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.


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


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.


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




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;

Theories about the first Americans

In most US history books, the first people in the Americas are said to have migrated to the Westerm Hemisphere by way of what was then the land bridge between what are now Siberia and Alaska.  The Clovis theory became popular in the US in the 1930s, with the finding of the famous Clovis style fluted points in a site near Clovis, New Mexico.  It was named the Clovis-first theory after similar distinctive points were found in the Ohio Valley and nearly every state east of the Mississippi, and no earlier group had been identified.   Therefore, they thought, these were obviously the first people in the Americas. The dates for this Clovis migration have changed over time, being pushed back as need arose and better dating systems became available.  Right now, the arrival date for the Clovis folks is officially somewhere between 12,000 and 13,500 years ago.


However,  the Clovis-first theory is now widely challenged.  Sites on the east coast of the US, including South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, seem to indicate that people were in the Americas before the arrival of the Clovis people.  Reputable scientists, including Dr. Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institute, noted that if the Clovis people came across the land bridge from Siberia, there should be Clovis, or at least pre-Clovis-style, points in Siberia, but none have been found.  Instead, scientists found evidence of a completely different technology there, wherein sharp bits of stone were hammered into bone projectiles.

Once the Clovis-first theory had been challenged, there were other obvious flaws that surfaced.  The biggest one was the presence of sites in Chile and Brazil that predated Clovis by thousands of years.  The Monte Verde site, in Chile, was the first to be recognized as more than 14,500 years old.  Later, the Pedra Furado site’s human remains, in Brazil, were dated to between 32,000 and 48,000 years ago.  The latest dates for the site have been pushed back to more than 55,000 years ago.

While the controversy still rages in the archaeological world, there is much more grudging agreement now that there were probably many paths that explorers took to the Americas, not just one.  Unfortunately, that idea has not filtered down to the textbooks yet, but perhaps our grandchildren will have the chance to read a different story.

If you have a map available, take a look at it.  Put yourself in the Ice Age, or the beginning of the end of the Ice Age.  Now imagine that for some reason, you have to leave your home.  Perhaps you’re an outlaw or a misfit.  You can’t stay where you were, so you set off for someplace new, someplace where you’ll be free to start a new life.  You head out to a new world, full of new possibilities.  Sound familiar?  It’s the legacy of the New World, and it began a long time ago.  People from many places found their new world here.

These are the thoughts that led me to write the Misfits and Heroes novels.  I believe that we have a rich and varied heritage that has never been celebrated.

The first novel of the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, traces the journey of a group of people from West Africa to what is now southern Mexico.  Take another look at your map.  Which way seems easier for you to get to Brazil – to start from Siberia and walk, during the Ice Age, to South America and then head east, or to start from West Africa, from where, even today, you could row to the coast of South America in forty days?  ( A single rower, a young woman, made it in 44 days.)

See Carol Anita Ryan’s discussion of this point in her blog, at