Knowledge Project  www.nature.com

“Homo erectus,” Athena Review, vo.l 4, no. 1 “The Long Journey of an Ancient Ancestor”  www.athnapub.com/13/intro.he.htm

“Homo erectus,” Wikipedia

“Homo Floresiensis” Wikipedia

“Meet Your Ancient Relatives: The Denisovans” NPR, Science Friday,  interview with David Reich, professor genetics, Harvard University, August 3, 2012

“Human Evolution: Homo erectus” Stanford Universityhttp://www.stanford.edu/~harryg/protected/chp22.htm

“What Does It Mean To Be Human?  Homo Floresiensis, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

Clovis, Updated

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&gt;

“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&gt;

Ancient Navigators

Did ancient explorers cross oceans to reach the New World?

Many popular theories explaining the peopling of the Americas, including Clovis First (See earlier post on the Clovis theory) claim that people first arrived in the Americas by walking across Beringia, the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska  around 13,000 years ago.  From there they eventually spread overland all the way across and down the Americas.

Monte Verde

Mario Piño, from Chile, and Tom Dillehay, from the USA, provided the best challenge to the Clovis-first theory with their work on the Monte Verde site in Chile (See map).  In 1977, they published their findings, which included evidence of human presence at the site 14,200 years ago.  The upper level yielded interesting finds, including the remains of 20’ long structures made of walls of poles covered with animal hides, large hearths lined with clay, coprolites containing remnants of 45 different plant species including nine species of seaweed, seeds, nuts, berries, remains of local animals, and wild potatoes.  Some of their food came from 150 miles away, indicating either a large gathering area or a functioning food network.

In 1997, the Monte Verde dates were rechecked and confirmed by previously doubting archaeologists, some of whom were forced to admit they might need a more complex answer to the question of how people arrived in the Americas.

However, that wasn’t the real shocker.  Tom Dillehay knew more than he said in his published paper.  He and Piño had excavated a lower level with dates Dillehay knew would never be accepted, so he ignored the lower level in his paper, except to note “although the stratigraphy is intact, the radiocarbon dates are valid, and the human artifacts are genuine, I hesitate to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas.”  Later, he admitted he had found “charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BC.”

Mario Piño had fewer reservations.  He asserted the 35,000 years ago date based on his finds at Monte Verde and corresponding dates from an animal bone found at another archaeological site 120 miles north.

Pedra Furado

Another pivotal discovery was made in South America at a site called Pedra Furado in eastern Brazil.  Here, the dates were so revolutionary that few American archaeologists accepted them. In 1986, a woman named Niede Guidon published a paper claiming she had discovered the oldest known site of human habitation in the Americas (at least 33,000 years ago; some dates range from 41,000 to 56,000 years ago).  Included in the strata dated 32,000 years old were fragments of pottery and rock art figures.

Not only did this find challenge the cherished view that the first people to visit the Americas came across the land bridge from Asia into North America 13,000 years ago and then populated the Americas; it blew it out of the water by 20,000 years!  And in South America!  And discovered by a woman!

Even more shocking was the level of sophistication of the very early explorers, with pottery and art.  Its location on the east side of Brazil was also troubling.  If the first people in the Americas came across the Bering Strait, getting to eastern Brazil would mean a sea journey of 10,000 miles down the west coast of the Americas, followed by an incredibly difficult overland journey of thousands more to reach the Pedra Furada sites.  Even some Clovis-Firsters thought it seemed far more plausible that the early explorers in Brazil came from Africa, making a trans-Atlantic journey of about 2000 miles, with both currents and wind in their favor.  (In 2012, Katie Spotz, a 22-year old woman, rowed her way from West Africa to South America, solo, in 70 days.)

More recent finds at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania have been dated to 14,250 years ago, pre-dating the Clovis sites by a thousand years.  Other ancient sites in Delaware and Virginia have again raised the possibility that ancient explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean long before Leif Erickson and Saint Brendan did.

The problem, it seems to me, is underestimating both the intelligence and the navigational skill of the ancient explorers.

Amazing explorers

Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbit” people whose remains were found on Flores Island in eastern Indonesia, lived from 94,000 to 12,000 years ago.  The oldest bone fragment unearthed at the dig site was dated to 74,000 years ago.  People settled in Australia at least 45,000 years ago, though some claim the date is more than 60,000 years ago.  In order to reach these places, even with the ocean levels much lower than they are today, people needed to use boats.

Ancient Polynesian navigators, the greatest open ocean explorers in the world, found their way from Indonesia and New Guinea out into the Pacific Ocean, covering an area larger than North and South America combined, including Fiji, Hawaii, and Easter Island.  (DNA studies have shown the Easter Islanders to be Polynesian.) It’s 4,610 miles from Fiji to Easter Island.  Many believe that the Polynesians went on from Easter Island to explore the west coast of South America, (only 2,400 miles farther) bringing chickens from Asia to the New World and taking sweet potatoes back with them to Easter Island and Polynesia.

When European explorers arrived in Polynesia, they were amazed that the native mariners regularly sailed far out of sight of land and returned safely, maintaining a wide-area trade system that linked over a hundred islands, all without use of maps, compass, or sextant.

Later colonizers refused to believe these “savages” could be so skillful, dismissing their claims as fiction.  In the 20th century, when the old ways of the navigator had almost disappeared, some Western sailors decided to learn the ways of the native navigators.  The most famous was David Lewis, an accomplished sailor whose book We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific became the best source of information on the fading art of the South Pacific navigator.  The 13,000 miles he sailed with native navigators in the South Pacific showed him how amazingly accurate their methods were.  On some of the early voyages, he kept a compass and charts locked away in case he needed them.  He didn’t.

Steering by the Stars

A traditional Polynesian navigator needs to know the night sky so well that he can mentally see the whole sky even if most of it is obscured by clouds.  (I’m using he because all of the traditional Polynesian navigators still alive are male, and instruction in the art is now limited to males.  However, ancient pictographs of Polynesian explorers show men, women, and children on board, in addition to lots of plants, even trees, and animals.)

He needs to memorize the exact path, including rising and setting points, of at least 36 major stars and over a hundred secondary ones.  For example, some stars rise in the east, such as Altair, the brightest star in our constellation Aquila the Eagle, and arc toward the north, so they can be used as reliable indicators of east only for a short time after they rise, a period usually measured in fists.  The navigator holds out his arm so his fist lies between the horizon and the star he’s using.  He knows this particular star is only reliable until it reaches two fists above the horizon.  After that, he needs a new star to take him to the east.  It might be a new star rising in the east or a star like Spica, which sets directly west. Navigators who travel to particular islands regularly know a sequence of stars to follow to each destination.  The star compass pictured includes many of the stars navigators would know though they were known by different names in different areas.  This knowledge was carried in the navigator’s memory, not on paper.

If the eastern part of the sky is obscured by clouds, he must be able to use whatever part of the sky he can see to give him the orientation he needs to fill in the rest of the sky.  Absolutely accurately.

Pictured above is the Universal Star Compass, from The Barefoot Navigator.

Currents

He also needs to read the pattern and direction of the waves passing under the flexible hulls of his boat.  Ocean currents in Polynesia tend to be very consistent.  As the long waves pass under the boat at a consistent angle, the navigator knows where the currents are coming from and judges his direction accordingly.  He knows that the currents bend and shorten as they near land.  If storms are coming in, the surface currents will be different from the deeper currents. In some cases, he has six or seven different currents to track.  Some navigators lie down on the deck or the outrigger to get an exact reading of the multiple currents.

The stick chart pictured shows the currents in a particular area.  Islands are marked with shells.  While navigators sometimes studied charts like this before a voyage, they were not typically brought along on the boat.  Few navigators explained the charts to outsiders.

Birds, Vegetation Mats, Clouds, Colors, Smells

The traditional navigator knows that while certain birds are trans-oceanic flyers, like the albatross, others serve as good indicators of nearby land. Terns and noddies fly out from land in the morning and return at night.  Frigate birds released from their cages are another good indicator of land.  Since the birds will drown if they get their wings wet, they will either fly toward nearby land or head back to the boat.

The migration of the Pacific golden plover was said to inspire the ancient Polynesians in Tahiti to look for the land the plovers were heading toward, which turned out to be the Hawaiian Islands.  Later, Captain Cook also used the migration of the plover as an indication that land lay to the north, which is how he found Hawaii in the middle of the ocean.  The golden plover, kolea, appears on the Hawaii state stamp (pictured) and on petroglyphs on Hawaii (illustration). 

Mats of vegetation are also reliable indications that land is fairly close.  Farther away, the mats break up due to wave action.  The navigator looks to the clouds for information on wind velocity and approaching weather.   In addition, clouds tend to form over land due to transpiration, so a lone cloud on the horizon might indicate an island lies beneath it.   Sky color is also important, as is the color of the water, paler over reefs or submerged islands, darker in very deep sections.

A traditional Polynesian navigator had to use his entire body as a sensor.  It’s no wonder the ancients respected him.

A Polynesian Network

Upon discovering the remains of a reed boat and wild sweet potatoes on Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl theorized that South Americans drifted with the western current to Easter Island, bringing both the boat and the sweet potato with them, then later drifted all the way to Polynesia.  While this theory has since been discarded, it may be partially correct.  If the Polynesians went east all the way to South America, they may well have made the round-trip, bringing chickens to South America and the sweet potato to Easter Island.

Another fascinating hint at a Polynesian network comes from a Peruvian mummy examined by the University of York’s Mummy Research Group.  They found it had been embalmed with the resin of the Araucaria conifer, closely related to the Monkey Puzzle Tree found in New Guinea.

The Importance of the Sea Explorer Community

Exploration by sea may have played a very important role in the development of human society.  It necessitated an exact and widespread language, a desire to act together for the common good, advanced tool use, engineering skill, and extensive knowledge of the natural environment.  It would have been driven by a need for constant innovation: stronger, flexible hulls, a more complete star map, different sail, hull, and paddle designs, double masts, outriggers.  Knowledge was power.  The person who could take a boat out of sight of land and return again was recognized as special.  The person who could manage the same feat by night was very special.  If he could manage a voyage of many days and nights between distant islands, he was extraordinary.   Sea exploration created a society made of an accepted leader and his followers.  The navigator’s word was law, just as it is today onboard a ship.  Once the explorers formed a settlement in the new land, it would have been natural to maintain this social order, at least until populations grew and resources became scarce.

The ancient navigators faced a world ready to kill them if they were stupid or careless, maybe even if they weren’t.  They accepted life that way.  Sometimes I think it’s sad that so many people hunger for that kind of adventure today and find it only inside a video game.

Sources and interesting reading:

Guidon, N. and B. Arnaud. “The chronology of the New World: Two Faces of One Reality,” Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences, Sociales, Paris

Guidon, N. and Delbrios, G. 1986 “Carbon 14 dates point to man in Americas 32,000 years ago,” Nature, 321:769-771.

Gladwin, Thomas.  East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

“Homo Floresiensis,” Wikipedia

Lagan, Jack.  The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the skills of the ancients.  Dobbs Ferry, New York: Sheridan House, 2005.

Lewis, David.  We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, second edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994 (an excellent source)

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia

“New Evidence from Earliest Known Human Settlement in the Americas,” Science Daily.  www.sciencedaily.com

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Painting, and Paradoxes,” Athena Review, vol. 3, no. 2: Peopling of the Americas. www.athenapub.com/10furad.htm.

“Pedra Furada sites, (Piaui, Brazil)” by George Weber, www.andaman.org/BOOK/chapter 54

“Polynesian Discovery,” History channel, available on YouTube

“Sailing by the Stars – How the Ancients Did It” sailboat2adventure.com.blogspot.com

Schmitz, P. I. 1987. “Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of Brazil.” Journal of World Prehistory, 1:53 – 126.

The Eye in the Hand

The Eye in the Hand

It’s curious how the past inhabits the present.  The Eye in the Hand is a good example.  It’s currently found in corporate logos, music promotions, edgy fashion, and scary movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the history of the symbol is complicated and global.

Perhaps the symbol works because it’s arresting.  It combines two of our most powerful data receptors, but the two don’t belong together.  It’s not possible to have an eye in a hand or to see through a hand, so the image conjures up something beyond normal life.  In that sense, the Second Life logo, which features the eye in the hand, is very close to the historical roots of the symbol that is clearly connected to something beyond life.

It’s hard to talk about the eye in the hand without also considering The Evil Eye.  While the ancient artifacts that include the eye in the hand don’t necessarily invoke a protective charm against the evil eye, the current charms certainly do.    Currently, people have two popular choices in charms to ward off the Evil Eye: The Evil Eye charm or the Hamsa Hand.

The Evil Eye

The blue glass eye, known (rather confusingly) as The Lucky Eye or The Evil Eye, promises to protect the bearer from negative energy such as resentment or envy as well as general misfortune such as accidents and disease.  The concept of the Evil Eye, the belief that others have the power to curse you by giving you a malevolent stare, is widespread in the Middle East, Africa, India, Central America, North America, South Asia, and Europe, especially the Mediterranean area.  Damage from an evil eye can include withering, sickness, even death.  Even those who don’t believe in the Evil Eye may refer to the concept in sayings like “She gave me the evil eye,” or “If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”

Because the evil eye is generally thought to be blue, the charms that are meant to protect the bearer are usually blue as well.

The Hamsa Hand

The other popular protective talisman is the eye in the hand charm known as Hamsa (Arabic), Hamesh (Hebrew), Humsa (Hindu), Mano Ponderosa (Italian), or Helping Hand (hoodoo).  In Jewish folk tradition, it is known as the Hand of Miriam (the sister of Moses).  In some Muslim areas it is commonly called the Hand of Fatima (the daughter of Mohammed), despite Islam’s official ban on talismans.  Some Catholic groups refer to it as the Hand of Mary (the mother of Jesus).

Hamsa hands come in a very wide variety of forms, some very male, some very female, some with five fingers, some with three fingers and two very small appendages, some with barely differentiated fingers.  Some have a very large eye; others replace the eye with a circle or star.  Some include other symbols in the fingers and palm.  Most point down but some point up.

 

 

Origins

There is great debate over the origin of the Eye in Hand.  Some say it comes from The White Tara, the Hindu representation of motherly protection and generosity who is often pictured with eyes in her forehead, hands, and feet.  In some images, she holds the lotus of compassion in one hand.

Others connect the Hamsa to Hathor, the Egyptian Earth Mother, sometimes pictured as a woman wearing a red dress and a headdress of cow’s horns, other times as a cow with a sacred eye, other times as the Milky Way.  The ancient Greeks morphed Hathor into Aphrodite; the Romans made her into Venus.

The Phoenicians used the hand of Tanit, a powerful female sky goddess, to ward off evil.  A fierce warrior, she was sometimes depicted with the head of a lion.  Tanit’s equivalents include Astarte (West Semitic), Anat (Mesopotamian), and Inana (Sumerian), all powerful females associated with love, fertility, and war.

The Female/Sky/Milky Way/Orion Connection    

Since we seem to have a female, heavenly connection with Hathor, Tanit, and others, it’s interesting to note the Arabic origin of the named stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Belatrix, all in the constellation Orion

Betelgeuse comes from yad al-jauza (mistranslated originally as bat al jauza) meaning “the hand of the Central One,” referring to a mysterious and powerful female entity who kneels in the night sky with the Milky Way at her shoulder(pictured).  Rigel comes from the Arabic rijl al-jauza, meaning “the foot of the Central One.”  Belatrix, another star in the constellation, means a fierce female warrior (which suited her character in the Harry Potter stories).

The New World

But the eye in hand symbol also has a New World history.   If you look at the images associated with The Eye in Hand on your computer, you’ll come across several from pre-Columbian North America.  The most famous is the engraved gorget (collar ornaments) from Moundville, Alabama, featuring a hand with an eye (pictured above).  The hand is surrounded by two intertwined, knotted horned rattlesnakes.  A similar piece, also from Moundville, includes the hand with the eye but leaves out the snakes and places the hand between a symbol of a cross inside concentric circles at the top and what looks like an earthen mound at the bottom (pictured).

The two Moundville gorgets shown in the illustrations are quite similar. Both have concentric circles at the  top and a link to the eye in hand.  However, the illustration from Vernon James Knight’s book Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, detailing the finds of the 1905 excavation of the area, has a slightly different design inside the circles and omits the mound at the bottom.

Other pieces found in the southeastern US include the hand in the eye in different though related forms.

Although the designs on the Mississippian gorgets look similar to the modern-day Hamsa Hands, there is no indication that the North American pieces had the same function.  Actually, it’s hard to know how the symbol functioned for those who wore it. Between 500 and 1500 AD, the Mississippian culture included trade-linked settlements that ranged from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, but after the arrival of the Europeans, many of the Mississippian settlements failed due to disease and warfare, and the flat-top mounds typical of their cities were destroyed by the settlers.

The Hand

However, many anthropologists now believe that The Hand constellation, made up of the lower half of Orion, was considered a portal to the Otherworld in Southeastern US cosmology.  (See “Mississippian and Maya cosmology: The Hand constellation and the Milky Way” at anthro-lingblogspot.com/2010/01mississippianandmayacosmology.)  The stars that make up Orion’s belt formed the wrist (top) of the severed hand.

The Lakota and other Plains Indians also saw a star grouping they called The Hand in the bottom half of what we call Orion.

In researching some Mississippian sites, experts have suggested that marks on the palm of the hands symbolized points where the spirit may enter or leave the body.

The Serpents

The snakes in the Moundville pieces have been identified as tie snakes, horned serpents that play an important part in the oral history of tribes from the Great Lakes to the southeastern woodlands.  These Great Serpents were powerful beings from the Underworld who were in constant battle with the forces of the Upperworld, usually represented by the Thunderers, falcon-men.  The combination of these two opposite forces resulted in the winged, horned serpents that wheeled around the center of the world in the swastika, powering the motion of the world through the energy of their opposition.  (See earlier entry “The Flight of the Eagle, The Power of Symbol.”)

The Eye in the Hand

According to the “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” entry in Wikipedia, “The Hand and Eye Motif was common in Mississippian symbolism and may be related to the Ogee Motif, suggesting it represents a portal to the Otherworld.”

The Road across the Sky

For many ancient North American, Central American, and South American peoples, the Milky Way was the path the dead took to the Otherworld.  The Maya saw the Milky Way as having four arms that spread out across the world.  At the center of the Milky Way, the three hearthstones were placed at the moment of Creation.  These three stones are part of the constellation we know as Orion and they became the portal through which the dead entered the Milky Way, the great river of stars that flows next to the hearthstones.

The Apache believed that Yolkai Nalin, the feared goddess of death and the afterlife, controlled the path of souls after death.  The road to the Otherworld that we call the Milky Way passed over her shoulders.

So…

If we put all of these parts together, it seems fairly defensible that we have a Moundbuilder piece that makes reference to a Hand constellation that serves as a portal to the Otherworld, the boundary between this life and the beginning of the next life.

And it’s the logo for Second Life.  Irony abounds.

It’s impossible to tell how much of the symbolism of the New World continues, overlaps, or reflects that of the Old World.  Perhaps the two developed along parallel lines without ever intersecting.  Perhaps not.  Certainly, the modern Hamsa charm, which is most popular around the Mediterranean, bears an eerie resemblance to the ancient Moundbuilder gorget.  Even more interesting is the invocation of the very powerful female figure (Mary, Fatima, Miriam) for protection.  It’s hard not to see parallels between them and The Central One who guards the portal to the Otherworld and bears the Path of the Dead on her shoulder.

Interesting sources include

The First Maya Civilization: Ritual and Power before the Classic Period, by Francisco Estrada Bell

“Mississippian” bama.ua.edu/alaarch/prehistoricalabama/mississipian.htm

“The Southern Cult, Southeast Ceremonial Complex” archaeology. about.com/od/sterms/southerncult.htm

“Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” in Wikipedia

“Mississippian Culture” in Wikipedia

“Mississipian and Maya Cosmology: The Hand Constellation and the Milky Way” http://anthro-lingblogspot.com/2010/01mississippianandmayacosmology