A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How and when the first Americans arrived
But still the difficulty yet remains, whence all these Americans had their first original, and from which of the sons of Noah they descended, and how they came first into these parts.... There are diverse opinions about this matter. First, some conceive that this people are of the race of the ten tribes of Israel, that Salmanasser carried captive out of their own country...and that God hath, by some means or other, not yet discovered, brought them into America. Secondly,... that the original of these Americans is from the Tartars, or Scythians, that live in the northeast parts of Asia; which some good geographers conceive is nearly joined unto the north west parts of America...and from this beginning have spread themselves into the several parts of the north and South America. A third conjecture of the original of these Indians, is, that some tawny Moors of Africa, inhabiting upon the sea coasts, in times of war and contention among themselves, have put off to sea, and been transported over, in such small vessels as those times afforded, unto the south part of America....
Debate about American Indian origins was already well underway when Daniel Gookin, a magistrate in the Massachusetts colony, penned his thoughts on the matter 325 years ago. It began in 1537 when Pope Paul III declared in a Papal Bull that the Indians were human. If this were so, then they must be descended from Noah's sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, since all others perished in the Flood. But not all looked to the Bible for an explanation of the presence of Indians in the Americas, many looked to Asia. Fray José de Acosta (Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias, 1590) suggested that "small groups of savage hunters" came to America from Asia, traveling primarily overland, as early as 2,000 years before the Spanish arrived.
When Thomas Jefferson asked "whence came those aboriginal inhabitants of America?" in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), his answer was not new:
...if the two continents of Asia and America be separated at all, it is only by a narrow streight. So that from this side also, inhabitants may have passed into America: and the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former....
For 400 years de Acosta's solution to the question had no serious rival, and for most of the past 50 years the Asian origin of American Indians was not a matter for debate at all: at the end of the Ice Age, hunters crossed the Bering land bridge, a 600-mile-wide link between Siberia and Alaska, and slipped down a narrow corridor between the Cordilleran Glacier and the Laurentide Ice Sheet. These were the Clovis people, whose distinctive fluted spear points have been found throughout much of North America at sites dating from 11,500 to 11,000 years ago. (They are named for a New Mexico town near Blackwater Draw where such points were found with bones of extinct elephants in 1929.)
This Clovis first model is now being reassessed because we have evidence of earlier peoples in the New World at Monte Verde in Chile, widely accepted as pre-Clovis at 12,500 B.P. (before present), and elsewhere. There is also an explosion of information from DNA analysis and improved radiocarbon dating that is telling us more about the who and when of the colonization of the Americas.
This latest research has led to a spate of new, or recycled, alternative explanations for the colonization of the New World, theories that appear in newspaper and magazine articles with maps that have big arrows swooping from one ice-covered continent to another--and few facts. Today, there are several theories: the traditional route across the land bridge, then between the glaciers, and a coastal route skirting between ice and ocean. The coastal route is championed by E. James Dixon, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Natural History, in a new book, Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999). More daring, and less encumbered by evidence, is the North Atlantic arrow. And for those who would bet their life's savings on an 80 to 1 shot at the Kentucky Derby, there's the Australia-South America shuttle.
In a 1994 study of Paleoindian crania, Texas A&M University anthropologists D. Gentry Steele and Joseph Powell noted the difference in cranial shape and concluded it is either evidence of more than one people entering North America from Asia or just change within one population over time. They did not even suggest a European origin for the Clovis people as a possibility. But should we rule out a late Ice Age walk or boat ride along the pack ice from Europe to America? In terms of skull and teeth, Kennewick and his ilk are just fine coming out of Asia. A supposed link between Clovis and Solutrean stone tools (the Solutrean, known from Spain and southwestern France, dates from 20,000 to 16,000 years ago) is dubious. In fact, Kenneth Tankersley of Kent State University notes that Clovis-Solutrean differences outnumber similarities. The two are similar adaptations, but one is not ancestral to the other and they do not have a common ancestor (see "A Matter of Superior Spearpoints," July/August 1999). Others have noted the 4,500-year chronological separation between the two and the difficulties such a crossing would have entailed.
Among the newest entries in the big-arrow competition is that of Walter Neves, professor of biological anthropology at the University of São Paulo. In a press release coinciding with the broadcast of a televison documentary on his work, the BBC announced this past August 26 that the "First Americans were Australians." Early skulls from Brazil were said to "match those of the aboriginal peoples of Australia and Melanesia. Other evidence suggests that these first Americans were later massacred by invaders from Asia." Skulls from 12,000 to 9,000 years ago are of one type, but afterward they are exclusively "mongoloid," says Neves, who suggests that Mongoloid people from the north invaded and wiped out the original Americans, descendants of Australian aborigines, who had sailed across the South Pacific. How are these skulls being dated? What sites are they coming from? (The Times of London says only that in the past four years 50 skulls more than 9,000 years old have been discovered in Brazil and Colombia.) There are lots of questions.
The southern route is not a new idea. Paul Rivet of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, who observed South Pacific and South American linguistic and skull similarities, argued that instead of traveling from Australia to the Bering Strait, people took a trans-Antarctica route (Les Origines de l'Homme Américain, 1957). This route, however, would have necessitated crossing open water for distances of up to 800 miles before hiking across Antarctica itself. What's more, there's just no evidence that people were out in the Pacific islands 12,000 years ago.
E. James Dixon argues for a coastal route in Bones, Boats, and Bison. There's no dearth of evidence that people were on the coast early. Recent discoveries of animal bones and some Paleoindian remains along the Pacific Northwest suggest that such a route was possible. Human remains found on Santa Rosa, one of the Channel Islands off California, have recently been redated to between 11,100 and 11,500 B.P. Quebrada Tacahuay and Quebrada Jaguay, early but not pre-Clovis South American coastal sites, have remains of fish and other marine creatures.
Dixon devotes two chapters to possible pre-Clovis sites: 26 in North America and nine in South America. Of the North American sites only Cactus Hill, Hebior, and Schaefer are convincing. Cactus Hill, in Virginia, has yielded artifacts including triangular projectile points below a Clovis occupation. Heibor and Schaefer, in southeastern Wisconsin, are mammoth kill or scavenging sites dating a bit after 12,500 B.P. Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, often mentioned as a possible pre-Clovis site, is omitted because of questions about dates and environmental context. One pre-Clovis candidate that Dixon did not consider is the Topper Site in South Carolina (see "Pre-Clovis Surprise," July/August 1999).
Of the nine potential pre-Clovis sites in South America, Dixon accepts only Monte Verde. But its validity is now being challenged by archaeologist Stuart Fiedel of John Milner Associates, who believes that the excavation records are unclear and even self-contradictory concerning where the few undisputed artifacts were found at the site. Most of the unexcavated portion of the site was bulldozed in 1988, so resolving the issue may be impossible. Taima-Taima in Venezuela fails on stratigraphic problems. Pedra Furada, a Brazilian rockshelter, has largely been dismissed as a pre-Clovis candidate because of doubts about what are claimed to be stone tools, and Dixon faults it on that point. A newly completed dissertation on the site by Fabio Parenti may restart debate about it. Scrutiny of the radiocarbon dates from Pedra Pintada, another Brazilian site, indicates it is probably younger than Clovis sites.
Another chapter covers human remains from early North American sites. It is the most up-to-date summary of the evidence, though there is now more information available on Kennewick from a National Park Service team assessing the skeleton.
As Dixon sees it, the initial colonization took place about 13,500 B.P. when people moved down along the west coast of the continent in small watercraft. These people used the atlatl or spear thrower with a detachable point similar to a harpoon, which he says may have derived from technology geared toward hunting marine mammals. After the ice-free corridor opened up a second group entered North America, around 10,500 B.P., and brought the bow and arrow. But useful technology like this could easily be passed from one group to another; it doesn't necessarily indicate a population change. So, if the differences in cranial morphology are a matter of change within a single population, the case for a separate 10,500 B.P. entry into North America may not be valid. Dixon himself states that "the relationships, if any, between human physical types, language families, or genetic groups and the two major technological traditions is not clear."
He concludes by observing that the coastal route fits the facts better than any other model. Is his case for the coastal route plausible enough to supplant the land route? I'd like to see more discussion of when the ice-free corridor opened; some scholars would place the opening earlier, just before Clovis at 12,000 B.P. And of course it would be nice to have a coastal site from the Northwest dating about 13,500 B.P. with lots of fish and marine mammal bones scattered about. Nonetheless, Dixon has raised the coastal route to contender status.
Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.