Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Origin of Ancient Americans

Solutrean Stone Tools
I am always fascinated by the native cultures of North America. I am obviously particularly curious about the natives groups of New England. Their cultures and histories are so unique, but so much seems to have been lost to time and assimilation. What is even more interesting for me is that these native cultures of the north east have played such a large role in the development of Yankee culture.

Despite the many things we do know about the native groups of North America, there remains a lot of confusion and controversy regarding their genetic origins. For many years, the conventional wisdom has been that all native cultures in North America and South America are descended from Asiatic nomads who came from Siberia into modern Alaska by using the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age. Historians, archeologists, linguists, and anthropologists have always questioned this theory, but so far little evidence has been gathered to support alternate origins.

One of the most widely expressed alternatives to the Asian migration theory, at least as far as east coast native groups are concerned, is that many are descended from ancient European populations that made the roughly 1,500 mile journey from France and Iberia to the east coast of our continent. These stone-age Europeans, called the Solutreans, could have traveled along the edges of the frozen glaciers, catching and eating animals like seals and sea birds.

This theory is based on the discovery of stone tools and technology created by the Solutrean culture in areas like Solutré in eastern France. Very similar technology has been found throughout North American native sites. Yet, one of the biggest draw backs to this theory had been the large chronological gap between Solutrean finds in Europe and similar stone tools discovered in the US.
Native American ston tools similar to Solutrean discoveries
However, according to Archeology Daily News, several dozen European style stone tools have been discovered at six sites along the east coast of the US. These tools date between 19,000 and 26,000 years ago. While previous US finds had dated to roughly 15,000 years ago, therefore well after Solutrean technology, these new discoveries are contemporary with European finds. What is even more interesting is that one of these stone tools, discovered in Virginia in 1971, was created using European flint.

If the Solutrean Hypothesis is correct, this would mean European cultures inhabited North America several thousand years before Siberian nomads even crossed the Bering Land Bridge.

Professor Dennis Stanford, of the Smithsonian Institution, and Professor Bruce Bradley, of the University of Exeter, the archeologists primarily responsible for analyzing the newly discovered stone tools in the US, are re-presenting the Solutrean theory in their book Across Atlantic Ice.

However, Stanford and Bradley are not theorizing that all native groups in North America are primarily European in origin. Rather, they suggest that Native Americans of the Solutrean origin would have eventually been assimilated by the greater population of the native groups with Asian origins. This would account for the fact that there are very few European genetic markers in modern or ancient Native American groups.

When I teach this subject in my history class, students sometimes ask about the origin of Native Americans. Generally, our text books only give information regarding the Asiatic origin theory. However, I try to let my students know that this is only one of several probable theories. Like many things in history and especially pre-history, we just do not know for certain. Discoveries like those made by Stanford and Bradley prove that every day.

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