For generations of archaeologists the understanding of how the Americas first came to be inhabited was that ancient Siberians crossed on foot from Asia to Alaska over a land bridge that spanned the Bering Sea. This 1000-mile-wide land route was passable because sea levels during the ice ages were hundreds of feet lower than they are today. The land bridge, called Beringia, existed during the final period of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago.
After crossing Beringia and pushing on to Canada about 10,000 BCE, the Siberian immigrants continued southward through a corridor in the great ice sheets to emerge in what is now the lower 48 states. There they discovered a land of enormous Ice Age (“Pleistocene”) creatures: woolly mammoths, giant bison, ground sloths, and many other species. The newcomers were big-game hunters, and they proceeded to hunt these megafauna to extinction. In broad outline, this is the picture painted by the “Clovis First” theory, named after the distinctive and highly efficient spearheads fashioned by these Ice Age hunters that were initially discovered near Clovis, New Mexico.
The Clovis people spread quickly throughout the New World, populating most of North and South America in less than 1500 years. After the Pleistocene animals became extinct, these ancient Americans diversified to fishing, gathering, and hunting smaller game and marine mammals. From these different adaptations arose the many diverse cultures of pre-Columbian America, eventually developing into great civilizations.
This view of American prehistory was unchallenged for decades. Given the isolation of the New World and the overwhelming evidence that humans first evolved in Africa and then spread throughout Asia, their migration over the Bering Strait to America gives Clovis First a compelling logic. Recent evidence, however, has challenged this view and led many experts to theorize that the Clovis people, while they certainly flourished in the Americas around 9,000 BCE, were not the first to arrive in the New World.
A number of legends and fringe theories advance very different ideas about the origins of the first Americans: that humans first colonized South America and only then emigrated to North America; that seafaring peoples crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific to reach the Americas thousands of years before Columbus; and that anatomically modern humans arose independently in the Americas and then spread to the other continents.
Monte Verde – Before Clovis
A number of discoveries combined together to raise doubts about the Clovis First theory. New research at archaeological sites throughout the Americas strongly suggests a human presence much earlier. Geologists realized that the Canadian ice-free corridor almost certainly did not exist at the critical period, making it likely that people first traveled south from Beringia by water, probably following the shore of the Pacific. And while early hunters perhaps contributed to the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, this extinction was more likely hastened by climate change. Ice Age hunter-gatherers depended less on big game than was once supposed.
The most compelling and best known evidence that humans were in the New World earlier than previously thought comes from the excavations at Monte Verde in southern Chile. The Monte Verde site was discovered in 1975 after a logging operation uncovered evidence of a settlement of 20 to 30 people located beside a small creek. The ruins of a dozen huts were preserved when the creek later rose, producing a peat bog that inhibited decay of the organic remains for the intervening thousands of years. Wooden poles and stakes can be seen still tied together with ancient cords made of grass. A wide variety of food has been discovered at the site, including an extinct species—an elephant-like animal called a gomphothere—and several varieties of seaweed (in those ancient times the site was about 10 miles from an ocean bay).
After years of controversy, it is now generally accepted that artifacts found at this site date to more than 12,000 BCE, when the Clovis people presumably were just starting south through the Canadian Rockies. If the ancestors of the Monte Verde people crossed the Beringia land bridge, they must have done so at least 16,000 to 20,000 years ago in order to have traversed the thousands of miles necessary to reach this extreme outpost.
The New Consensus
The dating of the Monte Verde site undercut archaeological theories that had not been seriously challenged for decades, and so engendered a bitter controversy. In light of the significance of the date, a “dream team” of respected archaeologists, including some skeptics, visited the site in 1997 and verified the dating. As a result, a new consensus formed: the earliest Americans were indeed from Siberia, but they preceded the later-arriving Clovis people by perhaps four to five thousand years. These seafarers first populated the New World by traveling along its western coastline. If they settled only sporadically in the north, they could have proceeded in good time to populate the southern continent, explaining the greater number of very early sites discovered there.
For a number of reasons this new consensus is held more tentatively than the Clovis First Theory it has superceded. One difficulty is that possible coastal sites that might verify or refute the new hypothesis are now hundreds of feet below sea level. But what keeps the question of who were the first Americans the hottest topic in archaeology are the numerous sites that suggest that the first Americans could have arrived far earlier still, and perhaps from an entirely different direction.
Tool Makers from Europe: The “Solutrean Hypothesis”
Other sites show evidence of a pre-Clovis occupation. Many of these – the Topper site in South Carolina, the Page-Ladson site in Florida, and the Cactus Hill site in Virginia, among others – are found, surprisingly enough, in eastern and south-eastern parts of North America. In fact Clovis artifacts are found in greater numbers in these areas than elsewhere, and Clovis finds decrease as one heads west and north, the opposite of what would be expected.
In 1998, Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford suggested that the east coast of the Americas was colonized first by Ice Age Europeans, specifically the Solutreans, long before the first Clovis ancestors arrived from Beringia. The Solutrean culture was present in France and Spain from about 18,000 BCE and was responsible for some of the cave paintings in the region. Solutrean sites are noted for the innovation, beauty and refinement of their artifacts – they are credited with inventing the bow and arrow – and represent a clear advance in the arts of bone and stone tool making.
It is the similarities between these tools and those of the Clovis people that inspired the “Solutrean Hypothesis.” While it is clear that the Clovis people originated in eastern Asia, there are no artifacts in the relevant Old World regions that resemble their New World tools. In fact, Clovis tools were made using the same technology first found among the Solutreans, characterized by finely worked points made with pressure flaking rather than cruder knapping. This technology produced delicate slivers of flint for light projectiles and elaborate arrowheads, as well as other tools similar to those traditionally used by present-day indigenous people of the Arctic.
The Solutreans were maritime people; there are shellfish remains at their sites, as well as cave paintings of seals and ocean fish. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) forced the Solutrean population to the coast. For people adapted to Arctic conditions, seaward was the direction of plenty. Unlike the glaciated inland, the sea ice edge was one of the world’s richest environments for food. And an archipelago of ice stretched across the North Atlantic at the time, connecting Europe and America.
So, the theory goes, the Solutreans paddled from Ice Age Europe in kayaks perhaps as early as 18,000 BCE using methods similar to those of modern Inuits – camping on ice floes, drinking water from icebergs, and burning blubber for heat. The Solutrean toolkit, which included sewing needles and fish hooks, certainly could have been used to make waterproof clothing and watercraft from animal skins. Eventually the American descendents of Solutrean immigrants met up with the people who crossed from Beringia, and the Clovis technology was born. But as with the coastal route theory of Beringia migration, the difference in modern sea levels prevents a direct search for archaeological evidence. However, evidence of an entirely different kind, from the study of genetic origins, has added interest in the Solutrean Hypothesis.