The First Sailors: Did The Mysterious First Americans Arrive in Watercraft?
Among the many mysteries pertaining to the ancient Americas, perhaps the greatest unanswered question is who, precisely, the first Americans were.
Probing this mystery raises additional questions about when these prospective first Americans arrived, and how they made their way into parts of North and South America; these are questions which have stirred a number of competing theories, leading to general division among their proponents in the Archaeological world.
It has long been held that the earliest people to migrate into North America were likely to have done so by traveling across a land bridge which, due to lower sea levels, would have existed toward the end of the last glacial period thousands of years ago. Proponents of this “Beringia” hypothesis, as it is often called, point to further evidence in DNA studies among modern Native American groups, who have been shown to bear distinct similarity to those of Asian descent.
This would seem to offer nearly conclusive evidence of migrations from parts of Eastern Siberia into modern day Alaska long ago. However, since the 1970s, whispers of a competing theory began to emerge, which since being formally introduced in 1998, is known as the Solutrean Hypothesis.
The theory is named for the Solutrean culture, an industrious group of relatively advanced flint tool-makers that existed in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic period. Proponents of the theory maintain that travelers originating in modern day France made their way across the icy waters of the North Atlantic ocean, perhaps as early as 17,000 to 21,000 years ago.
Of course, in order for this to have been plausible, it requires the further assumption that such early Solutrean travelers had at least rudimentary watercraft at their disposal, a notion that presents us with a handful of problems. Namely, there is no evidence of such early boating technologies, since unlike the stone spearpoints, knives, and other tools made by these people, the lightweight wood and animal materials used to build such craft are perishable, and hence have not withstood the test of thousands of years like their lithic counterparts.
Hence, it is within the realm of stone tools where proponents of a Solutrean hypothesis rest the weight of their argument. Two of the leading advocates of a Solutrean theory are Dennis Stanford, Curator of Archaeology and Director of the Paleoindian Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his colleague Bruce Bradley, Associate Professor in Archaeology and Director of the Experimental Archaeology Programme at the University of Exeter. Central to their argument that Solutreans made the passage across ancient Atlantic waters is a controversial stone point, discovered in 1970 off the east coast of Virginina. Discovered while dredging by the crew aboard a small trawler called the Cinmar, the stone point was thus dubbed the “Cinmar biface” (bifacial being a term meaning that the weapon in question, referred to more generally as a hand axe or spearpoint, is carved on both of its faces, taking a shape that is roughly that of an almond). The Cinmar biface is best known for bearing stark similarity to the distinct “laurel leaf” designs made by the ancient Solutreans, and similar lithics have been found in the region since the initial 1970 discovery.
It should be noted, of course, that the Cinmar spearpoint was discovered within the same dredge load that contained fossil remains of mastodon. During the last ice age (specifically in the vicinity of around 22,000 years ago), the regions where the Cinmar tool was discovered would likely have been a vast plain, which sea water would not cover for several thousands of years until the Earth warmed into the present interglacial period. Here, prospective hunters might have used such stone tools to hunt and butcher various megafauna in the region, which would have included mastodons.
It should be noted that the theory that watercraft might have played a role in the early human settlement of North America is not specific to the Solutrean hypothesis. In fact, a growing number of archaeologists have begun to entertain notions that such primitive sailing vessels may have even assisted with migrations from regions like Siberia and Asia, thus modifying existing ideas about the popular Beringia hypothesis. In their book Strangers in a Strange Land: What Archaeology Reveals About the First Americans, authors J.M. Adovasio and David Pedler discuss the “almost irrational resistance to appreciating the importance of watercraft in the peopling saga,” where they note the following in relation to Beringian paths being augmented by primitive boats:
“If watercraft were indeed operational in the open waters of Southeast Asia by at least 40,000 yr BP, it is virtually certain that ancient coastal populations further to the north also had access to boats. Obviously, if boats of any kind (but most probably umiak-style, skin-covered vessels) were accessible to the first migrants to the New World; any discussions of the timing of the exposure or inundation of Beringia or the opening and closing of the ice-free corridor are more or less moot. The use of boats also would have permitted a coastal entry anywhere south of Beringia and the Cordilleran glacier, transits across the Gulf of California and up the Colorado River, or circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico and the potential to travel up the Mississippi River. Needless to say, without watercraft the trans-Atlantic peopling scenario posited by Stanford and Bradley would not have been possible.”
Again, part of the controversy lies in the simple fact that, due to being made of perishable source materials, such boating technologies have not withstood the test of time. Far greater controversies exist, though; perhaps the greatest is Stanford and Bradley’s assertion that the Solutrean migrations may have represented the arrival of people that would later contribute to the mysterious Clovis culture, a group long believed to have been the first to settle America.
Today, it is recognized that there were indeed people in North and South America, whose arrival predates the Clovis culture by thousands of years. This, of course, leaves us with additional questions, such as who they were, where they came from, and the lingering mystery as to what circumstances in the ancient world may have led to the disappearance of the Clovis people, whose particular brand of “fluted” lithics were replaced by different, and in some cases even less advanced tools and weapons than their enigmatic predecessors.
While the debate remains as to who the Clovis people were, and what their actual origins may have been, one thing that can be agreed upon is the fact that, at some point, it seems obvious that some group had to have used watercraft to reach the Americas. And whether or not researchers like Stanford and Bradley are correct about groups like the Solutreans, and whether they are in some way linked to the later Clovis culture, there wouldn’t have had to be any permanent settlement necessarily, in order for us to appreciate that there could have been rudimentary sailors long ago, who arrived and hunted parts of the New World.
Perhaps there is no single “correct” theory about the origins of those early arrivals in the Americas. If anything, it seems to be increasingly likely that a variety of different migrations were occurring in the ancient world, where numerous cultures were finding their way from a variety of different points of origin. Thus, these all may have contributed to a peopling of the New World that is far more ancient than conventional archaeology once believed.