Who were really the first people here?



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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (21/04/12)

across atlantic ice.jpgFor a long time, it's been generally accepted by most archeologists that the first humans in North America were people who walked across a land-bridge from Siberia to Alaska about 15,000 years ago. This was at a time of lower sea levels during the last ice age. They made their way down the continent from North to South through an ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains. The descendants of those first people left behind some of the oldest artifacts found in North America - distinct stone tools and spear points from 13,000 years ago. They're known as the Clovis culture, and they are considered to be the ancestors of all the indigenous peoples living in North and South America today.

But there's another theory that challenges the accepted archeological evidence: a theory that proposes the idea that Stone Age Europeans, known as Solutreans, paddled across the North Atlantic to North America, pre-dating Clovis by thousands of years. The proponents of this theory argue that the Salutreans actually gave rise to the Clovis culture. Dr. Bruce Bradley is one of the originators of this theory. He's the Director of the Experimental Archeology Program at the University of Exeter in England, and he's co-authored Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America's Clovis Culture, a new book that lays out the Solutrean theory. Bradley spoke with Bob McDonald about his controversial theory.

"There's this disjuncture, this problem with time and materials," said Bradley. Although people did migrate into North America across the Bering land-bridge, Bradley's theory argues that they weren't the first here. 

The theory has been percolating for Bradley for many years. It started when one of his professors at the University of Arizona mentioned the similarity between tools found in Europe and in North America, a similarity that - at the time - was written off as coincidental. "But then I went and worked in Southern France, working on materials that are called Solutrean, and the similarites were so amazing to me that I wondered if it was just coincidence but I didn't think much about it after that - that was back in the late 60s, early 70s," he said. "After that, I got to work on a lot of Clovis material in North America and started to see more and more similarities that seemed to be more than just coincidence."

Just over ten years ago, Bradley got together with his colleague Dennis Stanford, who would become his co-author. Stanford had been in Alaska looking specifically for antecedents of the Clovis culture, and had come up with nothing. Combined, their experiences made a strong case for revisiting the accepted theories of Clovis origins.

Bradley argues that all his evidence points to the Clovis culture having Solutrean ancestry, and the only major question to explore is: how could that have happened? "The Atlantic is a fairly large body of water," Bradley said. "We explore this in our book, looking at what the environment may have been like in the North Atlantic 21,000 years ago to 17 or 18 thousand years ago."

For one thing, glaciers abounded throughout both Europe and North America, and ocean levels were significantly lower than they are now, exposing massive continental shelves off both Europe and North America. "We're looking at an ocean area of about 1,500 miles," said Bradley - a crossable distance for an innovative society like the Solutreans.

Still, many scientists remain skeptical of Bradley's theory. Quirks & Quarks also spoke with Dr. David Meltzer from the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Meltzer has written extensively about the Clovis people in North America, and he stands by the theory that the first people in North America came from Asia, not Europe. "Archeologists, as well as a variety of scientists from other disciplines, have been exploring this whole issue for decades," Meltzer said. "If a group of Solutrean folks came onshore, they would essentially replicate all of their culture, not to mention their dental patterns their genetics, their skeletal patterns...so you would see a wide range of Solutrean traits here in the new world. Because it's a blank slate. And so, I would expect to see all of the kinds of Solutrean things we see in France and Spain...we don't see any of that. All we see are little cherry-picked similarities. If folks came over here, it would be absolutely unmistakable."

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