Theory places Stone-Age Europeans in N. America 20,000 years ago

Posted March 01, 2012, at 8:47 p.m.

When the crew of the Virginia scallop trawler Cinmar hauled a mastodon tusk onto the deck in 1970, another oddity dropped out of the net: A dark, tapered stone blade, nearly eight inches long and still sharp.

Forty-two years later, this rediscovered prehistoric slasher has reopened debate on a radical theory about who the first Americans were and when they got here.

Archaeologists have long held that North America remained unpopulated until about 15,000 years ago, when Siberian people walked or boated into Alaska and down the West Coast.

But the mastodon relic turned out to be 22,000 years old, suggesting the blade was just as ancient.

Whoever fashioned that blade was not supposed to be here.

Its makers likely paddled from Europe and arrived in America thousands of years ahead of the western migration, argues Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Dennis Stanford, making them the first Americans.

“I think it’s feasible,” said Tom Dillehay, a prominent archaeologist at Vanderbilt University. “The evidence is building up, and it certainly warrants discussion.”

At the height of the last Ice Age, Stanford says, mysterious stone-age European people known as the Solutreans paddled along an ice cap jutting into the North Atlantic. They lived like Inuits, harvesting seals and seabirds.

The Solutreans eventually spread across North America, Stanford argues, hauling their distinctive blades with them.

When Stanford proposed this “Solutrean hypothesis” in 1999, colleagues roundly rejected it. One prominent archaeologist suggested Stanford was throwing his career away.

But now, 13 years later, Stanford and Exeter University archaeologist Bruce Bradley lay out a detailed case — bolstered by the curious blade and other stone tools recently found in the mid-Atlantic — in a new book, Across Atlantic Ice.

“I drank the Solutrean Kool-aid,” said Steve Black, an archaeologist at Texas State University in San Marcos. “I had been very dubious. It’s something a lot of (archaeologists) have dismissed out of hand. But I came away from the book feeling like it’s an extremely credible idea that needs to be taken seriously.”

Other experts remain unconvinced. “Anyone advancing a radically different hypothesis must be willing to take his licks from skeptics,” said Gary Haynes, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Stone tools recovered from five mid-Atlantic sites are at the core of Stanford’s case. Two of the sites lie on Chesapeake Bay islands, suggesting the Solutreans settled the region early on. Blades, anvils and other tools found by Smithsonian research associate Darrin Lowery were stuck in soil at least 20,000 years old.

Displaying some of the tools in his office at the National Museum of Natural History, Stanford handles a milky chert blade and says, “This stuff is beginning to give us a real nice picture of occupation of the Eastern Shore (of Maryland) around 20,000 years ago.”

Further, the blades strongly resemble those found at dozens of stone-age Solutrean sites in Spain and France, Stanford says. “We can match each one of 18 styles up to the sites in Europe.”

In 2007, Lowery, who also teaches at the University of Delaware, was hired by a landowner to survey property on Tilghman Island, Md., at a place called Miles Point. Almost immediately, Lowery saw a chunk of quarzite jutting out. It was an anvil, heavily marked from repeated beatings — a clear sign it was used to make stone tools. Lowery dated the soil layer holding the anvil and other st one tools with two methods, radiocarbon dating and a newer technique, optical stimulated luminescence. Both returned an age of at least 21,000 years.

“We were like, geez, my god, what the hell is going on here?” said Lowery.

Another site 10 miles south, Oyster Cove, yielded more stone-age artifacts. Those too, came out of soil more than 21,000 years old.

Lowery published the finds in 2010 in Quaternary Science Reviews, but it hardly made a ripple. “People are going to think we’ve clearly gone off our rocker here,” Lowery remembers musing.

One problem: The ancient dates are for the soil, not for the artifacts themselves.

“It’s an indirect date,” said Dillehay. “You need a feature like a hearth or something that’s clearly human. But it’s still suggestive.”

Also in 2008, Lowery toured a tiny museum on Gwynn’s Island, Va., at the southern end of the Chesapeake. He asked the curator if the museum had any stone tools. They did: The 8-inch blade, displayed next to a bit of mastodon tusk and a molar, recovered by the Cinmar.

Lowery immediately called Stanford. “He got real excited,” Lowery said.

Lowery also contacted the Cinmar’s captain, Thurston Shawn. The tusk and blade were so unusual, Shawn had made a point of marking the spot on his charts. It was 60 miles east of the Virginia Cape, in 240 feet of water. At the end of the last ice age, when the oceans were low, that spot was dry land.

Stanford carbon-dated the mastodon to 22,000 years old. He and Bradley — two of the world’s foremost stone tool experts — also scrutinized the blade. It had not been smoothed by wave action or tumbling. They concluded the blade had not been pushed out to sea, but had originated where the Cinmar found it.

“My guess is the blade was used to butcher the mastodon,” Stanford said. “I’m almost positive.”

But some question the meaning of the find.

“I’m not going to hang a completely novel interpretation of the peopling of the Americas from something dredged off the seabottom,” said David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University.

Stone tools recovered from two other mid-Atlantic sites — Cactus Hills, 45 miles south of Richmond, Va., and Meadowcroft Rockshelter, in southern Pennsylvania — date to at least 16,000 years ago. Those tools, too, resemble blades found in Europe, said Stanford.

Little is known about the Solutrean people, other than their location— Spain, Portugal, and southern France — and when they lived, beginning about 25,000 years ago. No skeletons have ever been found.

But the Solutreans did leave behind art, including a slab of carved ivory, a picture of which Stanford pulls up on his computer.

In delicate black etchings, the piece shows a diamond-shaped fish. It looks like a halibut. It also shows a seal with an arrow-headed line stabbing through it.

Stanford contends the piece proves the Solutreans had boats and knew how to live at the edge of an ice cap that drooped deep into Europe.

“The reason people don’t like the Solutrean idea is the ocean,” he said. No Solutrean boats have ever been found. But given that people arrived in Australia some 60,000 years ago, boat technology was clearly not too advanced for the Solutreans, Stanford argues.

His idea faces another challenge: At the end of the last ice age, the polar ice cap may not have extended all the way across the Atlantic, leaving wide, iceberg-strewn gaps of open water for the Solutreans to navigate as they headed West for unknown reasons.

Meltzer is among those still skeptical of the Solutrean hypothesis, citing the scant evidence. “If Solutrean boat people washed up on our shores, they suffered cultural amnesia, genetic amnesia, dental amnesia, linguistic amnesia, and skeletal amnesia. Basically, all of the signals are pointing to Asia” as the origin of the first Americans.

Since the 1930s, archaeologists favored a single migration from Siberia to Alaska as the epic event that peopled the Americas, about 13,000 years ago. Stone tools found at Clovis, N.M., and elsewhere, suggested a single culture spread across much of the continent. This “Clovis first” notion became entrenched.

But starting in the 1990s, archaeologists found sites in Texas, South America and the mid-Atlantic sites dated to pre-Clovis times. Gaining acceptance of those pre-Clovis dates was difficult, said Michael Collins, an archaeologist at Texas State.

“People learned it in college and built careers on ‘Clovis first,”’ said Collins. “They’re unwilling to turn it loose.”

But now they might have to adopt Stanford’s Europe-first slogan: “Iberia, not Siberia.”

However, he does acknowledge his evidence is scant. He calls the Solutrean hypothesis “a skeletal idea.”

Later this spring Stanford hopes to haul in more evidence. He plans to boat out to the Cinmar site where he will dredge for more clues to an ice-age journey that just might have been the first voyage to America.

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