Roots Deep Ones
The perils of looking into American prehistory.

By John J. Miller, NR's national political reporter
June 9-10, 2001

 

ne of the secrets of archaeology is that many truly great finds aren't made by archaeologists. It was a farmer, Harold Conover, who stumbled on a clue in the late 1980s that led to a magnificent site in Virginia called Cactus Hill. Conover and his wife were walking on logging roads near their home when he spotted a few Indian artifacts mixed in the sand. He soon traced the sand back to a quarry about ten miles away. Thanks to this detective work, a group of archaeologists led by Joseph McAvoy started digging near that quarry in the early 1990s. They unearthed signs of human habitation stretching back about 18,000 years making Cactus Hill one of the two or three oldest sites in North America. They also found evidence to support one of the most provocative developments of our time: the growing suspicion among physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and even geneticists that some of the first people who settled in the New World were Europeans.

Ten years ago, hardly anybody outside crackpot circles would have contemplated this notion. There's a whole speculative literature of oddball theories on groups coming to America in antiquity. Ivan Van Sertima's They Came Before Columbus points to statues produced by Mexico's Olmec civilization as representations of Negroid faces, and the book remains a perennial grocery-store seller. Nancy Yaw Davis argued last year in The Zuni Enigma that New Mexico's Zuni tribe has too much in common with ancient Japanese culture for it to be a coincidence. Many of these ideas persist simply because they're hard to disprove, and it's important to remember that the whole field is afflicted with celebrated frauds like the Kensington Runestone a large stone slab that came to light a century ago and claims to describe the travels of 14th-century Vikings in Minnesota.

Despite the uncertainty, it has become increasingly clear over the last decade that the history-textbook version of ancient American settlement no longer holds up. The first Americans, according to the standard view, arrived about 12,000 years ago by way of a land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska. Thanks to a handful of sites like Cactus Hill, it is now beyond dispute that some people got here much earlier. Asia remains a likely source for migrations, because of its proximity and the fact that today's Indians indisputably have ancestors who lived there. But Asia may not be the only source, and there's good reason to think it wasn't.

This ought to be thrilling news for the multiculturalists. What better project for them than the serious study of America's prehistory a glorious mosaic whose rich diversity is only now seeing daylight? But it must be remembered that multiculturalism is motivated not by sincere curiosity about the past, but by the sensitivities of modern victimology. An important part of American Indian identity relies on the belief that, in some fundamental way, they were here first. They are indigenous, they are Native, and they make an important moral claim on the national conscience for this very reason. Yet if some population came before them perhaps a group their own ancestors wiped out through war and disease, in an eerily reversed foreshadowing of the contact Columbus introduced then a vital piece of their mythologizing suffers a serious blow. This revised history drastically undercuts the posturing occasioned by the 500th anniversary of Columbus's 1492 voyage.

The prime mover behind the European-migration theory is Dennis Stanford, a jovial anthropologist who has spent nearly three decades at the Smithsonian Institution studying Stone Age technology. A big table dominates his office in the National Museum of Natural History, and it's often cluttered with primitive tools borrowed from the Smithsonian's huge collection. He is an authority on Clovis Culture, named for the town in New Mexico where the first remnants of it were found in 1932. The Clovis people were said to be big-game hunters who stalked mammoths, and they left behind distinctive relics. Researchers were so sure that they were the continent's original settlers about 12,000 years ago that suggesting otherwise was professional heresy.

But by the late 1980s, Stanford and a few of his colleagues, including his former student Bruce Bradley, began to harbor serious doubts about the Clovis theory. For starters, there were a handful of sites, such as Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft Rockshelter, that seemed older than Clovis. But more important, in Stanford's view, was the complete lack of evidence that Clovis culture ever existed outside the Americas. He spent years scouring museum collections around the world, but always came away empty. "It was getting pretty discouraging," he says.

In truth, there is a Stone Age technology that looks an awful lot like Clovis, and its existence troubled Stanford and Bradley: The culture that produced it wasn't found in Siberia, where just about everybody would have expected it, but at the other end of the same landmass in modern-day France and Spain. It's called Solutrean, and it vanished some 20,000 years ago. Stanford and Bradley were especially intrigued by the fact that the greatest concentration of Clovis sites occurs in the southeastern United States: If the technology is native to the Americas, it was probably invented in this area. If it wasn't native, then this was probably the site to which it was imported on the side of the North American continent facing Europe. But a pair of insurmountable obstacles appeared to separate the Clovis and Solutrean cultures: several thousand years, and a large ocean.

Then came the findings at Cactus Hill. "As soon as we started to see some of that stuff come out, we thought about the connection to Solutrean," says Stanford. Joseph McAvoy and his team found Clovis artifacts on the site, as well as irrefutably older material that Stanford and Bradley think is a developmental form of Clovis technology.

That's a groundbreaking observation. Experts in ancient technology like to build family trees. Just as a sculptor can hack a limitless number of objects out of a stone block, there are an infinite number of ways to chip a hand ax or spearpoint from a rock. Over time, cultures develop particular techniques; archaeologists can identify them and create tool genealogies. If they find tools that look similar and were manufactured in the same way, there's a good chance the people making them shared cultural traits. They may have been blood relatives or trading partners, but whatever their precise relationship, they almost certainly drew from the same storehouse of knowledge.

Stanford is one of the world's few remaining accomplished flintknappers: Give him the right type of rock and he can flake it into a long, bifacial, and fluted spearpoint just like a Clovis hunter would. While other scholars have noted the similarities between Clovis and Solutrean technology as a mildly interesting example of cultural convergence in other words, a coincidence Stanford's expertise in flintwork made him suspect a deeper connection: "There are so many matching steps in how they made their tools: bifacial flaking, heat treatment, similar ceremonial items, the presence of red ocher. There must be fifty or sixty points of comparison. It can't be chance." And yet nobody could figure out a way to bridge the thousands of years and miles dividing the two groups.

Then, in 1994, a team of Emory University scientists studying genetic diversity made an unexpected discovery. They examined a specific kind of DNA lineage known as mitochondrial DNA in ethnic groups around the world. Their survey of American Indians found four major varieties, which they labeled haplogroups A, B, C, and D. Each of these has antecedents in Asia, confirming that today's Indians descend almost entirely from Asian stock. But there's a fifth lineage, too, called haplogroup X. It occurs in about a quarter of all Ojibway Indians, and in lesser amounts among members of the Sioux, Navajo, and other tribes. A version of the X haplogroup shows up in only one other place on the planet: Europe.

"That's what pushed me over the edge," says Stanford. If the X haplogroup had found its way to America through Siberia, it almost certainly would have left behind a mark somewhere in Asia; but exhaustive searching has turned up no indications of any passage. The simplest explanation is an Atlantic crossing.

Out of Europe?
Actual human remains might help clinch the case. Unfortunately, not many 9,000-year-old skeletons survive today. The small sample that are known raise fascinating possibilities. The much-disputed Kennewick Man, for instance, is said to have Caucasoid features, as opposed to the Mongoloid ones of present-day Indians. (This isn't to say he was "white" nobody knows the color of his skin.) Some researchers have suggested his morphology most closely resembles the Ainu, an indigenous Japanese population. But the prospect of early migrations from places other than Asia can't be dismissed. One skull found in Brazil shares more similarities with Australian Aborigines than with any other group. "The evidence is mounting that the earliest North Americans were a distinct people, or perhaps several distinct peoples, who cannot easily be linked to modern American Indians," writes James C. Chatters the forensic anthropologist who recovered Kennewick Man in his just-published book, Ancient Encounters.

How might Europeans have made it to the Americas so long ago? The challenge appears immense, but there is a tendency to underestimate the cleverness of ancient peoples a tendency that grows over time, perhaps, as we depend more on sophisticated technology and begin to believe that only a half-wit would sail beyond sight of the coast without hooking up to a GPS satellite. But boats and navigation aren't recent inventions; human beings reached Australia at least 40,000 years ago, and getting there would have required at least a trip of about 80 miles on the high seas, from New Guinea. That's much shorter than traversing the Atlantic, to be sure, but the important point is that it represents a willingness and ability among ancient people to leave the relative safety of coastal waterways.

A migration out of Europe seems distinctly possible if we consider a number of factors that probably would have given ancient travelers a boost. During the last ice age, the sea levels were lower; today's coasts were inland, and the distance from Western Europe to the Grand Banks (which then formed the easternmost part of North America) would have been about 1,400 miles far, but much closer than it is today. In addition, an ice shelf extending south from the Arctic would have presented a clear route. Seals, penguins, and fish would have offered nourishment along the way. The prevailing ocean current, too, would have swept these early people in the right direction. So the journey wouldn't have required the prehistoric equivalent of the Apollo space program. may have been a few guys on an ice floe," says Stanford.

Discovering an 18,000-year-old Irish coracle off the New Jersey shore would settle a lot of questions, but ancient boats were made of perishable materials. Tools and bones last longer, and that's what makes the Cactus Hill artifacts and the Kennewick remains so important. Prehistory isn't called prehistory for nothing: It's a challenge to study, because the people who made it left only scant traces of themselves. Even if a European migration really did happen, the evidence proving it conclusively may not exist today. What evidence does exist seems to turn up by happenstance, such as when a farmer takes a stroll down a logging road. In the case of Kennewick Man, a pair of boozed-up college students waded into the Columbia River to avoid buying $11 tickets for a boating exhibition, and then spotted a skull sticking out of the mud. These important discoveries were essentially accidents.

The truth may be out there, but some people would prefer to keep it hidden. Kennewick Man, for instance, is currently locked up in Seattle's Burke Museum, where nobody is allowed to study him. Last September, interior secretary Bruce Babbitt announced his intention to give the priceless remains to modern-day Indian tribes that intended to bury the bones without allowing scientists a look. Several researchers (including Stanford) sued, and a judge stopped the handover. Lawyers will argue the case on June 19, and the fate of Kennewick Man perhaps the most important human skeleton ever found in the Western Hemisphere remains uncertain.

This case is hardly an exception. Thanks to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, federally recognized tribes have the right to petition for human remains. The idea was to help them protect their ancestors from grave robbers but in practice the law has become a tool for tribal activists to prevent the study of ancient people. The Friends of America's Past, an organization based in Portland, Ore., counts five other sets of bones rough contemporaries of Kennewick Man that have been lost to science under this or similar laws, and another six "in jeopardy" of the same fate. Most of these remains are said to share the vaguely "Caucasoid" traits seen on Kennewick Man but again, research opportunities have been restricted.

Stanford and Bradley are completing a manuscript on the Clovis-Solutrean connection, which the University of California Press expects to publish next year. It's impossible to say whether the next generation of scholars will come to look at their work as a turning point in our understanding of prehistory, or a less-than-completely-convincing argument that makes creative use of meager material. What seems increasingly clear, however, is that the old story of a simple land migration from Siberia 12,000 years ago won't survive. The question of what will replace it should be a matter of concern to all of us, because the first Americans represent the heritage of all Americans. No single person or group owns the past; we all do, collectively. And it is only through a spirit of scientific inquiry that we may learn the answer to that fascinating question: How did the New World come to have such people in it?