New research suggests humans came here much earlier than we used to think— by boat, and not just from Asia

Brian Bethune March 19 2001


New research suggests humans came here much earlier than we used to think— by boat, and not just from Asia

Brian Bethune March 19 2001



New research suggests humans came here much earlier than we used to think— by boat, and not just from Asia

Brian Bethune

They came on foot from Siberia, biggame hunters with classic Mongoloid features who followed mammoths and caribou across what is now the Bering Sea on a 1,500-km-wide land bridge to Alaska. About 14,000 years ago—or 12,000 Before Present, as archeologists style their radiocarbon yearsߞthe hunters found a way through the vast ice sheets that covered almost all of Canada. A corridor through northwest Canada opened between the glaciers, and they poured southward, into a Garden of Eden. Humans had finally arrived in the New World.

Moving quickly to pursue animals that had not yet learned to fear them, the first North Americans fanned out—to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and farther south. They reached the tip of South America in only 1,000 years, not long before they hunted almost all their large prey to extinction. They then began to exploit all the hemispheres ecological niches, from the Amazonian rainforest to the tundra that sprang up as the glaciers retreated north-

ward. And so began the process of cultural diffe entiation that produced the vast array of abori^ nal languages and societies that Europeans disco ered upon their arrival 500 years ago.

Or so we were taught in school. The so-calk Clovis model, named after the 13,500-year-ol New Mexico site where the hunters’ distincth spear points were first unearthed in 1932, took a firm grip on scholarly orthodoxy by the mid20th century. But in the past few years, new archeological finds and the work of other specialists have jump-started a raucous debate that I threatens to overthrow it. Many see I evidence of ancient migrations by I boat, while others—backed by I provocative genetic research and linguistic models—push the story back as much as 50,000 years. Some even propose that the Americas in the distant past were much more cosmopolitan than previously thought, with waves of arrivals from as far away as Australia and Europe, as well as from Asia. Canadian geologists, meanwhile, have shut down the theory of the old road south altogether.

Elaine Thompson/AP

At the same time, as scientists attempt to bring new techniques to bear on the riddle of old bones, they are increasingly challenged by the beliefs and growing political power of native Americans, who are demanding the return of bones found in their ancestral lands (page 30). The current ferment, and the political tensions involved, are covered in detail in Bones: Discovering the First Americans, a compelling account by freelance journalist Elaine Dewar (page 28). After two years of research, Dewar doesn’t buy any of the scientific theories. “The whole thing is wide open,” she argues. “You have to ask the question, which we haven’t for 70 years, whether native Americans are right in their belief that they have always been here. That they came here is simply an unsafe assumption—there’s no evidentiary reason for it.”

Few scientists, if any, would follow Dewar down that path, although many are clearly yearning to break free of orthodox strictures. Anthropologists are almost entirely agreed that

modern humans evolved in the Old World as far back as 200,000 years ago. It was those modern humans who went to Australia—by boat—50,000 years ago, and to the Americas somehow, sometime. And while the Clovis model did seem to answer some questions, it left others hanging. The level of technology evident in Clovis-type settlements “shows such intricate knowledge of the stone resources that it can’t be first,” says Richard Morían, an archeologist with the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que. At dozens of Clovis locations across the United States, in Canada and as far south as Central America, there are stones that were quarried up to 300 km away. “That means there’s already a trading network or extensive personal travel,” notes Morían, “and those things take time.” Still, uncontested proof of pre-Clovis human activity remained elusive. “We looked and looked for older evidence,” sighs Morían. “Many, many sites seemed promising, but for one reason or another there’s lingering doubts.” Meadowcroft


Provocative genetic research and linguistic models push the story of the Americas first settlers back as much as 50,000 years

in Pennsylvania, for instance, had radiocarbon dates that go back thousands of years before Clovis, but Clovis defenders argued strenuously that nearby coal seams made the timing unreliable. “So the damn thing gets knocked about like a ball on a squash court, and nobody takes it seriously anymore,” says a frustrated Morían. “Its a hell of a way to do science.”

Morlan’s comment encapsulates Dewar’s astonishment, too, as she charts Clovis’s transition from hypothesis to rigid orthodoxy. Some archeologists simply stopped digging at the Clovis level, secure in the knowledge that there could be nothing underneath. New potential pre-Clovis sites were assumed to have something wrong with them, in the manner of Meadowcroft. That mind-set is why it took American archeologist Tom Dillehay more than 20 years to get his 14,500-year-old site at Monte Verde in southern Chile accepted by his peers, and why it was such a blow to the Clovis model when a blue-ribbon panel of specialists finally gave him their benediction in 1997.

Human habitation in the Americas now had a new location, and a new date—1,000 years before Clovis. Ironically, what seemed to be Monte Verde’s most serious challenge to the status quo—putting people at the very bottom of South America 500 years before the ice-free corridor was thought to have been open—turned out to hardly matter. Scientists at the Geological Survey of Canada had already shut down the corridor. Through the 1990s, geologist Alejandra DukRodkin and her colleagues at the survey’s Calgary office published papers that carefully laid out the history of the north-

ern river systems. The glaciers had met, and the way between them was not passable until long after Clovis culture was flourishing far to the south. The geologists’ work was so little recognized in the archeological community, Dewar reports, that the Provincial Museum of Alberta’s recendy overhauled prehistory display still showcases the corridor, even after the survey was consulted about glacial conditions.

The growing awareness that something was wrong with the land passage meant anyone who still looks to a relatively recent arrival from Siberia—and most archeologists cannot imagine another place of origin—has to turn to a coastal route. Once dismissed as an impossibility (the glaciers were thought to have reached right into the ocean until after Clovis), a west coast arrival by boat or foot is fast becoming an inevitable scenario. The theory’s newfound popularity bemuses the first archeologist to propose it. Knut Fladmark, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., recalls that the idea was met “not with hostility but by being ignored” when he first suggested it in the 1970s. “I’m a little bit disturbed by its reappearance as a valid theory. It doesn’t seem to be based on a re-examination of the evidence but as a has-to-be thing if the early South American dates are true.”

New enthusiasts envisage a people who hunted marine mammals much like historic West Coast natives did, arriving about 15,000 years ago, when the glaciers—as it now appears—had pulled back from the shoreline. But, as Fladmark indicated, proving the coastal route won’t be easy. Sites that were on dry land when much of the world’s water was locked up in glaciers are now deep below the waves. In 1997, however, Parks Canada archeologist Daryl Fedje managed to dredge up a stone tool dated to about 10,200 from Hecate Strait off the Queen Charlotte Islands, indicating that people could have lived on the nowsubmerged coast.

Other experts responded to the South American jolt in their own ways. Albert Goodyear, a University of South Carolina archeologist, had been digging at Topper, a Clovis-type site in his state, since 1984. Fourteen years later, after reading about Monte Verde, he decided to dig deeper. When he found micro-tools, Goodyear says, he “kind of went into shock—I had no idea we’d find artifacts.” The sheer number of Clovis sites in the southeastern United States—including ones like Topper and Cactus Hill in Virginia, far from the route to South America envisioned in the Clovis model—has long intrigued scientists. A researcher at the respected Smithsonian Institution in Washington recendy added two other nagging facts to the geographic puzzle and came up with a startling solution. Noting that Clovis spear points have not been found in Alaska or


The time references in this article are all based on traditional calendar years. Many scientific articles and books, including Dewar’s, use radiocarbon dating (Before Present, or BR years), which can vary significantly—and not according to a fixed ratio-from calendar dating. Chile’s Monte Verde site, for example, is 14,500 calendar years old, the equivalent of 12,500 radiocarbon years.

Siberia—as would be expected by the Bering land-bridge theory—and that the Solutrean culture that flourished in Spain and France thousands of years earlier did produce similar artifacts, Dennis Stanford sees Clovis’s origins in Europe.

Most experts find the so-called Atlantic crossing scenario, over an ice-choked ocean in some sort of skin-and-wood boat, preposterous. The eminent U.S. archeologist Richard (Scotty) MacNeish, thought by many to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones and a man who spent several decades working in Canada, was succinct—“That’s all crap,” he told Dewar before his death in January. But scholarly disdain has not dampened popular excitement, which has seized on the fact that the handful of human remains dating back 9,000 years or more so far found in the Americas—including Spirit Cave Mummy (10,700 years old), Wizards Beach Man (10,400 years old) and the most famous of all, 9,500year-old Kennewick Man—do not, as a group, bear the broad faces, prominent cheekbones and round cranial vaults that characterize modern native Americans.

Kennewick Man has been at the centre of a tangled dispute that

forms one of the central narrative spines of Dewar’s book. In 1996, two young men sneaking into a hydroplane race stumbled across his bones in the shallows of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash. The skeleton was well preserved and unusually eloquent. He was between 40 and 55 when he died, a good age considering his hard life: at some point he had recovered from a crushing blow to his rib cage, while the right side of his pelvis bore a deeply embedded spear tip.

When James Chatters, the forensic anthropologist examining Kennewick Man, incautiously described him as having “caucasoid” features, his bones became a flash point in the intensifying struggle over who has control of ancient remains. A coalition of five local native bands claimed him as an ancestor and asked for him to be handed over for immediate reburial, as mandated by American law. Archeologists, who covet the skeleton for the information locked in its bones and .« DNA, mounted a more serious le! gal challenge to the Indians that is I still ongoing.

I According to some physical an| thropologists, the oldest American £ bones bear a closer resemblance to Polynesians, the Anu of Japan or


Canadian geologists proved the old theory of hunters passing between the glaciers was wrong

even Europeans than to American Indians, which suggests to them that waves of different people came here.

That’s exactly what Brazilian anthropologist Walter Neves argues. Neves maintains that the skull of Luzia, the woman living 13,500 years ago whose remains, found in Lapa Vermelha in southern Brazil, are the hemisphere’s oldest, shows what Dewar describes as “fine African features.” In fact, after studying 50 ancient South American skulls he says are 10,000 years old or older, Neves sees their closest relationship as being with early Australian aborigines.

Sometime about 10,000 years ago, Neves theorizes, an influx of Mongoloids from the North displaced or absorbed the original inhabitants, and within a millennium Brazilian skulls are exclusively Mongoloid. Neves himself does not draw the eye-popping inference others have from his skull measurements—that the earliest migrants must have crossed the Pacific from Australia. He is more inclined to see them as

a splinter from an Asian band. While most turned south, eventually to reach Australia, those who would become South Americans went north and crossed over from Siberia.

That’s not much different from saying that early humans were always on the move, in flowing bands that constandy jostled one another. The gene flow—as anthropologists call sex—never stopped. Morían believes that people lived on the vast land bridge, known as Beringia, as much as they passed through it, in both directions. And Dewar is particularly caustic about what she calls “the vectors” of inquiry: “Why do the arrows on the maps always point to the Americas,” she

Laying the violent warrior soul to rest

Researching her new book, Bones: Discovering the first Americans (Random House Canada, 628pages, $39.95), journalist Elaine Dewar encountered rancorous arguments among scholars over the origins of the New World’s oldest inhabitants, and a sharp clash between scientists and natives over how to treat aboriginals’ remains.

One flash point in the dispute was the discovery of a 9,500year-old skeleton near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996. In the excerpt below, Dewar describes her growing sympathy with native demands.

On a weirdly warm morning in March, 1998,1 sat staring up at the high ceiling in the white-painted auditorium of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. I had come here to attend a meeting of the authorities in charge of dealing with native dead inadvertently found in Toronto. Archeologist Mima Kapches of the Royal Ontario Museum thought it might give me insight into the

native point of view on the study of ancestral remains, something I certainly needed help with: I couldn’t understand why native communities were trying to prevent study of the Kennewick remains. The dead are dead, my rational mind said. They feel no pain, no humiliation. In the Kennewick case, the man had been dead for millennia, so there could be no proof of cultural affiliation to any living native Americans without study.

On the other hand, I was bothered by what I’d learned about the way in which some native American remains had been handled. One archeologist described bones left on a site for weeks in a brown paper bag until the province of Ontario finally got around to doing something. He explained that when ancient remains were found, developers often looked the other way while their workers covered them up and built on top of them, so as to avoid cosdy delays and the possible expense of maintaining a cemetery in perpetuity. I was told of an amateur archeologist who kept human remains under the glass top of a coffee table in a living room.

At lunch, I sat with several of the native people who had opened the meeting that morning. One was a man with a long grey braid, who had been introduced as a pipe-carrier, a person who upholds the traditional spiritual practices of his band. Before the meeting began, he and his colleagues had washed us all in the sharp, sweet scent of burning sage and had offered us tobacco and a few moments of meditation. Over rice and chicken, I asked him to explain the basic beliefs of his people about the proper treatment of the dead.

There is a dualism involved, he said. Human beings have two souls, two spirits. There is a higher soul, which at death moves out through what he called the western door on its perpetual journey. But there is another soul, the dangerous, violent warrior soul, which resides in the bones forever. When bones are unearthed, this dangerous half of the duality, unchecked by the kinder social impulses of the higher soul, is set free to wreak havoc.

Surely not all native cultures at all times had these same beliefs about the dead, I argued. It didn’t matter, he replied, all native remains had to be treated the same way. It made no difference whether they were

said in an interview, “why never from—were there one-way signs in Beringia?”

It would seem, then, the New World has always been a melting pot. And for a much longer time than the Clovis model allows for. Morían points out that with the ice-free corridor non-existent, the coastal route has only a relatively tiny window of opportunity to create what has been discovered. People could move south only after the glaciers had pulled back from the coast about 15,000 years ago. That would leave only 500 years for seafaring hunters to get from Siberia to Monte Verde in Chile, and 1,500 years to change into a big-game hunting Clovis culture that spanned the continental United States. If that won’t do, it means that humans must have come here before the last ice age— more than 20,000 years ago, and possibly even 40,000 or 50,000 years ago.

And that is where the most exciting new techniques for studying the past are driving the debate. Provocative DNA studies have pointed to Asian origins for four lineages that characterize more than 95 per cent of indigenous Americans. But a fifth DNA lineage, most commonly detected in Canada’s Ojibwa people, has no known Asian affiliation. It does, however, turn up in Europeans.

The Europe and native variants diverged from a common ancestor, some geneticists argue, up to 36,000 years ago. Berkeley, Calif., linguist Johanna Nichols agrees with that timing: North America is one of the most linguistically complicated areas in the world, and the Clovis time line is far too short to allow its evolution. “It would take over 50,000 years to populate the Americas from one ancestor language alone.” That time frame also accords with native creation stories cited by Dewar that speak of a growing wall of ice to the North, suggesting a human presence in the Americas before the last ice age.

To push the peopling of the Americas back so far, with so many diverse strands, is to move the event into the larger story of human evolution. About 50,000 years ago, humans entered into a new phase of existence. In an explosion of creativity and skill, people broke free of their Old World boundaries, conquering the high latitudes and moving into the empty continents of Australia and eventually North America and South America. “For societies that relied on tools made of wood, bone and stone,” says Morían, “learning to thrive in the cold environment of the North was the equivalent of our society sending a man to the moon.” For all the uncertainty raised by recent research, that much is clearer than ever—the peopling of the Americas is one of the epic chapters in the human story. EH

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pulled from an extremely ancient burial in some ice age gravel pit or from a historic ossuary: both sets of bones had to go back in the ground right away, without any study at all. The pipe-keepers warnings about danger sounded like the equivalent of the curse of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

An official of the centre said that there were thousands of native American remains squirrelled away in universities, museums, private collections and federal institutions in the United States, largely unstudied by anyone. No one could be sure how many there were in Canada. No lists of these remains were available, so how would even scholars know who had what? None of the bureaucrats or professional archeologists in the room denied this. In fact, none of them even stood up and made a case for what they did. “Aren’t any of you guys going to stand up for science?” I hissed at one of them during a break. But that other part of me, the intuitive part, was beginning to feel extremely uneasy. I was unable to swallow what had not been

denied—that there were still private collectors of human bone, that museums retained collections of human remains they’d bought in the past.

A young woman stood up to speak. She said she was a university student and her first degree was in physical anthropology. “I’m ashamed of it,” she said softly. “It was forensic anthropology. I had to practise on skeletons brought from Flolland Landing [50 km north of Toronto].” These remains were part of the University of Toronto’s teaching collection and had been found in or around -g 1965 in the course of con! struction. There were many I different people’s bones, Eu! ropean, Métis, African and ! native Canadian mixed to^ gether. She had quickly realized that some were her ancestors. “I saw how the bodies were treated, some of them with flesh on their bones,” she said in a choking voice. “They would fall apart, people would be joking around with skulls in their hands.” No urgent studies were being made on these remains. Many of these skeletons had lain in their boxes in

the lab, untouched, for years. She paused and took a breath of air and began to cry. “I’ve seen bones dropped on the ground. There’s no respect for our ancestors, no respect for nations today. It’s got to stop.” The hair rose on the back of my neck. She spoke with the slow rhythms of the afflicted, of someone who knew what was right but was totally without power to bring it about. I found myself muttering the little phrase I had been taught to say for my own dead since childhood—rest in peace. And then I remembered all the footage I’d seen over the years of Jewish men in Orthodox garb scurrying on the streets ofTel Aviv or Jerusalem after yet another bombing incident. They ran to scoop the tiniest shreds of the flesh and bone of the newly dead into plastic bags. Some practising Orthodox Jews believe that bodies must be buried whole, because when the Messiah comes the good will be called to God and the bones will rise, clothed in flesh again. Who would want to be redeemed in pieces?

Reprintedfrom Bones: Discovering the First Americans by Elaine Dewar, published by Random House Canada.