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




Guest post by Kaye George

One of the best part of the internet in general and the Prehistoric Fiction Writers group in particular is getting to meet other writers and enjoy their views.  Here’s Kaye George, author of Death in the Time of Ice as well as other books, including the mystery Fat Cat at Large.  Welcome, Kaye!

My own misfits and heroes

Kaye George photo

The fact that Kathleen Rollins has two groups of strangers meet in her A MEETING OF CLANS is so exciting. What must it have been like to venture to another continent with only the most primitive technology (although, to them, it was the latest and greatest)! And to think you are alone on a continent, then discover you’re not. Great stuff.

I’m also fascinated with what life was life long ago. A group I’ve always loved to study is the Neanderthals. The first images of them so maligned the whole people that I like to try to help overcome that. When I decided to write about Neanderthal characters, the complete mapping of their genome, plus much more research that is being announced almost weekly, fell right into my lap, and totally in step with my project. It seemed like I had to do it!

I love knowing that, at one time, there were different kinds of people on this planet. Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens, and Denisovans, all at once. [1] Until scientists decided they didn’t really exist, we had the Hobbit people, too. There are also the Cro-Magnon (I know, the term is out of favor, but they weren’t actually just like us).

It would be the most exciting thing ever to meet up with a Neanderthal or a Denisovan. Since that’s not possible, I turn to fiction. Kaye George book

Neanderthals are my main characters. Being primarily a mystery writer, “my” Neanderthals have to be involved in a mysterious murder. It’s been such fun to do research for this writing. Another love of mine is the megafauna that existed in North America before 10,000 BCE. What could I do? I brought the Neanderthals over to North America before the last Ice Age and wrote what I call alternate history. (Although just because Neanderthal artifacts and remains haven’t been discovered here doesn’t mean they weren’t here, right?)

The best thing about writing about Neanderthals is that there are conflicting theories about many of their characteristics and abilities. I figure I can pick and choose whatever suits me best.

However, I do try to stick with generally accepted theories. (Except for putting them in N. America.) Take speech [2]. More and more it’s thought that they could talk, although there are holdouts against fluent speech similar to ours. My solution was to give them speech, but to reserve it for special occasions, “pronouncements” by the leader, mostly.

Was I telepathic, having the women be hunters? Some support that idea [3], some don’t [4].

Okay, I know no one says they were telepathic, except William Shatner [5]. But that was my way of getting around the speech controversy, which was more controversial when I began writing Death in the Time of Ice. It’s also my way of filling up their brains, which were larger than ours. (I read this while writing the book, but it’s apparently no longer true. Still, there’s room for telepathy in the Aborigine brain.)

There are a few misfits in this Neanderthal tribe. Twin girls, abandoned by a starving tribe (most likely) were taken in as small children. One of them, Enga Dancing Flower, turns out to be a hero (or heroine if you prefer). Another misfit is a Cro-Magnon (or modern human) that the tribe also takes in. He is an adult who has been cast from his tribe, but no one knows much about him, because there’s a severe language/telepathy barrier. I won’t reveal whether he turns out to be a hero or not. That would ruin the mystery!

[1] http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2012/issue132a/

[2] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140302185241.htm


[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/05/science/05nean.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.the-spearhead.com/2012/01/10/were-neanderthal-women-gender-equalists/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthals_in_popular_culture (search for Shatner)



Kaye George, national bestselling and multiple-award-winning mystery writer, writes several series: Imogene Duckworthy, Cressa Carraway (Barking Rain Press), People of the Wind (Untreed Reads), and, as Janet Cantrell, Fat Cat (Berkley Prime Crime cozies). Her short stories appear in anthologies and magazines as well as her own collection, A Patchwork of Stories. Her reviews run in Suspense Magazine. She lives in Knoxville, TN.


Links to the books:




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:


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

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