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Early Continental Connections: The Mysterious Settlement of the Americas

It is a thought provoking exercise in imagination: if we were to travel back in time to the early Americas, what about the ancient landscape would meet our expectations? Conversely, what about the prehistoric past would surprise us?

What if early humans somehow fit into the picture as well, and at times much earlier than we presently think they migrated into the Americas?

Controversy recently struck the archaeological world, with the announcement that an ancient site in southern California may be, according to researchers, evidence of human occupation in North America as early as 130,000 years ago. This, if proven, would not only be extraordinary; it would fundamentally change everything we previously thought about early human migrations into the Americas.

While this idea of pushing back the date of arrival on the continent by more than 100,000 years is shocking in itself, of equal intrigue in the ancient peopling saga is the question of where, not when. In other words, where did they come from, and what paths did they follow to arrive here?

Arguably, the most widely recognized and generally accepted path of migration into North America involves the Bering Land Hypothesis, which traditionally suggested that toward the end of the last ice age, early humans crossed over from Siberia on a land bridge which existed prior to the end of the last glacial maximum, when sea levels were much lower. However, more recent discoveries in parts of Alaska, particularly the Blue Fish Caves archeological site, suggests that humans had indeed crossed over much earlier.

Then we have the perplexing pre-Clovis era sites like Monte Verde, Chile, which provide reliable evidence of human settlement and occupation much further south than one might logically expect early humans to have visited. For a time, Monte Verde presented something of a conundrum on count of this, though the suggestion that early travelers and, yes, sailors might have used ancient watercraft to bounce along shorelines, presumably following the coastline all the way down to modern Chile.

As for why more west coast sites like Monte Verde haven’t turned up, if these ancient voyages were indeed made during periods coinciding with the last ice age, temporary habitation sites along coastal areas may indeed have been covered by rising sea waters as the Earth gradually warmed.

There are, however, numerous other ideas about how humans might have arrived in the Americas during this period, which include the equally controversial “Solutrean hypothesis”, which involves a north Atlantic route ancient Europeans might have used, traversing the Atlantic Ocean and making their way over into the northeast. Artifacts recovered from around the Delmarva Peninsula do seem suggestive of the unique bifaces that were produced by early humans in Europe, coinciding with the Solutrean culture.

Despite the controversy it has managed to arouse, the Solutrean Hypothesis does not appear to be all that unusual, in terms of the possible migration routes via which early humans may have come to North and South America (what is more controversial than the idea itself, it can be argued, is that some archaeologists lean heavily toward this theory as being the ultimate origin behind the Clovis culture, which seems contradictory to much of the DNA evidence existent today).

A more unusual theory, however, and certainly one bearing the potential for controversy, involves the potential for early migration into South America from Australia, or even African crossings into areas like eastern Brazil.

Thomas Dillehay, Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University and author of the book The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory, was involved in the various excavations at Monte Verde, Chile, over the years. In the aforementioned book, he summarizes a series of very unique potentials toward the book’s conclusion, no less among them this seemingly “out of left field” notion of crossings from Africa and Australia, among other places:

Future studies of the peopling of the New World should give close attention to the archaeological and human skeletal diversity that is showing up increasingly in eastern Brazil. Physical anomalies in the skeletons at Lapa Vermelha IV and other Brazilian sites may suggest early contacts with Africa, Australia, and Oceania.

Professor Thomas Dillehay

“Although we should be critical of new evidence,” Dillehay wrote, “we also should keep our minds open to new possibilities and ideas.” In keeping with the presence of lower sea levels and the exposure of greater swathes of land during the last glacial maximum (thus lessening the distances between certain land masses in ancient times), perhaps ideas such as these do not seem quite so strange. Especially in light of the notion that Old World primates, to have reached the New World in the first place, are believed to have possibly been carried across similar routes, albeit via “natural rafts”, toward the end of the Miocene (for more on this, see Alan de Queiroz’s, The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life). 

With the debate and discussion going on in relation to the Cerruti Mammoth site in San Diego County, California, again this call for “new possibilities and ideas” should be kept in mind, though without willfully giving ourselves over to belief for belief’s sake. As time wears on, we are continuing to learn just how far reaching, and how far back, the peopling saga of the ancient Americas really goes.

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