Watchman Willie Martin Archive

Roots — Deep Ones

The perils of looking into American prehistory.

By John J. Miller, NR's national political reporter June 9‑10, 2001

One of the secrets of

archaeology is that many truly

great finds aren't made by

archaeologists. It was a farmer,

Harold Conover, who

stumbled on a clue in the late 1980s that led to a magnificent

site in Virginia called Cactus Hill. Conover and his wife were

walking on logging roads near their home when he spotted a

few Indian artifacts mixed in the sand. He soon traced the

sand back to a quarry about ten miles away. Thanks to this

detective work, a group of archaeologists led by Joseph

McAvoy started digging near that quarry in the early 1990s.

They unearthed signs of human habitation stretching back

about 18,000 years — making Cactus Hill one of the two or

three oldest sites in North America. They also found evidence

to support one of the most provocative developments of our

time: the growing suspicion among physical anthropologists,

archaeologists, and even geneticists that some of the first

people who settled in the New World were Europeans.

Ten years ago, hardly anybody outside crackpot circles

would have contemplated this notion. There's a whole

speculative literature of oddball theories on groups coming to

America in antiquity. Ivan Van Sertima's They Came Before

Columbus points to statues produced by Mexico's Olmec

civilization as representations of Negroid faces, and the book

remains a perennial grocery‑store seller. Nancy Yaw Davis

argued last year in The Zuni Enigma that New Mexico's

Zuni tribe has too much in common with ancient Japanese

culture for it to be a coincidence. Many of these ideas persist

simply because they're hard to disprove, and it's important to

remember that the whole field is afflicted with celebrated

frauds like the Kensington Runestone — a large stone slab

that came to light a century ago and claims to describe the

travels of 14th‑century Vikings in Minnesota.

Despite the uncertainty, it has become increasingly clear over

the last decade that the history‑textbook version of ancient

American settlement no longer holds up. The first Americans,

according to the standard view, arrived about 12,000 years

ago by way of a land bridge that once connected Siberia and

Alaska. Thanks to a handful of sites like Cactus Hill, it is now

beyond dispute that some people got here much earlier. Asia

remains a likely source for migrations, because of its

proximity and the fact that today's Indians indisputably have

ancestors who lived there. But Asia may not be the only

source, and there's good reason to think it wasn't.

This ought to be thrilling news for the multiculturalists. What

better project for them than the serious study of America's

prehistory; a glorious mosaic whose rich diversity is only

now seeing daylight? But it must be remembered that

multiculturalism is motivated not by sincere curiosity about the

past, but by the sensitivities of modern victimology. An

important part of American Indian identity relies on the belief

that, in some fundamental way, they were here first. They are

indigenous, they are Native, and they make an important

moral claim on the national conscience for this very reason.

Yet if some population came before them — perhaps a group

their own ancestors wiped out through war and disease, in an

eerily reversed foreshadowing of the contact Columbus

introduced, then a vital piece of their mythologizing suffers

a serious blow. This revised history drastically undercuts the

posturing occasioned by the 500th anniversary of Columbus's

1492 voyage.

The prime mover behind the European‑migration theory is

Dennis Stanford, a jovial anthropologist who has spent nearly

three decades at the Smithsonian Institution studying Stone

Age technology. A big table dominates his office in the

National Museum of Natural History, and it's often cluttered

with primitive tools borrowed from the Smithsonian's huge

collection. He is an authority on Clovis Culture, named for the

town in New Mexico where the first remnants of it were

found in 1932. The Clovis people were said to be big‑game

hunters who stalked mammoths, and they left behind

distinctive relics. Researchers were so sure that they were the

continent's original settlers — about 12,000 years ago — that

suggesting otherwise was professional heresy.

But by the late 1980s, Stanford and a few of his colleagues,

including his former student Bruce Bradley, began to harbor

serious doubts about the Clovis theory. For starters, there

were a handful of sites, such as Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft

Rockshelter, that seemed older than Clovis. But more

            important, in Stanford's view, was the complete lack of

            evidence that Clovis culture ever existed outside the

            Americas. He spent years scouring museum collections

             around the world, but always came away empty. "It was

            getting pretty discouraging," he says.

             In truth, there is a Stone Age technology that looks an awful

             lot like Clovis, and its existence troubled Stanford and

            Bradley: The culture that produced it wasn't found in Siberia,

            where just about everybody would have expected it, but at

             the other end of the same landmass — in modern‑day France

             and Spain. It's called Solutrean, and it vanished some 20,000

            years ago. Stanford and Bradley were especially intrigued by

             the fact that the greatest concentration of Clovis sites occurs

             in the southeastern United States: If the technology is native

             to the Americas, it was probably invented in this area. If it

            wasn't native, then this was probably the site to which it was

            imported — on the side of the North American continent

            facing Europe. But a pair of insurmountable obstacles

            appeared to separate the Clovis and Solutrean cultures:

            several thousand years, and a large ocean.

            Then came the findings at Cactus Hill. "As soon as we started

             to see some of that stuff come out, we thought about the

            connection to Solutrean," says Stanford. Joseph McAvoy

             and his team found Clovis artifacts on the site, as well as

            irrefutably older material that Stanford and Bradley think is a

            developmental form of Clovis technology.

            That's a groundbreaking observation. Experts in ancient

            technology like to build family trees. Just as a sculptor can

            hack a limitless number of objects out of a stone block, there

             are an infinite number of ways to chip a hand ax or spearpoint

            from a rock. Over time, cultures develop particular

            techniques; archaeologists can identify them and create tool

             genealogies. If they find tools that look similar and were

            manufactured in the same way, there's a good chance the

            people making them shared cultural traits. They may have

            been blood relatives or trading partners, but whatever their

            precise relationship, they almost certainly drew from the same

            storehouse of knowledge.

            Stanford is one of the world's few remaining accomplished

            flintknappers: Give him the right type of rock and he can flake

             it into a long, bifacial, and fluted spearpoint just like a Clovis

            hunter would. While other scholars have noted the similarities

            between Clovis and Solutrean technology as a mildly

            interesting example of cultural convergence — in other

            words, a coincidence — Stanford's expertise in flintwork

            made him suspect a deeper connection: "There are so many

            matching steps in how they made their tools: bifacial flaking,

            heat treatment, similar ceremonial items, the presence of red

            ocher. There must be fifty or sixty points of comparison. It

            can't be chance." And yet nobody could figure out a way to

             bridge the thousands of years and miles dividing the two


            Then, in 1994, a team of Emory University scientists studying

            genetic diversity made an unexpected discovery. They

            examined a specific kind of DNA lineage known as

            mitochondrial DNA in ethnic groups around the world. Their

            survey of American Indians found four major varieties, which

            they labeled haplogroups A, B, C, and D. Each of these has

             antecedents in Asia, confirming that today's Indians descend

            almost entirely from Asian stock. But there's a fifth lineage,

            too, called haplogroup X. It occurs in about a quarter of all

            Ojibway Indians, and in lesser amounts among members of

             the Sioux, Navajo, and other tribes. A version of the X

            haplogroup shows up in only one other place on the planet:


            "That's what pushed me over the edge," says Stanford. If the

             X haplogroup had found its way to America through Siberia,

             it almost certainly would have left behind a mark somewhere

             in Asia; but exhaustive searching has turned up no indications

             of any passage. The simplest explanation is an Atlantic


             Out of Europe?

            Actual human remains might help clinch the case.

            Unfortunately, not many 9,000‑year‑old skeletons survive

            today. The small sample that are known raise fascinating

            possibilities. The much‑disputed Kennewick Man, for

            instance, is said to have Caucasoid features, as opposed to

             the Mongoloid ones of present‑day Indians. (This isn't to say

             he was "white" — nobody knows the color of his skin.)

            Some researchers have suggested his morphology most

            closely resembles the Ainu, an indigenous Japanese

            population. But the prospect of early migrations from places

            other than Asia can't be dismissed. One skull found in Brazil

            shares more similarities with Australian Aborigines than with

             any other group. "The evidence is mounting that the earliest

             North Americans were a distinct people, or perhaps several

            distinct peoples, who cannot easily be linked to modern

            American Indians," writes James C. Chatters — the forensic

            anthropologist who recovered Kennewick Man — in his

            just‑published book, Ancient Encounters.

             How might Europeans have made it to the Americas so long

            ago? The challenge appears immense, but there is a tendency

             to underestimate the cleverness of ancient peoples — a

            tendency that grows over time, perhaps, as we depend more

             on sophisticated technology and begin to believe that only a

            half‑wit would sail beyond sight of the coast without hooking

             up to a GPS satellite. But boats and navigation aren't recent

            inventions; human beings reached Australia at least 40,000

            years ago, and getting there would have required — at least

             — a trip of about 80 miles on the high seas, from New

            Guinea. That's much shorter than traversing the Atlantic, to be

            sure, but the important point is that it represents a willingness

             and ability among ancient people to leave the relative safety

             of coastal waterways.

             A migration out of Europe seems distinctly possible if we

            consider a number of factors that probably would have given

            ancient travelers a boost. During the last ice age, the sea

             levels were lower; today's coasts were inland, and the

            distance from Western Europe to the Grand Banks (which

            then formed the easternmost part of North America) would

            have been about 1,400 miles — far, but much closer than it is

            today. In addition, an ice shelf extending south from the

            Arctic would have presented a clear route. Seals, penguins,

             and fish would have offered nourishment along the way. The

            prevailing ocean current, too, would have swept these early

            people in the right direction. So the journey wouldn't have

            required the prehistoric equivalent of the Apollo space

            program. may have been a few guys on an ice floe," says


            Discovering an 18,000‑year‑old Irish coracle off the New

            Jersey shore would settle a lot of questions, but ancient boats

            were made of perishable materials. Tools and bones last

             longer, and that's what makes the Cactus Hill artifacts and the

            Kennewick remains so important. Prehistory isn't called

            prehistory for nothing: It's a challenge to study, because the

            people who made it left only scant traces of themselves. Even

             if a European migration really did happen, the evidence

            proving it conclusively may not exist today. What evidence

            does exist seems to turn up by happenstance, such as when a

            farmer takes a stroll down a logging road. In the case of

            Kennewick Man, a pair of boozed‑up college students

            waded into the Columbia River to avoid buying $11 tickets

             for a boating exhibition, and then spotted a skull sticking out

             of the mud. These important discoveries were essentially


             The truth may be out there, but some people would prefer to

            keep it hidden. Kennewick Man, for instance, is currently

             locked up in Seattle's Burke Museum, where nobody is

            allowed to study him. Last September, interior secretary

            Bruce Babbitt announced his intention to give the priceless

            remains to modern‑day Indian tribes that intended to bury the

            bones without allowing scientists a look. Several researchers

            (including Stanford) sued, and a judge stopped the handover.

            Lawyers will argue the case on June 19, and the fate of

             Kennewick Man — perhaps the most important human

            skeleton ever found in the Western Hemisphere — remains


            This case is hardly an exception. Thanks to the Native

            American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990,

            federally recognized tribes have the right to petition for human

            remains. The idea was to help them protect their ancestors

            from grave robbers — but in practice the law has become a

             tool for tribal activists to prevent the study of ancient people.

             The Friends of America's Past, an organization based in

            Portland, Ore., counts five other sets of bones — rough

            contemporaries of Kennewick Man — that have been lost to

            science under this or similar laws, and another six "in

            jeopardy" of the same fate. Most of these remains are said to

            share the vaguely "Caucasoid" traits seen on Kennewick Man

             — but again, research opportunities have been restricted.

            Stanford and Bradley are completing a manuscript on the

            Clovis‑Solutrean connection, which the University of

            California Press expects to publish next year. It's impossible

             to say whether the next generation of scholars will come to

            look at their work as a turning point in our understanding of

            prehistory, or a less‑than‑completely‑convincing argument

            that makes creative use of meager material. What seems

            increasingly clear, however, is that the old story of a simple

            land migration from Siberia 12,000 years ago won't survive.

             The question of what will replace it should be a matter of

            concern to all of us, because the first Americans represent the

            heritage of all Americans. No single person or group owns

             the past; we all do, collectively. And it is only through a spirit

             of scientific inquiry that we may learn the answer to that

            fascinating question: How did the New World come to have

            such people in it?

                                                 Roots — Deep Ones

                                                 WASHINGTON, DC

                                                 — The perils of

                                                 looking into American

                                                 prehistory¼by John J.


                                                 Jeers to You, Mrs.


                                                 NEW YORK— Who’s

                                                 the weakest link

                                                 now?¼by John


                                                  Ms. Discovers


                                                 NEW YORK — Ann

                                                 Crittenden on mothers

                                                  and choices¼by

                                                 Kathryn Jean Lopez

                                                 Lowering the Boom

                                                 NEW YORK —

                                                  Reviewing Joe

                                                 Queenan’s Balsamic

                                                 Dreams¼by James


                                                  Dr. Laura Speaks

                                                 WASHINGTON, DC

                                                 — An interview with

                                                 Dr. Laura


                                                 Melissa Seckora

                                                 Grading Bobby Flay

                                                 NEW YORK — Iron

                                                  Chef lessons

                                                 learned¼by Chris


                                                 Indie Noir

                                                 BOSTON —


                                                 Memento¼by Thomas


                                                  California Dreamin’

                                                 DORSET, VT — The

                                                 Sixers, Lakers, energy,

                                                 price caps, etc¼by

                                                  Geoffrey Norman

                                                 On Gallows Hill

                                                 NEW YORK — The

                                                 Salem Witch Trials

                                                 begin¼by Jack Walsh

                                                 Look, Mama, Only 38


                                                 NEW YORK — Castro

                                                 and the celebrity

                                                 swoon¼by William F.

                                                 Buckley Jr.

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