Book Review: Across Atlantic Ice: the origin of America’s Clovis culture

by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce Bradley. Bloomsbury, 2012

Global Overview of the Solutrean Hypothesis
Dsm9603, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Half an academic dry tome and half one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read, this book lays out the evidence for what is known as ‘the Solutrean hypothesis’. It’s basically trying to answer the question, ‘Who first peopled America?’

As you might expect, this idea has proved to be quite controversial. Traditionalists hate it because they are wedded to the idea that the ‘first peoples’ walked to America from Asia over the land bridge across the Beringian Sea and don’t want their applecart overturned. Lefties hate it because it is ‘racist’ to even raise the possibility that America was peopled from Europe (lolol). I read a review by a Native American archaeologist who objected to both theories, because he didn’t think outsiders – whether from Siberia or from Europe – should be in the picture at all.

The authors of this work have excellent credentials. Bruce A. Bradley is a professor emeritus of  archaeology at the University of Exeter, and Professor Dennis J. Stanford is Curator of Archaeology and Director of the PalaeoIndian Program (American usage) at the Smithsonian. Bradley became fascinated by the similarities between Upper Palaeolithic assemblages in south-west Europe and American tools; meanwhile, Stanford’s work in Alaska had led him to conclude there were no precursors to the earliest American tools to be found there. Together, they joined forces to challenge the traditional paradigm in depth. While the Solutrean hypothesis isn’t altogether new – it has been around since the seventies – this is the first full and detailed account of it to be published in book form afaik.

Solutrean tools
World Imaging, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first prehistoric ‘culture’ recognised in America was dubbed Clovis, after the site in New Mexico where its distinctive stone tools were first found, and traditionally was said to date from about 13,000 -12,000 BC. But these authors contend that the Solutreans arrived long before that, around 20,000 BC (or even before), via a different route: over the sea. Not the vast, direct trans-Atlantic crossings we are familiar with today through sailors like Robin Knox Johnston et al, but by hugging the then-prevalent sea ice and making short hops north and westwards until the route led round to the eastern shore of N. America – a sort of ‘ice-edge way’ leading from the Bay of Biscay to the Chesapeake. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound: there were two Inuit (I read not long ago that many circumpolar peoples don’t like being called Inuit either, but let that pass) in living memory who set off from home on a fishing expedition, then got cut off on an ice floe and eventually ended up floating, rather bewildered, up the Hudson into New York, where they – not surprisingly – became minor celebrities.

Stanford and Bradley present data supporting their conclusion that there are no technologies in Beringia which could be considered ancestral to Clovis: Beringian tools lack the thinned bifacial technology and large blades characteristic of Clovis. In addition, humans only colonised Beringia less than 12,000 years ago, so if Clovis was already established in America a thousand years earlier, there is clearly a hole in the traditional theory. Solutrean sites in Europe date from about 25,000 to 16,500 years BP (i.e. circa 23,000 – 14,500 BC), during the last major glaciation, hence their location in rock shelters or caves. Sites in south-west France and northern Spain are looked at in particular detail here, because of their higher degree of technological affinity with Clovis artefacts – and pre-Clovis artefacts: with recent, older discoveries, Clovis is no longer considered even by the die-hards to be the first culture on American soil. The so-called ‘Clovis First’ ideology appears to be a dead duck.

A map of sea surface temperature changes and glacial extent during the last glacial maximum, according to Climate: Long range Investigation, Mapping, and Prediction, a mapping project conducted by the National Science Foundation in the 1970s and 1980s
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Solutrean people exploited traditional resources on the land via hunting, but also expanded their subsistence base to make use of sea resources as well: the book looks at evidence for this from a cave site in northern Spain. The marginal zone where the ice ended and the open ocean began would have been extremely rich in food resources – migrating seals, sea birds, walrus, fish and the now-extinct penguin-like species, the great auk. This – what the authors call ‘The Solutrean Maritime Adaption’ – was, it is proposed, what led this particular subset of Palaeolithic Europeans to take to the water and ice-shelf edge. There have been objections raised that no Upper Palaeolithic Solutrean boats have ever been found: hardly surprising, given the timescale and vagaries of preservation with regard to organic materials, and the fact that any early mariners would have been on a sea 400 metres lower than today. Bradley and Stanford however show that, in their view, there is indeed sufficient indirect evidence (for instance from cave paintings – such as at the Solutrean site of  El Castillo in Spain- and from ethnographic parallels) that boats could certainly have been used at this time.

The first part of the book covers a lot of info about Palaeolithic tool-making technology – absolutely fascinating stuff and fundamental to their argument about just how similar, or not, Clovis points and Solutrean points actually are. Bradley and Stanford are both flint-knappers themselves. If you find this kind of thing heavy going, it would be possible to skip straight to the subsequent part, which is a well-written narrative that takes you on from there. Using not just archaeological typography but also palaeoclimatic, oceanographic and even genetic detail (for example, a mitochondrial haplogroup called X2a, found in Native Americans, seems to have come from across the Atlantic), the authors make their case that people could have travelled from ice age Europe to N. America much earlier than has been generally accepted.

Stanford and Bradley aren’t claiming the Atlantic was the only prehistoric route to America – or that people didn’t also later come over the Bering land bridge – simply that this human tale is more complex and intriguing than has been previously presented. Their conclusions are, however, still hotly debated.

This isn’t the last word – not by a long chalk. Much of the relevant evidence which was once on land is now miles out to sea. Who knows what might be found in future, either on land or underwater? But, it being the case that ‘science is never settled’, this is a very welcome contribution to the debate.

As the authors themselves state, ‘Ultimately, whether the hypothesis is right or wrong, the many questions it raises and avenues it opens should spur scholars to broaden the scope of research possibilities and produce a more sophisticated story of human history’


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