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Populating the New World: Theories of Initial Migration

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Populating the New World: Theories of Initial Migration

            For decades, if not centuries, the origins of man have been some of the most heated scientific battles ever known.  The biggest debate is probably between the “Out of Africa” model and the multiregional theory of the first Homo sapiens, but the debate about the initial population of the North and South American continents cannot be far behind.  Nearly everyone has an idea of the popular “Bering Strait land mass” theory of migration, as it is the one typically taught in schools.  There are actually two theories that stem from the Beringian model, one claiming that the Paleo-Indians found an interior passage that was free of ice, and the other arguing a coastal route.  Finally, there is also a theory that states the first people to make their way to North America were not those from Siberia at all, but Southwestern Europeans by way of the Solutrean culture.  This paper will give a brief overview of the two main theories, followed by an analysis and author’s opinion.

The reigning theory holds that man migrated from the Asian landmass across a land bridge between modern Russia and Alaska.  That is where the semblance of agreement ends.  Until fairly recently, it was generally accepted that the initial migration occurred about 12,900 years ago, after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (Schurr, 2004).  The people who migrated found an ice-free corridor into the continent, likely following large animals, and used “Clovis” tools (Schurr, 2004).  Because there were no older sites found, and other early man sites seem to derive from these Clovis people, the Clovis First model claims to be the “earliest occupancy of the Americas by modern human groups” (Schurr, 2004, p. 552).  However, this claim has been contested.  Findings at sites such as Meadowcroft, Cactus Hill, Topper, and Calico make claims of earlier migration, as early as 16,000 years ago.  Again, until recently, this was thought impossible because the migration would predate the earliest known settlement of the Siberian region, but the Yana River site shows human occupation as early as 30,000 years ago, well before the LGM (Schurr, 2004).  The ice-free corridor theory has also taken a hit due to the lack of any animal bones found in the area between 21,000 and 11,500 years ago (Schurr, 2004).  In all, the evidence seems to point towards a coastal method of migration, which would also help to explain the incredibly rapid expansion of man throughout the two continents, which is estimated to have happened in only a few centuries (Schurr, 2004).

Bradley and Stanford have presented a new theory to challenge that notion.  They maintain that the Beringian theory is simply educated conjecture, not evidence, and that as scientists we must be careful not to create dogma and ideology in our studies (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  In The North Atlantic Ice Edge Corridor, they go into exacting detail about what makes Clovis points so unique, and then explain that no tool like the Clovis point has ever been discovered prior to Clovis except in southwestern Europe (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  They do not claim that people never came across the Beringian land bridge, just that they were not the first, and were not the ancestors of Clovis (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  The biggest challenges to the Solutrean migration are the 6,000 year difference in time and the incredible difficulty of a journey across the North Atlantic (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  The “complexity and difficulty of [overshot flaking to create thin bifaces] and its rarity” lead Bradley and Stanford to believe it is more likely that the Atlantic was crossed than to believe that Clovis points and Solutrean points were independently developed (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p.465).  The claim is that the Solutrean people took to the sea to hunt seals, and eventually chased their prey “too far” until they found land on the other side, and may have even started a cyclic hunt that spanned the ocean, setting up camps with entire kin groups on the opposite coast (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  Sites like Meadowcroft (Pennsylvania), Cactus Hill (Virginia) and Page-Ladson (Florida) have been dated to pre-Clovis times and have some of the same tools as have been found in Solutrean sites (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).  Dating of Clovis sites seems to uphold this model, with the oldest dates coming in the east and the youngest at the west (Bradley & Stanford, 2004).

Personally, I believe that minds must always be kept open, particularly in the pursuit of science and history.  There was a time when we knew the world was flat, and a time when we knew that there was no way man was in the Americas before 4,000 years ago.  Now we know both of these claims are false, but we are still claiming to “know” facts that have not been proven.  In any case, I always search out “new” or “controversial” studies because if the truth is true, it will withstand any dissent.  Therefore, I admire Bradley and Stanford for publishing their views.  I also hesitate to “pick sides,” particularly when the answers are not mutually exclusive.  Without years of intensive research, I could not possibly add any insight to this discussion, nor could I determine from two articles which is “more correct,” but I must say that though I had not heard of the Solutrean connection before this paper, I find it fascinating and possible.  If genealogy says Native Americans came from Asia, and tools say they came from Europe, why can it not be said that they both came to the Americas and created the first “melting pot” before the melting pot we refer to now.  Why is it not possible that a smaller group of Solutreans spread their tools to a large group of Asian migrants who wound up overtaking the former?  Without considerable evidence to back either claim, it seems that the discussion will have to wait until “we know” where the Paleo-Indians came from.


Bradley, B. & Stanford, D.  (2004). The North Atlantic Ice-Edge Corridor: A Possible Paleolithic Route to the New World.  World Archaeology 36(4) pp. 459-478.  Retrieved June 1, 2012 from JSTOR.

Schurr, T.  (2004).  The Peopling of the New World: Perspectives from Molecular Anthropology.  Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 33 pp. 551-583.  Retrieved June 1, 2012 from JSTOR.


06/04/2012 - Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking | , , , ,

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