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Early Americans

30 September 2010

The BBC Horizon television series (www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/columbus.html ) on the 24th November of 2004 asked – who were the first people in North America? Where did they come from and how did they get there?

Over the last 70 years a consensus became so entrenched amongst academics and archaeologists that dissenters felt uneasy to challenge it – and when they did they very often experienced a sharp end to their career prospects. Amazing as this may seem in hindsight – it is not unusual. It is happening at this very moment to detractors of the AGW paradigm. Both arguments stem from ignorance – ignorance of how the planetary science system really works and absence of archaeological evidence of what might have happened during the Ice Age. Clovis culture was assumed to mark the appearance of humans in the Americas – and the Clovis culture occupies that period between the end of the Ice Age and the commencement of the Younger Dryas event – a warm period of climate at the end of the Pleistocene in which large mammals and humans appear to have co-existed. Temporarily. This became the traditional and consensus view – humans arrived in the Americas in the Late Pleistocene, crossing over from the Bering land bridge (which was assumed to have remained in  place until the ice sheet had melted enough to allow sea levels to overflow and flood the region). Hence, there was a window of opportunity – a couple of thousand years in which peoples of Siberia are thought to have migrated around the receding ice sheets to settle in the Americas, establishing themselves in quite large groups at the zenith of Clovis culture hunting technology, a particularly noteable long spear point. Archaeologists learnt to ignore artefacts that suggested people might have arrived somewhat earlier – after all, they knew better. The consensus was their maxim. The parallels with global warming theory is all too obvious – and just as restrictive. It was a sort of mental bloc that was self imposed and those mavericks were treated almost like lepers. Unloved by the majority of archaeologists because they threatened to upset the applecart. As the Horizon programme showed – truth will out. Eventually. 

It could be argued that the problem is geological in origin as it is the Ice Age that has caused the problem – restricting the movement of humans as it was assumed it was extremely cold right across the whole of the northern hemisphere. However, various scientists have shown that it was not – the evidence usually fudged somewhat because once again it was contrary to the consensus view. It still is. Last year evidence of human activity around the shores of the Siberian Arctic Ocean shone a brief light on what might have been folk movements around 25,000 years ago with the possibility that humans had reached the northern shores of Alaska and the Yukon, possibly even the headwaters of the MacKenzie river, during what is regarded as the coldest episode of the last glacial period. In the consensus view this is quite impossible – so the idea has subsequently been buried. However, it ties in with other factors we know about the Ice Age – the Bering land bridge was open and large mammal species were able to pass to and from between Siberia and Alaska. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence these regions were relatively warm – warmer than they are nowadays. Therefore, if archaeologists and geologists and biologists etc had a completely free frame of mind, they would be asking – how could this have happened during what is regarded as a glacial episode?

The Horizon programme went on to report on possible pre-Clovis settlement of the Americas, a coastal route along the kelp high road from Japan to the Aleutians to the islands off the coast of British Columbia – and southwards. The theory that the Clovis point hunters were related to the Solutrean culture of Ice Age Iberia/ SW France, arriving by boat by skirting the ice floes that then dotted the North Atlantic. And so on.

An argument is currently taking place on the pages of the Australian magazine Cosmos (see www.cosmosmagazine.com/node3774/full ) where it is claimed that hundreds of skulls have been uncovered in central and south American of an ethnic type that was not Siberian in origin. Evolutionary biologist Walter Neves of the University of Sao Paulo claims there is plenty of evidence to suggest different peoples colonised the Americas – and one branch closely resembled the Australian Aborigines. There are now reputedly hundreds of skeletons with the same cranial morphology – as far north as Florida. This was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as long ago as 2007 but has more recently been repudiated in PLoS ONE in June of 2010, an argument based on DNA in modern populations. Neves counters this by attributing, in Cosmos, this to a loss of DNA lineages through time. The last refuge of these people may have been Tierra del Fuego.

None of this is particularly surprising as Aborigines have distinct similarities with the people of southern India and to the islanders of Melanesia. They mark an earlier expansion into the Pacific well before that of the better known Polynesian inroads. The latter almost everywhere encountered Melanesians during their travels, from New Guinea to Fijii. It is only in the far islands such as Hawaii and New Zealand that Polynesians came across a virgin wilderness. There is also some geological evidence to suggest Pacific islands were sometimes much larger tracts of land than they are now – usually attributed to global sea level increases as a result of the melting of the ice sheets assumed to have existed during the Ice Age. However, alternatively these larger lumps of land in the Pacific may have disappeared as a result of radical changes in the earth’s geoid – at the end of the Ice Age. A pole shift for example might be one explanation – or just perhaps a change in the axis of rotation (with the poles remaining intact). 

There is of course the other possibility – anatomically the Aborigines bear certain similarities to the Ainu people that occupied the Japanese islands from the end of the Ice Age until modern times. They would in fact be the prize candidate for skeletons such as Kennewick Man – but did they reach South America or Mexico? With the date for the arrival in the Americas being pushed earlier and earlier – up to 40,000 years ago according to some people, there is still a lot to learn and evidence to gather.  

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