New theories about first people settling continent

by Bruce Cherney

Almost every month, a new revelation is made leading to more speculation about the earliest settlement of North and South America. Just before the end of 2005, two Brazilian researchers studied a collection of ancient skulls and came to the conclusion that the earliest Americans more closely resembled the aboriginal people of Australia, Papua New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa.

For 60 years, the theory had been that the first inhabitants of North America — termed the Clovis culture — came across Beringia, the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia, about 11,500 years ago, and that they are the ancestors of today’s First Nations peoples. But, in recent years, intriguing skeletal remains have shown a striking dissimilarity between the earliest inhabitants and First Nations people.

The 9,000-year-old Kennewick man, found a few years ago in Washington state, started the process of rethinking who actually were the first inhabitants of North America, since he didn’t show the typical features of today’s aboriginals.

Rolando Ganalez-Jose, of the University of Barcelona in Spain, excavated a site in Baja, California, that he believed indicated there were two settlement waves of early North America — the first wave was people from Southwest Asia with similarities to today’s Australian aborigines and sub-Saharan Africans, and the second wave was people from Northeast Asia who are the ancestors of modern-day North American aboriginals. 

There was also a third wave of settlement that came much later, bringing the ancestors of today’s Inuit to North America. The fourth most recent settlement wave can be termed European, although North Americans are now actually from anywhere on the globe.

In Baja, the people excavated survived for thousands of years after their arrival, dying out several hundred years ago. But, they appear to be the exception. If this hypothesis is true, for whatever reason, the earliest inhabitants, now called Paleoamericans, were replaced by the ancestors of modern-day aboriginals.

Walter Neves, from the University of Sao Paulo, who in December 2005 announced he had studied 81 skulls and concluded that these skulls weren’t examples of modern-day aboriginals in North America, or even early peoples from northern Asia who are the ancestors of native Americans.

These skulls, some of which were actually unearthed 150 years ago, were from people who inhabited South America over 12,500 years ago.

Over all, researchers claim there is a significant cross-sample of skulls in North and South America that don’t fit the theory expounding settlement from northern Asia.

The first aboriginal inhabitants from northern Asia are named from a site discovered in New Mexico in the 1930s. Excavations across North America, including Manitoba, show evidence of the Clovis people, dating as far back as 11,500 years. 

Clovis hunters used finely crafted, fluted (groove at base) projectile points. The finding of such points embedded in mammoth remains show the hunting prowess of these early North Americans.

Clovis points have been found along the high ground of the Manitoba Escarpment, which is the remains of a beach that had esisted along the shore of glacial Lake Agassiz. In all, 55 beaches associated with Lake Agassiz have been found in Manitoba. This escarpment became the natural highway into southwest Manitoba for Clovis hunters. At the time, most of Manitoba was either under water (Lake Agassiz) or covered by a massive glacier that had begun to retreat.

Clovis sites in North America contain implements such as bone tools, stone scrapers, hammers and unfluted and fluted projectile points. What wooden tools and utensils the Clovis people used are unknown since they have long since vanished.

Some have suggested that the Clovis people are descendants of early Europeans since their stone tools bear more resemblance to the Solutrean culture. This group would have reached North America via boat, skirting the southern edge of the ice sheet in the North Atlantic that then linked the Old and New Worlds.

Dr. Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington is the strongest supporter of this theory and claims that Clovis points are similar to Solutrean culture tools from Spain and southwestern France, dating back about 20,000 to 16,000 years.

This theory has gained only a small following, while most researchers dismiss it as pure conjecture, even calling it fantasy at best.

That’s the problem with the most recent findings that are creating a stir in the academic community. While many are rethinking their previous conceptions of the first North Americans, others are far from convinced. 

The Monte Verde site makes a strong case for a pre-Clovis culture after two decades of radio-carbon dating and evidence gathering, although it still has its critics.

Monte Verde is on the sandy banks of Chinchihaupi Creek in wooded hills  near the Pacific Ocean, 800- kilometres south of the Chilean capital of Santiago.

“Monte Verde is real,” said Dr. Alex W. Barker, chief curator of the Dallas Museum of Natural History, who compiled a lengthy report on the discoveries. “It’s old. And it’s a whole new ball game.”

Dr. Brian M. Fagan, an anthropologist with the University of California at Santa Barbara, said he is 100 per cent convinced that Monte Verde is pre-Clovis.

“Most archaeologists had always thought there was pre-Clovis culture out there somewhere, and I knew that if they would only come to the site and look at the setting and see the artifacts, they would agree that Monte Verde was pre-Clovis,” said Dr. Tom Dillehay, of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, after publication of the report.

Claims have also been made for other pre-Clovis sites across North America, but Monte Verde remains the best candidate to date.

A growing body of researchers is now convinced that Paleoamericans had been on the continent as early as 15,000 or 14,000 years ago. They are said to have travelled along the coast of North America either by foot or by boat.

Dr. Neves said it’s hard to argue that Paleoamericans didn’t exist because of the mounting evidence.

But, not everyone is as convinced as Dr. Neves that Paleoamericans vanished to be superceded by the ancestors of today’s aboriginals. Some argue that microevolution and adaptation could account for the first wave differences, and all skeletal remains found from very early periods are still the ancestors of today’s aboriginals.

Whether the evidence supports a non-aboriginal first people in the Americas or not, the strongest case is for a pre-Clovis culture, who could just as well have been the ancestors of today’s aboriginal people.

If there were a pre-Clovis people, they would have had to have arrived by another means than Beringia and the ice-free corridor from Canada which was a pathway to the south. 

Beringia, a broad plain measuring 1,600 kilometres from north to south that was twice as wide as Texas, was at its greatest breadth from 23,000 to 10,000 years ago, .

At this time, two ice sheets covered most of Canada (15.5 million square kilometres). The Laurentine ice sheet stretched south to cover the Great Lakes and New Jersey, and also west to east from the Prairies to Greenland and Newfoundland. The Cordillian ice sheet was confined to the west by the Rockies.

Four times in the Pleistocene, the ice reached forth to engulf the northern regions of North America. The last glaciation, known as the Wisconsin, started 80,000 years ago. But, even this period of glaciation was interrupted by warm periods and retreating of the ice sheets.

During this last Ice Age, just south of the ice sheet were grasslands stretching from what is now the Central Great Plains and the Midwest to the eastern seaboard and southern Mexico. Large herbivores, such as mammoths, camels, horses and giant ground sloths and bison, thrived on the grasses, and were preyed upon by short-faced bears, dire wolves, lions, cheetahs and saber-toothed cats, all of which became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Carol Mandrych, a paleo-ecologist at Harvard University, wrote in California Wild that conditions improved enough 12,000 years ago to open the ice-free corridor for people to pass through and 11,000 years ago “it was wonderful.”

She said until the corridor opened up, the only access would have been along the Pacific coast.

The route along the coast was first proposed in the 1970s by Knut Fladmark, a professor at Simon Fraser University. But, this proposal was ignored for years until Alexandra Dukrodin and her colleagues at the Geological Survey of Canada concluded that the ice-free corridor between the two ice sheets in Canada was impassable until about 12,000 years ago. Their published papers showed, by mapping river routes and land formations, that the glaciers had met, barring the interior of the continent for both humans and animals.

Even when the corridor first opened as the Ice Age ended, it would have been a swampy wasteland. Icy, Arctic winds would have blasted through the tunnel between the glaciers, making it devoid of vegetation and thus the animal prey needed to feed early human migrants.

Fladmark has written that it would have been relatively easy for people using boats to reach Chile over 13,000 years ago, stopping to eat seals, fish and other marine animals. Indeed, boat travel is significantly faster than walking.

“Movement along the entire coast could have occurred within 200 years if people were driven,” he added.

The evidence for ancient mariners is compelling. Aborigines reached Australia about 55,000 years ago using water craft — the only way they could have covered the 100 kilometres of open water separating the island continent from nearby land. It would be presumptuous to believe that men, women and children, while carrying all their worldly possessions, could have swum that distance.

Whatever the recent findings across North and South America, it will take years of further scientific investigation to bring about a satisfactory outcome for the majority of researchers probing human beginnings in North and South America. And during that time, theories considered new today could just as easily be replaced by yet other theories. 

The best that can now be said about the new discoveries is that they are intriguing and add more information to be considered when discussing the origins of the first people who came to the New World.