This claim has, in various forms, been in existence for more than two centuries.
Can we conceive that nations sufficiently powerful to have raised such considerable fortifications, and who buried their dead with such religious care, can have been destroyed and replaced by the ignorant and barbarous horde we see about us at the present day? Could the calamities occasioned by a long state of war have effaced the last traces of their civilization and brought them back to the primitive condition of hunters? Are our Indians the descendants of that ancient people?
In Query 11 of his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson laid out the many reasons he believed that the first Native Americans had crossed into North America from northeast Asia.
Great question has arisen from whence came those aboriginal inhabitants of America? Discoveries, long ago made, were sufficient to shew that a passage from Europe to America was always practicable, even to the imperfect navigation of ancient times. In going from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Groenland, from Groenland to Labrador, the first traject is the widest: and this having been practised from the earliest times of which we have any account of that part of the earth, it is not difficult to suppose that the subsequent trajects may have been sometimes passed. Again, the late discoveries of Captain Cook, coasting from Kamschatka to California, have proved that, if the two continents of Asia and America be separated at all, it is only by a narrow streight. So that from this side also, inhabitants may have passed into America: and the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former: excepting indeed the Eskimaux, who, from the same circumstance of resemblance, and from identity of language, must be derived from the Groenlanders, and these probably from some of the northern parts of the old continent. A knowledge of their several languages would be the most certain evidence of their derivation which could be produced.
Despite repeated outbursts of mythic history attempting to reassign American prehistory to the Lost Tribes of Israel, a lost white race, or various Europeans of the Bronze, Classical, or Dark Ages, science came to accept Jefferson’s version of the peopling of the Americas. As Charles McCarthy’s 1919 History of the United States, a standard high school textbook of its era, put it, the ancient earthworks of America “were built not by a civilized race that has passed away but by just such people as the first white settlers found in America.” Additionally, while the exact origins of the first Americans remained unknown, “men from Asia have crossed Bering Strait on the ice to Alaska in pursuit of fur-bearing animals. […] In figure, features, and complexion as well as in civilization the Indian does not bear so close a resemblance to Europeans or Africans as he does to certain peoples in northeastern Asia.” We may profitably take this as the default position, and the standard view of American prehistory from the late nineteenth century to today.
But not everyone has been satisfied with this explanation, and even after the collapse of the Lost White Race theory of mound building, there has been a consistent stream of thought that has looked to Europe as the origin point for the peopling of the Americas—despite centuries of archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genetic evidence tying Native Americans to Asia.
Let me stress here that the impetus behind this is not always or explicitly racist. In fact, the Solutrean Hypothesis was not intended as a claim of race but rather as a way to explain the apparent similarity between Old World and New World stone tools.
In the 1930s, archaeologists working in New Mexico found odd stone tools different from and older than anything else they had known. These stone points were obviously meant for big game hunting—the first so-called Folsom points were found embedded in the ribs of a bison in 1926. (Lovecraft alludes to this discovery in “The Mound” in describing intimations of Native antiquity.) The great age of the Clovis finds implied to archaeologists of the 1960s that the Clovis people must have been the first Americans. Because anthropology was at this time in thrall to the wrong and sexist idea called “Man the Hunter” (named for a 1966 symposium), which attempted to view prehistory as a male-dominated culture based on killing and big game hunting, the Clovis finds played directly in to this male he-man ideology. (It’s not hard to correlate “Man the Hunter” ideology with a reaction to women’s liberation and feminism.) The so-called “Clovis-first” theory was popular from the late 1960s to around 1990, when the widespread acceptance of the pre-Clovis site of Monte Verde in Chile forced archaeologists to abandon Clovis-first. By that time, “Man the Hunter” was largely seen as discredited (though it gained some renewed support during the 1990s culture wars) as more sophisticated analyses demonstrated that early humans consumed a wide variety of foods, especially plants, and that big game hunting was most important during periods of environmental stress.
However, most fringe writers working today came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, when their school textbooks reflected Clovis-first and “Man the Hunter.” They therefore mistake this relatively brief period in the history of anthropology for an unchanging dogma. My textbook from the North American Prehistory class I took back in 2001, Brian Fagan’s Ancient North America (3rd ed., 2000), had a whole section explaining these changes since the 1960s, and it also included a discussion of the evidence for pre-Clovis people at Monte Verde in Chile and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania. His was a very conservative text for its time, but it provides clear evidence that “Clovis-first” had come and gone, despite the efforts of fringe writers to assert it as living dogma.
In the 1930s Frank Hibben thought that the Clovis and Folsom finds resembled the stone tools used by prehistoric inhabitants of Spain, the Solutreans, around 20,000 years ago, and he proposed that the ancient Solutreans had traveled to America and brought their points with them. His idea failed for reasons I outlined in a 2006 Skeptic magazine article:
Not long after the Solutrean hypothesis was proposed, however, archaeologists dismissed the idea with three arguments: (1) though both cultures used pressure flaking, Solutrean points were not fluted like the Clovis points—many Solutrean tools had a roughly diamond shape while Clovis points often had a concave bottom; (2) the Solutreans, who had no boats [capable of long-distance travel], had no way to get to North America; (3) most important, there was a gap of thousands of years between the latest Solutrean points and the earliest Clovis points—it seemed chronologically impossible for the Solutreans to have given rise to Clovis.
- Archaeologists discovered no evidence that the Solutreans engaged in any deep-sea fishing or had any involvement with the open ocean.
- Kieran Westley and Justin Dix reported in a 2008 study that oceanographic data suggest that the glaciation of the Atlantic would not have supported trans-Atlantic crossings in the Solutrean era.
- Further, the genetic evidence, specifically the presence of Haplogroup X and Haplogroup U in America, does not support a European connection. Both are found in Siberian populations, and the specific Haplogroup X of Native Americans is not European in origin.
Against this, Stanford and Bradley offered a complex explanation. They cited the pre-Clovis sites of Monte Verde and Meadowcroft Rock Shelter as evidence that the Solutreans had come and hung out making small stone points until the environment changed and they decided to start making Clovis points. Of course none of the Monte Verde or Meadowcroft points closely resembled the diamond-shaped Solutrean points, leading the researchers to propose that an unknown “subset” of Solutreans made the Atlantic crossing with nothing more than a stone-working technique and moxie. Convergent evolution is a more parsimonious explanation, something like the independent invention of noodles in China and Italy.
Since I first wrote about this in 2006, Sandford and Bradley have offered up some new pieces of evidence. The first is the Vero Beach Mammoth, a piece of ancient art from Florida depicting the titular pachyderm as an etching on a piece of bone and dating to around the time of the Clovis culture. Stanford suggested it was European in origin based on similarities to Solutrean cave art, but art historians like Barbara Olins Alpert note that the resemblance is no closer than the realistic art style of the modern San Bushmen; in other words, we have no reason to suspect Paleoindians could not express creativity; indeed, the recently-discovered Paleonindian rock carvings in the western United States (as seen last week on Ancient Aliens of all places!) demonstrate that Paleoindians could and did create elaborate art; those rock carvings depict what seem to be leaves and flowers. Why could Paleoindians in Nevada make art while those in Florida required European assistance? The mammoth carving is an interesting piece, but one whose European ties are not as clear-cut as Solutrean supporters represent.
The second piece of evidence is also problematic. It is the “Cinmar Discovery,” a rather grand name for a collection of material hauled up a fishing trawler off the coast of Virginia in the 1970s. This haul comprised a diamond-shaped stone tool, a mammoth bone, and a mammoth molar. These were kept in the boat’s captain’s personal collection until 2002, a gap of three decades. The mammoth bone was later carbon dated to 22,000 BCE. Lacking any context for their discovery, it is impossible to determine whether the tool and the bones were originally related. Even if they are, it is also impossible to distinguish between several hypotheses given the available evidence:
- The tool was made by Solutrean people living in or visiting Virginia
- The tool was made independently by Paleoindians who used a similar technique
- The tool was made by Solutreans but brought to America later by accident, such as in a Spanish ship’s ballast
- The tool was made by Solutreans and migrated to the American coast due to natural ocean currents
- The tool was made by some unknown people in any of the above scenarios
The blade is certainly interesting, but due to the lack of context, there isn’t anything more that can really be said about it. Stanford and Bradley have catalogued five similar blades from coastal areas, but so far they have not been able to make the case that these are of European-derived manufacture and not a case of convergent evolution.
A third piece of evidence is a stone knife found under a seventeenth-century chimney in Virginia in 1971. Stanford and Bradley reported that x-ray florescence tests indicated it was made from French flint and therefore could have been brought by the Solutreans since it was unlikely to have been placed under the chimney by a colonist, as the original archaeologist who uncovered it had thought. However, the authors do not press the point because they cannot exclude a colonial origin for the deposit.
It’s a possibility, to be sure, but so far the weight of evidence is against the idea of a European incursion in the Solutrean. More work remains to be done, and that will take underwater archaeology along the continental shelf, which had been dry land in the Ice Age.
But while the Solutrean hypothesis is a scientific one, relying on facts and evidence, it spawned several extreme reactions from white nationalists who seized upon it as a replacement for the Mound Builder myth. As I discussed elsewhere, white supremacists have added the Solutrean claim to a series of controversies about supposedly European (read: white) visitors to America. The most important of these claims was Kennewick Man, the skeleton of an individual from about 7500 BCE (long after the Paleoindian period) found in 1996. When archaeologist James Chatters declared the skull shape Caucasoid, fringe groups, including white supremacists, read this as confirmation that this was a white person. Later, more careful work by Joseph Powell determined that the skull was not European but closer to that of the Ainu or Polynesians. While this opened a fascinating question about the genetic diversity of the first Americans, for many it was simply an attempt to cover up the true “European” ownership of America. In fact, Kennewick Man is of a piece with other skulls older than 6000 BCE, which are markedly more diverse than those from after 6000 BCE, implying a marked change after that time.
A genetic study published just a few weeks ago in Nature found that central Siberian populations share DNA with Native Americans, implying that some of the people who crossed the Bering Strait had origins in central Asia, and, more distantly, Europe—but more than 20,000 years ago. The European influence, to whatever extent, came from the West, as the authors reported: “non-east Asian cranial characteristics of the First Americans derived from the Old World via migration through Beringia, rather than by a trans-Atlantic voyage from Iberia as proposed by the Solutrean hypothesis.” In other words, the first Americans were more genetically diverse than had long been assumed, accounting for such seeming anomalies as the Kennewick Man, but that for whatever reason, this diversity declined over the millennia, possibly due to an ancient population collapse.
This kind of genuinely interesting information, though, isn’t enough for television. When the Learning Channel (now the schlock channel TLC) broadcast a documentary on The Secrets of the Bog People: Windover in 2003, the show’s British producers weren’t satisfied to look at the fascinating culture of Windover Bog, one of the best-preserved Native American sites in history. Instead, they wanted something “sexy” and for them “sexy” meant European (read: white). They seized on DNA results that showed the presence of European haplotypes, even though they had been informed that those results were likely due to contamination of the sample and had not been confirmed by subsequent retesting, which found no European DNA markers. According to Joseph Lorenz, one of the researchers who conducted the DNA study for the Coriell Institute for Medical Research (and who is now a professor at Central Washington University), the TV producers tried to craft a narrative, as Lorenz told one of this blog’s readers, John Linehan, in an email:
My original results of the mitochondrial DNA did show European haplotypes which I feel was due to contamination of the tissue at the time of collection. I told the producer that the most parsimonious explanation was that the results were due to contamination at the excavation but they wanted a "sexier" interpretation. In the interview I was asked questions along the lines of "if the results of the analysis were not due to contamination would this indicate European ancestry..." but I adamantly hold to my position that the results most likely were due to contamination. Subsequent analysis of mtDNA from teeth showed that the skeletal DNA was concordant with Asian origins of the individuals.
I have had a number of inquiries about the Windover results from several interested viewers of the bog video and I have tried to send the message to them that documentaries on TV or YouTube (or wherever) are not necessarily the best sources for scientific information; documentary-makers, I assume, oftentimes have a particular storyline that they are interested in pushing; the fact that the results of a given scientific investigation may not be as cut and dried as people who watch CSI would like it to be. Although I was frustrated with the final product (the documentary) I cannot fault the producer - I should have been more circumspect in my agreeing to become involved or stood my ground more in what I agreed to say in front of the camera.
By comparison, online reporting for a segment of NOVA’s 2006 documentary “The Perfect Corpse” on the same Windover bog people dealt with the complexity of the DNA evidence, noting that there was no direct genetic link between the Windover people and the region’s current Native population, and quoted archaeologist Glen Doran of FSU that the DNA evidence is partial and incomplete because it “is just not as well preserved as we’d like.” In sum, they said, the DNA evidence was the least productive line of inquiry into Windover, at least until technology improves.
But because in 2003 the TV said the Windover people were European, this is the story the public believes. And a decade-old documentary’s ratings-driven sensationalism is why Scott Wolter is in Windover to look for the first white Americans… As we’ve heard more than once, NOVA it’s not.
We then watch the title sequence.
Wolter is traveling to St. Johns River in Christmas, Florida to investigate the Windover Bog and its Native American civilization. Wolter tells us that he often investigates Templars, Celts, and Vikings—“brave” explorers—who came to America before Columbus. He asserts that the Windover Bog people came to America at least “8,000 years ago” (i.e., 6000 BCE), some 5,000 years after the Paleoindians were already making Clovis points in America, and longer after the Monte Verde people were living in South America.
“Tipster” Candida Gut, who wrote the email, says that she watched the 2003 TLC documentary discussed in the background material above, which prompted her to want to find Europeans in ancient America, and she summarizes the program for Wolter, who is wearing a shirt with a carefully-positioned corporate logo that is always in frame for maximum product placement. Wolter discusses how bogs preserve human bodies, and he gives a false and over-simplified view of the peopling of the Americas, wrongly suggesting that schoolbooks teach that the first Americans were “Clovis” people, something that has not been taught uncritically since the late 1980s. This is part of the theme of the evening, whereby Wolter repeatedly rants about his schooling and how confusing it is that somehow science has learned new things since then. He has not bothered to keep up and still thinks that his high school textbooks represent OFFICIAL DOGMA.
He seems to confuse Clovis-first, the outdated mid-century theory, with the idea of the peopling of the Americas from northeast Asia, now believed to have occurred prior to the Clovis period thanks to the discoveries at Monte Verde and elsewhere. Gut and Wolter say that they believe that the first Americans were Europeans, and Wolter even denies that Paleoindians were the ancestors of Native Americans, sniffing that “some think” this while there are other, more European possibilities. The fact that repeated genetic studies have found Paleoindian remains to be genetically related to Asian populations does not factor into his speculation.
Wolter explains that Europeans couldn’t have come to America from Asia because it was too long a trip, while a voyage from Europe to Florida via the Atlantic was much easier. He is referring to Dennis Stanford’s Solutrean claim, but he is collapsing time periods into an illiterate jumble, for the Solutrean migration allegedly occurred around 20,000 BCE, not 6000 BCE—there is a huge difference. And worse: 6000 BCE is not earlier than the Clovis culture of 10,500 BCE, itself no longer considered the first in America thanks to the pre-Clovis site of Monte Verde. Wolter’s own claims refute the conclusions he draws from them in service of inventing reasons to claim Europeans were America’s founding population.
Gut says she “heard” (from the documentary from 2003) that unpublished DNA studies of the bog people revealed European DNA, and Wolter calls this secondhand information “explosive.” “This is something we have to get to the bottom of.” Gut is wrong on two counts: The DNA findings were in fact published, and scholars tried to replicate them and failed, leading to the conclusion that the DNA results were the result of contamination and error.
After the first break we get an unusually vague on-screen recap as Wolter travels across Florida to the Windover Archaeological Site in Titusville, Florida. Wolter then reasserts that “some experts” are challenging whether Asians really beat Europeans to America.
At Windover Pond (or Bog), Wolter talks with Rachel Wentz, a bio-archaeologist who discusses the history of excavations at the well-preserved bog site. She talks about the population’s lifestyle and their many causes of death. They apparently had a hard life and suffered many diseases and broken bones. Wentz thought when she filmed this episode in October that she was working on a serious documentary for the History Channel, and she hoped it would be a boon to efforts to protect the site. I wonder what she will think of this episode. She tells Wolter than the DNA results on the Windover site had nothing to do with Europe but were instead North American, with ancestral origins in Asia.
Wentz leads Wolter to Dennis Stanford’s ideas, and he says he “has to go check it out,” even though he misunderstands the idea. He falsely asserts that “someone at the Smithsonian” is investigating a “European origin for Native Americans,” which is not at all what Stanford proposed; his idea had the Solutreans dying out or intermarrying with Paleoindians, contributing a small amount of DNA to modern Native populations, which are, of course, ancestrally Asian. This small but significant misunderstanding serves to make a great bit of propaganda, even though it undercuts earlier claims in the Grand Canyon episode of a Smithsonian conspiracy to hide the true white history of early America.
So far we’ve had Wolter suggest that (a) Europeans beat Asians to America and are the true founding population and (b) Native Americans might actually be Europeans in disguise.
This is going well.
After the break, the on-screen recap tells us that “America’s first people” are “possibly European” and that “Smithsonian research is underway.” Wolter then again misstates that the Clovis people were the first to come to America.
Wolter is back in Washington, D.C., heading to the Smithsonian—“the last place I’d expect”—the very seat of the conspiracy he thinks is working against him. He wrongly asserts that the Smithsonian is “not known for challenging the status quo,” quite a shock considering that the Smithsonian has published all manner of material challenging the status quo. Wolter meets with Dennis Stanford, who tells Wolter that his anti-Smithsonian conspiracy theories are a load of steaming bullshit, but in nicer words.
Stanford describes his Solutrean theory to Wolter, who really is obsessed with whatever it was that his teachers did to him in the 1960s or 1970s. “That’s not what I was taught in school” he says again and again. I have trouble with this because a lot has changed since the 1960s. Back then, people thought cigarettes were healthy.
Stanford shows Wolter the French flint Solutrean laurel leaf knife found in Virginia, and Wolter seems unfazed by the fact that the Smithsonian did not try to suppress this finding. Stanford is much less circumspect in this episode and he seems, frankly, like he’s become a single-minded crank. I have never heard him speak so bluntly, or with so little regard for the evidence against his ideas. He asserts that the Windover DNA is European, even though it is not according to everyone with expertise (Stanford is not a DNA expert), and he asserts that the Windover people were the “descendants” of the Solutreans!
But Wolter seems to see the Clovis people as having made their own tools, so what exactly did the Solutreans contribute? Stanford’s whole theory was that the Clovis people were the Solutreans, but Wolter wants them to be teams on opposite coasts.
Stanford shows Wolter the carving of the mammoth found in Florida, and Stanford calls it a mastodon, which seems like it would actually weaken his case since mastodons are native to the Americas and therefore could only have been viewed here in America. Consequently, this would seems to be evidence that the carving was in fact Paleoindian and not Solutrean, but Stanford seems to think it proves that the Solutreans came to America and recorded an encounter with a mastodon based on his belief that the art style is European.
Wolter again repeats that “I was taught” about the Bering Strait hypothesis. He really hates his old school, and I can’t imagine why he is incapable of realizing that the world has changed since the 1960s or 1970s, and one might like to see what current ideas are rather than basing one’s entire anti-academic conspiracy on a 50-year-old high school textbook. “This changes the paradigm in a huge way!” he shouts with glee at the thought of finally finding the ancient white people he’s spent two seasons searching for. America Unearthed does not even pretend to evaluate the Solutrean hypothesis critically, or seriously.
After the break, Wolter returns to Florida. He emphasizes that “no one is downplaying the incredibly rich Native American culture,” but that Europeans probably got here first. I’m confused, though, why Wolter seems unaware of Monte Verde, the oldest confirmed sites in the Americas, and one that is one the west coast—all the way in South America!
James Kennedy tells Wolter about the bone he found bearing the mammoth or mastodon carving, and Kennedy emphasizes the skepticism of archaeologists but doesn’t quite see that conducting tests is how the authenticity of an artifact is determined. As soon as evidence in favor of its authenticity emerged, archaeologists accepted the Vero mammoth. That’s how the process works. The Vero site helped establish that humans were in the Americas during the Ice Age when it was first found back in 1915.
Wolter meets with Gene Rodenberry, a historian of nearly no relation to the Star Trek creator (they’re related about eight generations back), and Rodenberry discusses the history of the Vero site and how the Vero mastodon carving fits into the Ice Age history of the site. Rodenberry, however, asserts that Europeans might have been here, and he agrees with Wolter that the loss of the 1915 fossil finds could have been done on purpose to suppress the truth—the “truth” that THE GODDAM SMITHSONIAN SHOWED HIM IN PERSON. So which is it? Is there a U.S. government conspiracy to suppress the truth, or is Dennis Stanford actually right? Both can’t be true, though the correct option—neither is true—can be.
After the final break, the screen tells us that the search continues for Europeans in America. Wolter wanders around looking for fossils in the hopes of turning up proof that Europeans were the first Americans. He does not find this proof, but he manages to find a mastodon tooth mere minutes after the cameraman had already found the tooth and set it up for the shoot. I’m guessing it was scouted ahead of time; otherwise, the camera couldn’t have been there.
So, Wolter (a) completely ignores pre-Clovis sites associated with Paleoindians, such as Monte Verde; (b) accepts DNA evidence that the people who worked on the DNA studies agree was the result of contamination; and (c) asserts a continuity of European colonization of America from 20,000 BCE to 6,000 BCE that somehow filled the continent from Canada to Florida while leaving behind one mastodon carving and one flint blade. Fourteen thousand years, and that’s it? “The evidence is mounting to the point where it’s impossible to deny!” Wolter says.
Kennedy says he has another carving and this one is more spectacular. On a piece of bone, we see a stick figure holding a spear along with a fish. The stick figure doesn’t resemble European cave art, so there’s that. Wolter is thrilled, though obviously the piece needs to be tested before it can be accepted as a genuine artifact. I couldn’t really get a good look at the figure, but it just doesn’t seem to resemble Paleolithic art, which did not typically use the modern stick figure style. But that will be for experts to decide.
Wolter concludes by saying that now that he has found that Europeans came to America first, it is not really important that they beat the Asians here, as long as their story gets told. How magnanimous.
I will give America Unearthed this much credit: Because this episode is based on the ideas of Dennis Stanford, it is much more logical than most—not that this says too much—and tends to rely on more solid evidence, even if it never bothered to do even cursory research into the basis for the claims it promotes, or raised more than token hints that there are strong objections to most of the claims. America Unearthed is a show about personalities, so it doesn’t matter, really, whether the evidence is logical or rigorous since the criteria for acceptance are whether Scott Wolter and thus the audience thinks that the advocate is a nice guy or part of the conspiracy to suppress the truth. Thus it becomes possible to believe Dennis Stanford even while simultaneously believing in a conspiracy by his employer to suppress the “truth” he’s appearing on national television to proclaim.
The Solutrean hypothesis is not impossible, but surely even a cheap cable documentary can offer a stronger case for it than this.