The Solutrean Hypothesis. Did Ice Age Europeans Discover America?
by Stefan Krause, 03/29/2018.
America was not ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Columbus set foot on American soil in 1492, Vikings have even reached the coast of Newfoundland in the tenth century. Yet the scientific community widely agrees that the first humans to reach the American continent came from northeast Asia crossing the former Bering land bridge and then migrating over land and along the coast. But what if Europeans even reached America during or shortly after the Ice Age? How would this change our narrative about the discovery of the Americas and the discourse about original rights in the Western hemisphere? A small group of archaeologists around Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley claim that European people of what they refer to the Solutrean culture have crossed the Atlantic and settled in North America more than 17,000 years ago. Their ‘Solutrean Hypothesis’ is mostly based on similarities in stone tool technology and sparked an academic debate. This article looks at what the debate tells us about scientific hypotheses and their impact on our thinking about America’s past.
Dennis J. Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution and Bruce A. Bradley from the University of Exeter are not the first to suggest that Europeans have settled the Americas in Ice Age times. Straus, Meltzer, and Goebel point out that this claim was first made in the late nineteenth century by Charles C. Abbot and supporters of the ‘American Paleolithic’ (508). Illustrious figures like Auguste Le Plongeon, whose ideas took shape in the keel waters of Romantic archaeology and spiritualism, had already suggested that there had been contact between the Maya and the Egyptians during European Antiquity (see Desmond). Abbot dug up stone tools in the Delaware River valley and found that the artifacts did not suggest a connection to Native Americans, but to an ancient race of American people from the age of glaciation similar to the Paleolithic people of Europe (Meltzer, 41). Meltzer explains that Abbot did not study human history in the context of Darwin’s concept of evolution but was “used to accommodate his facts to the European sequence of human prehistory” (44). But Abbot’s argument did not represent the commonly accepted academic opinion. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, scholars have favored the theory that the first Americans came from Asia across Bering Strait (Willey and Sabloff, 17). Yet claims like Abbot’s retained their currency. They tied in with the opinion of many archaeologists who, again since the nineteenth century, considered the mounds of the Mississippi as being ‘too complex’ to be of Native American origin and therefore assumed that they must have been erected by a highly civilized but now forgotten ‘race’ of Moundbuilders, possibly of Jewish or Viking ancestry. At the turn of the century new geological and archaeological evidence disproved most of these hypotheses. How and when exactly humans migrated to the Americas continued to be at the center of many scientific debates, but scholars generally agreed that the indigenous people have lived in the Americas for tens of thousands of years and that their ancestors had come from Asia during a period of glaciation.
“Iberia, Not Siberia”?
Stanford and Bradley consider the theory of America’s settlement via migrations from Asia a scientific dogma that leaves no room for alternative hypotheses. According to them, the earliest stone tools found in America show striking similarities to artifacts from Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, which should be interpreted as a cultural connection. Around the middle of the twentieth century similar claims were made by the archaeologists Frank C. Hibben and E.F. Greenman. Greenman criticized the theory of a migration from Asia because, as he claims, there have not been found any stone tools in Beringia or Northeast Asia that resemble the spear points in continental North America (41). Instead he observed that:
Upper Paleolithic traits are found clustered on opposite sides of the North Atlantic, in the Biscayan area and in Newfoundland. The possibility of a late Pleistocene diffusion between the two areas is suggested by the presence of canoes and kayaks in the Upper Paleolithic in France and Spain and evidence that the North Atlantic was at that time choked with floating ice. (41)
He also concluded that the stone tools and rock paintings found in Newfoundland and elsewhere in North America suggest ‘Magdalenian’, ‘Mousterian’, and ‘Solutrean’ characteristics. Most of Greenman’s colleagues were not convinced of his hypothesis, although many of them welcomed the bold and stimulating claim. For example, Thor Heyerdahl wrote that “[m]any of the cultural parallels listed by Greenman, particularly those pertaining to art expressions, are too simple to require diffusion” (73) and that there was a chronological gap in his connection between stone tool finds in the Old and the New World. Archaeological finds from the following decades did not lend any significant support to Greenman’s claim until Stanford and Bradley argued that similarities between Clovis stone tools from America and Solutrean stone tools from France were significant.
In 1999, Stanford and Bradley first presented their Solutrean Hypothesis at the Clovis and Beyond conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their hypothesis was later illustrated in the BBC documentary Stone Age Columbus (2002) and the more film-like Discovery Channel documentary Ice Age Columbus: Who Were the First Americans? (2005). Stone Age Columbus shows how Stanford and Bradley link Clovis points to ‘Solutrean’ artifacts based on shared characteristics such as bifacial designs produced by overshot flaking. But despite being seemingly linked through tool traditions, the ‘Solutreans’ were assumed to predate the Clovis culture by at least 5,000 years. This gap was challenged when pre-Clovis sites like Cactus Hill and the Meadowcroft Rockshelter produced even more ancient artifacts. Featured in Stone Age Columbus, archaeologist James M. Adovasio dug up stone tools at Meadowcroft Rockshelter that were dated back to more than 16,000 years. According to Bradley’s interpretation in the same documentary, the stone tools from these sites fill the gap between Clovis points and the Solutrean stone artifacts.
Having proposed a connection between the ‘Solutreans’ and the Clovis culture, Stanford and Bradley had to come up with an explanation for how the ‘Solutreans’ negotiated the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to America in time to qualify as originators of Clovis culture. In Stone Age Columbus, Stanford travels to Barrow in Alaska to examine the traditional ways of seafaring among the Iñupiat Eskimo. He then concludes that considering the Arctic-like conditions on the Atlantic during the last Ice Age, ‘Solutreans’ could have crossed the Atlantic using similar means as are traditionally used by the Iñupiat. Following this argument, he claims that a ‘Solutrean’ settlement in America was possible, but that that does not mean that it was likely. The Solutrean Hypothesis soon rekindled debates between, on the one hand, theories promoting the diffusion of cultural knowledge from Europe/the Mediterranean to the Americas (see Chachapoyas) and, on the other hand, theories suggesting the parallel invention of technologies. It also sparked a controversy about whether a hypothesis should be considered tenable (or even correct) until proven false.
A Scientific Battle Ensues
Once the Solutrean Hypothesis was up for discussion, it did not take long until the first skeptics voiced their doubts. Lawrence G. Straus was among the first to utter sharp criticism of the new claim. Straus pointed out that the similarities between Clovis and ‘Solutrean’ stone tools were not that striking and “can easily be attributed to independent invention” (221). He also emphasized that the portable art and paintings of the ‘Solutreans’ could nowhere be found in the Americas. He finally concluded that “[c]redit should be given where credit is due: Native Americans, descended from diverse Asian populations, were the makers of Clovis and ‘pre-Clovis’ lithics” (224). In return, Stanford and Bradley gathered new evidence to respond to critics like Straus. They referred to discoveries of more pre-Clovis sites and gave a more detailed listing of all the similar features in ‘Solutrean’ and ancient American stone tools. Furthermore, Stanford and Bradley, apparently supporting the idea that the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence, argued that the hypothesis of a migration from Asia was not supported by archaeological evidence either (i.e. stone tools and other material evidence), and that therefore “the hypothesis that a Solutrean Palaeolithic maritime tradition gave rise to pre-Clovis and Clovis technologies should be elevated from moribund speculation to a highly viable research” (2004, 473). But in spite of the alleged plausibility of their claim, the Solutrean hypothesis remained a marginal concept. One weakness in their argument is their solitary acceptance of stone tools as historical evidence.
In 2005, Lawrence Straus, David Meltzer, and Ted Goebel published another critical review of the Solutrean proposal. They uttered their willingness to investigate the transatlantic origin of the first Americans, but were still skeptical of the great temporal and spatial distance between ‘Solutreans’ and the Clovis/pre-Clovis technology. The three archaeologists imitated Stanford’s and Bradley’s approach and focused on stone tool finds, which—amongst other problems—show that Clovis points are fluted and Solutrean points are not (513). Straus, Meltzer, and Goebel also remind us that a migration across the Bering land bridge is supported by genetic evidence and the geographically far more viable route, whereas ‘Solutreans’ must have suffered both “cultural amnesia” and “genetic amnesia” after they had reached America because no trace of their original habitat has survived into Clovis culture (522). In the following year, Stanford and Bradley countered with a direct response to the article. In their response, they reject the criticism raised by Straus, Meltzer, and Goebel that the ‘Solutrean’ culture should be more fully reflected in Clovis culture and not just in certain stone tools (2006, 705). Again, they give more details on how the Solutreans might have crossed the Ice Age Atlantic and focus on how their stone tools can be linked to Clovis and pre-Clovis finds. Despite acknowledging significant gaps in their argument, they refuse to drop their claim and urge “to develop new theories and find ways to test them, beyond assuming that all things early American have to be of northeastern Asian origin” (2006, 706).
Stanford and Bradley continued their work and published a whole volume on the Solutrean hypothesis in 2012. In Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture, they compile data gathered during their years of research and present these updates as further evidence of their Solutrean hypothesis. They again limit their data to a comparison of pre-Clovis stone tools and their ‘Solutrean’ counterparts. However, critics of their proposal remained skeptical. Michael J. O’Brien and his colleagues reviewed the book, criticizing the lack of evidence for a navigable passage across the Ice Age Atlantic and ‘Solutrean’ adaptation to a marine environment (607). Looking closer at the distribution of radiocarbon dates of relevant sites, they even conclude that if ‘Solutrean’ and Clovis/pre-Clovis tool traditions are related, “they appeared first in North America and then were transferred to Europe” (612). This observation takes the Solutrean hypothesis ad absurdum. While the story of a Stone Age Columbus is an interesting proposal in the fantasy of some adherents of white supremacism, serious scholarship has rejected it because of the absence of substantial evidence.
Europe’s Role in America’s Past
Scientific discoveries are based on investigating innovative claims, analyzing empirical evidence, and questioning existing theories. As repeatedly mentioned in Stone Age Columbus, questioning that America was first settled by Clovis people could deal a massive blow to one’s reputation as respected archaeologist. Arguing that Ice Age ‘Europeans’ settled the Americas (long before ‘Europe’ became an idea) could have such an effect. This, however, did not hold true in this case. Stanford is still the director of the Paleoindian/Paleoecology Program at the Smithsonian Institution, and Bradley continued to work at the University of Exeter until his retirement and as a research associate at the Smithsonian. On the contrary, publications related to the Solutrean hypothesis rank among their most successful contributions.
A bold proposal like this certainly requires compelling evidence from various sources. As Meltzer points out, genetic studies and other evidence do not support the Solutrean claim (2009, 188). Stanford and Bradley present their story of a Stone Age Columbus based almost exclusively on similarities in stone tool technology. Assuming that European culture and technology are fundamentally superior to non-European ones, they claim that there could not have been a parallel and independent invention of similar technologies but that there had to be an original European invention that migrated across the Atlantic. In other words, their thesis projects the colonial narrative beginning with Columbus further into the past, to compete with the first peopling of the Americas from Asia.
As shown above, accounts of the European discoveries of America are very popular. The heroic deeds of the Vikings and Christopher Columbus are commemorated annually in the United States on Leif Erikson Day and Columbus Day – a national holiday. Among the transatlantic journeys are also pseudoscientific proposals, such as Hans Giffhorn’s story of the origins of the Chachapoya and folklore such as the voyage to America by the Welsh prince Madoc around 1170. All these accounts have – to varying degrees – political implications. They enforce the image that the Americas are essentially European.
The Solutrean hypothesis pushes back the date of Europe’s claims on the Americas to Ice Age times. As illustrated by cases as that of Kennewick Man, attempts to link the origin of early Americans to Europe “inevitably take on a political character with real-life implications in the post-NAGPRA atmosphere of tension between Native American peoples and anthropologists, as well as in the realm of on-going land-rights disputes throughout the US and Canada” (Straus, Meltzer, and Goebel, 523). Ironically, Stanford and Bradley question the primacy of the Bering migration – a theory also rejected by many activists and Native Americans – only to revive the colonialist story of Europeans (Anglo-Saxons, ‘Solutreans’) stepping on to a ‘vacant territory’, as the Puritans and even some of their twentieth-century historians (like Perry Miller) viewed the territorial situation. It is not surprising that the claims, due to this subtext, are appealing to white nationalists and supremacists, regardless of the authors’ intentions.
Meanwhile, it is important to emphasize that the thesis of a transatlantic colonization some 20,000 years ago has never met the standards of a scientific theory and has been rejected by recent genetic studies. But the battle over scientific facts and theories continues. Early in 2018, geneticist Jennifer Raff criticized the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for airing its episode “The Ice Bridge” from the series The Nature of Things, which failed to address the colonial and racist implications of the Solutrean hypothesis.
Stanford and Bradley are explicit about the politics of their hypothesis: “The impact of this new prehistory on Native Americans could be grave. They usually consider themselves to be Asian in origin; and to have been subjugated by Europeans after 1492. If they too were partly Europeans, the dividing lines would be instantly blurred” (Stone Age Columbus blurb). This contention begs explanation: Indians consider themselves to be Americans in origin, not Asians; and they are indeed partly related to Europeans, as every human being is “partly related” to every other human being – and even to non-humans, whether we like it or not.
Solving the puzzle of America’s distant past requires a multidisciplinary (i.e. combining insights from e.g. archaeology, history, genetics, linguistics, geology, etc.) and self-critical review of both the evidence and the theories. The debate about the ‘Solutrean’ origins of ancient American civilization shows that knowledge of the distant past is hardly ever contested for merely scientific reasons but is subject to ideological infiltration inspired by older colonial narratives. It is an ideal playground for proposing ‘alternative facts’ and fake science. A scientific-humanistic perspective demands, however, that the question of who came first to America should be freed from historically grown ethnocentric bias.
 See: Raghavan, M., et al. “Genomic Evidence for the Pleistocene and Recent Population History of Native Americans.” Science 349, 6250 (2015), science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6250/aab3884. Accessed 29 March 2018.
Bradley, Bruce, and Dennis Stanford. “The North Atlantic Ice-Edge Corridor: A Possible Palaeolithic Route to the New World.” World Archaeology 36, 4 (2004): 459-478.
---. “The Solutrean-Clovis Connection: Reply to Straus, Meltzer and Goebel.” Archaeology 38, 4 (2006): 704-714.
---. Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
Desmond, Lawrence Gustave ed. Yucatán Through Her Eyes. Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, Writer & Expeditionary Photographer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.
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Ice Age Columbus. Who Were the First Americans? Directed by Nicolas Brown. Discovery Channel. 2005.
O'Brien, Michael J., et al. “On Thin Ice: Problems with Stanford and Bradley's Proposed Solutrean Colonisation of North America.” Antiquity 88, 340 (2014): 606–613.
Raff, Jennifer. “Rejecting the Solutrean Hypothesis: The First Peoples in the Americas were not from Europe.” The Guardian. 21 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/21/rejecting-the-solutrean-hypothesis-the-first-peoples-in-the-americas-were-not-from-europe. Accessed 29 March 2018.
Stone Age Columbus. Written by Nigel Levy. Horizon. BBC. 21 November 2002.
Straus, Lawrence G. “Solutrean Settlement of North America? A Review of Reality.” American Antiquity 65, 2 (2000): 219-226.
Straus, Lawrence G., David J. Meltzer, and Ted Goebel. “Ice Age Atlantis? Exploring the Solutrean-Clovis 'Connection'.” World Archaeology 37, 4 (2005): 507-532.
Meltzer, David J. The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
---. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Willey, Gordon R., and Jeremy A. Sabloff. A History of American Archaeology. 2nd ed. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1974.
Figure 1/Title Picture: Arctic ice. Source: Kelley, Patrick. 2009. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 August 2017. >https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arctic_ice.jpg
Figure 2: “The Solutré horse hunt, from an illustration of ‘primitive man’ by L. Figuier, 1876.” Source: Louis Figuier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 22 September 2017. >>https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solutre.JPG>>
Figure 3: 5W Infographics. 2013. Smithsonian Magazine. 28 March 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/