Tuesday, August 21, 2012
I spent decades teaching US History and stayed at it so long because I loved it. Still do. I’m a history geek, and a recent book about where early Americans came from has me all excited. It’s called “Across Atlantic Ice,” and it’s shaking up the history world.
The new theory is that at least some early Americans arrived from Europe across the Atlantic along the edge of pack ice during the last glacial maximum - that period 22,000 years ago or so around the time when the Atlantic would have been frozen furthest south. Every US History text I’ve ever used taught that the first Americans came across a land bridge from Asia - where the Bering Strait now separates the two continents - no earlier than 14,000 years ago, as if were established fact. That always bothered me, because we simply couldn’t know that for certain. When I was teaching, I’d always point out to students that their textbook was making an unsubstantiated claim. Evidence pointed in that direction, yes, but it wasn’t a certainty. While it is proven that some early Americans migrated from Asia, we simply couldn’t be sure that they were the first to come here. I’d always caution students to qualify such a claim by saying something like: “As far as we can tell . . . ”The general rule of thumb would be that the further we go back in history, the less we can be sure of. When we’re trying to figure out what happened tens of thousands of years ago, it’s mostly speculative. The authors of “Across Atlantic Ice” are nothing if not humble. The book is filled with qualifiers because it’s authors know their idea is a theory, and because professionally, Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley are sticking their necks out. Because he’s Director of the Smithsonian’s Paleoindian/Paleoecology Program, Stanford’s book has to be taken seriously in the archaeology community. His and Bradley’s theory isn’t new, but until now, the case hasn’t been put forth as comprehensively as they have done, so there’s lots of heated discussion. That’s as it should be in any scientific or academic community.
Those who insisted that people from the so-called “Clovis” culture were the first Americans, and that they came exclusively from Asia after the 14,000-year mark, are the most threatened by “Across Atlantic Ice,” and it’s time they were seriously challenged. Even though evidence of previous Americans hadn’t shown up until relatively recently, the “Clovis First” crowd should have understood the possibility that it might. Because there’s no evidence for something doesn’t mean it never happened. Because we’ve found no remains of boats from 22,000 years ago doesn’t mean there weren’t any. They would have been made of perishable materials like wood, animal hides and such and wouldn’t be preserved except under unusual conditions. The authors contend that Europeans came along the ice margin in small watercraft while hunting marine mammals much the way the Inuit did in historical times.Stone, or “lithic” material as archaeologists call it, has been preserved, and Stanford and Bradley are expert at gleaning information from stone artifacts. Most evidence in support of their theory comes from examining techniques of shaping stone into usable tools.Those early Europeans who allegedly crossed that Atlantic ice are known as Solutrean and they were masters at working stone and other materials. The earliest identifiable sewing needles were found at their habitation sites. I never realized how much skill went into the manufacture of stone knives, scrapers, arrowheads and spearpoints until I read “Across Atlantic Ice.” It was Solutrean techniques showing up in North American artifacts that first caused archaeologists to theorize about migration to what is now to the United States from Europe during the end of the last Ice Age. Methods for making artifacts earlier archaeologists labeled “Clovis” may well have come from Europe and not from Asia as first thought. Solutrean-like artifacts showed up on this side of the ocean but the stone they were made from came from North America. If a Solutrean point were to appear made of stone from Europe, well, that might be enough to convince skeptics.So, when a Solutrean point found in Virginia in 1971 was determined to have been made from a flint originating in France, it looked like proof. However, it was found near the remains of a colonial era home and could have been carried over during historical times, so it’s not the smoking gun it might otherwise have been.Meanwhile, the research continues. Exciting times in the history-geek community.