The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation came under fire yesterday for a new documentary on the Solutrean hypothesis that the network was scheduled to make available online today ahead of its Sunday television broadcast. Critics expressed concern that the network was promoting a fringe theory and giving it spurious credence without addressing the theory’s popularity with white supremacists. The network, for its part, said that it was aware of the controversy but didn’t care.
While the documentary, “The Ice Bridge,” airing as an episode of The Nature of Things, claims that the Solutrean hypothesis is an “explosive new theory,” the claim that Europeans from Iberia known as Solutreans traveled to North America 20,000 years ago is two decades old. It rests almost entirely on the superficial resemblance between Solutrean points and North American Clovis points made thousands of years later. While the leading advocate of the theory, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian, alleges that Solutreans sailed to America in large numbers, no evidence of any Solutrean body or Solutrean genetic legacy has ever been found in North America, nor is there any evidence of Solutrean seafaring capability.
Critics are upset that the documentary depicts Stanford and his colleague Bruce Bradley as mavericks who are bravely taking on a sclerotic and unwelcoming establishment. Basically, it’s the classic fringe history template of wild idea = good, consensus based on evidence = bad. However, the producers of the documentary claim that the show’s point of view was determined in large measure by the fact that only advocates were willing to speak on camera. “The Solutrean Hypothesis, as it is known, is so toxic, and so discredited among mainstream researchers that documentary director Robin Bicknell said she could barely find anyone willing to go on camera even just to say it was wrong,” Canada’s National Post reported yesterday.
While in the United States, that would be a selling point (witness the History Channel), in Canada and in Europe, promoting fringe claims can still spark outrage. José Victor Moreno-Mayar of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen told the National Post that it was “extremely irresponsible” to promote the Solutrean hypothesis, against the weight of evidence, with the full knowledge that this advocacy serves as a fig leaf for racists. White nationalists routinely use the Solutrean hypothesis to argue that Europeans colonized the Americas before Native Americans and therefore have original title to the land. Bradley, however, disagreed with Moreno-Mayar. “We can’t stop doing science because somebody might misappropriate something,” he said.
The director of the documentary said that she purposely avoided addressing the racist misuse of the Solutrean hypothesis because she considered the racist fantasy of a “white” ancient America to be “crap.” Unfortunately, by failing to identify and engage with this element of the Solutrean hypothesis, she has accidentally created a program that gives aid and comfort to white supremacists—especially when the documentary’s key finding bypasses the fact that the Solutreans of 20,000 years ago were not white people (since white skin had not yet evolved) to argue that Native Americans are related to Eastern Europeans.
The National Post reported the findings:
The climax of the documentary is the results of a genetic analysis of teeth from ancient remains of Huron-Wendat people, which shows they have a genetic marker associated with eastern Europeans. A British geneticist claims this is proof their ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean. A representative of that First Nation, Louis Lesage, says this proves his people’s oral tradition about their ancestors coming from a “great salt lake” to the east. And Suzuki himself says the genetic analysis is “a window into (Lesage’s) people’s past.”
It would probably be as miraculous a finding to discover that Eastern Europeans—a population in large measure descended from steppe peoples of the Caucasus and Urals—were actually related to extinct Iberians from the other side of the continent. The only way it makes sense to simply assume that without feeling the need to look for evidence to prove it is if your criteria aren’t really about population genetics but rather modern (white) European cultural identity.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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