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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, July 2020

Problems in North American Chronology (Part 2)

by: Bill Branch, June 2020

Paleoindians and Mousterians

In the March 2001 paper by Firestone and Topping quoted previously, the authors mentioned a similarity between Paleoindian and Mousterian stone tools:

“The Paleoindian occupation of North America, theoretically the point of entry of the first people to the Americas, is traditionally assumed to have occurred within a short time span beginning at about 12,000 yr B.P. This is inconsistent with much older South American dates of around 32,000 yr B.P. and the similarity of the Paleoindian toolkit to Mousterian traditions that disappeared about 30,000 years ago.” [1]

Both Paleoindians in North America (of which the Clovis culture is the best known) and the Mousterians in Europe (predecessors of the Solutreans) are evidenced primarily by their distinctive stone points as opposed to human remains, which are even rarer from these most remote periods. The stone points were created using a specific technique called pressure flaking, also known as the Levallois technique, which could produce numerous blades from a single stone whose spent “core” was either discarded or refashioned into another tool. This technique required some skill, and many archaeologists believe it is unlikely that prehistoric populations living around the same time and place developed the technique independently of one another. Instead, knowledge of this technique was more likely passed on from person to person and from generation to generation, which would in turn mean that populations using this technique likely had made meaningful contact with one another and could even be descended from a common ancestral population.

The problem in this particular case is that Paleoindians occupied North America and archaeologists consider them to have been anatomically modern humans, while the Mousterian technology or material culture surrounded the Mediterranean Sea in Europe (where it was employed by Neanderthal groups), and northern Africa and the Middle East (where archaeologists associate the tools with modern humans). Pressure-flaked points are noticeably absent from prehistoric sites in Siberia, implying that any transmission of this technique to North America via migrating populations did not take place via the Bering Strait.

If the technique was indeed passed on from person to person, then this implies that prehistoric populations may have been crossing the Atlantic Ocean (or, alternatively, the South Pacific) at the end of the last ice age, far earlier than any other known group of people. Another problem is chronological: archaeologists conventionally date Paleoindians like the Clovis culture thousands of years later than the Mousterians of Europe or even their Solutrean successors. Thus there are both geographical and chronological gaps that seem to make a connection between the two prehistoric populations unlikely.

Solutrean Hypothesis

Despite being published by Oregon State University, Firestone and Topping’s ideas were still controversial and “fringe” in early 2001. That is not to say they were necessarily new ideas by that time. As Collins and Little note in Denisovan Origins, the English geologist and anthropologist William J. Sollas suggested as early as 1915 that there was a connection between the Paleoindians of North America and the Solutreans of Europe, based upon the similarity of material evidence. [2] It seems that at least some scholars continued to lend credibility to the trans-Atlantic connection until the advent of carbon dating, when the new chronological data was used to discredit the trans-Atlantic idea. Based on new the C-14 data, critics argued that the Clovis people could not have been related to the Solutreans because the two cultures were dated to very different time periods, separated by thousands of years, and too far apart to allow for any kind of cultural continuity.

The Routledge journal World Archaeology published a critical paper on the Solutrean Hypothesis in 2005 where its authors admit that if not for the chronological gap, “it might have seemed logical” to make the trans-Atlantic connection between prehistoric cultures [3]:

“Until the application of radiocarbon dating to relevant materials from both sides of the North Atlantic beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s (e.g. Haynes 1964), it might have seemed logical to use the presence of some similarities among artifacts of the Solutrean techno-complex of southern France and Iberia to argue for a historical relationship to Clovis, despite mounting (and long suspected) evidence for a physical connection between Siberia and North America via the Bering Land bridge (e.g. Bryan 1941; Johnston 1933).”

This passage also shows that the dominance of the Bering Land Bridge Theory at that time was such that it apparently precluded more or less simultaneous early arrivals by other routes. Anthropologists today note genetic connections between Polynesians and prehistoric natives of South America, for example, implying another prehistoric migration route via the islands of the Pacific Ocean. [4] Similar genetic connections exist between the tribes of the Algonquian homeland in northeastern North America and the Basque people and other carriers of haplogroup X in Europe. [5] In both of these cases, the correlating genetics are lacking in Siberia, again suggesting other early migration patterns. Increasing amounts of data have thus made the “big picture” more complex and complicated rather than more clear and simplified, and one prehistoric migration route may not be enough to explain the genetic diversity found among the native peoples of North and South America.

By the end of the first decade of the 2000s academic opinions were beginning to show signs of change. The Smithsonian Institution’s policy since James Wesley Powell in the 1870s was that no one but Siberians had ever reached the Americas before Columbus. (Only in the latter half of the 20th century did such established academics finally acknowledge the pre-Columbian Viking settlements in Canada, despite hundreds of years of Scandinavian historical records and traditions, not the least of it from Iceland, where Columbus himself visited before his 1492 voyage.) But in 2012, the Smithsonian’s Director of the Paleoindian Program at its Natural History Museum in Washington DC, Dennis Stanford, defended the Solutrean Hypothesis in the notable book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America's Clovis Culture, co-authored with Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter.

The single biggest turning point in the debate over the Solutrean Hypothesis was perhaps the discovery of artifacts in an unambiguously pre-Clovis, Pleistocene strata along the Nottoway River in Virginia in the mid-1990s, at a site called Cactus Hill. European-style points had already been recovered in North America, including a pressure-flaked blade dredged up from the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia in 1971 [6], but the archaeological contexts of these finds were not clear, and no firm conclusions could yet be drawn. At Cactus Hill, however, the stratigraphical sequence was perfectly clear. The site had already been under professional excavation since the 1980s, and was well-documented even before the pivotal discovery. Archaeologists found the pre-Clovis strata and its artifacts between 8 and 23 centimeters beneath the Clovis layer above it. [7] As academics debated the implications of what had been discovered at Cactus Hill, they created the groundwork for the latest, reinvigorated iteration of the Solutrean Hypothesis.

The theory asserts that some number of individuals belonging to the Solutrean culture managed to cross the Atlantic Ocean and seed a prehistoric, pre-Clovis population in North America. The Solutreans, like their Mousterian forebears, are mostly attested by their pressure-flaked stone points and other tools recovered from archaeological sites in Europe, which are virtually indistinguishable from the pre-Clovis points recovered at Cactus Hill. Other diagnostic characteristics of the Solutreans include a lack of pottery and other indications of their being an ice age, nomadic, hunter-gatherer people. All of these characteristics are also common to the Clovis (and Pre-Clovis) people of North America, who were also nomads that hunted ice age megafauna such as mammoths and mastodons.

The bifacial Clovis-type points are almost identical to Solutrean-type points in and of themselves, except that most Clovis points have fluted bases for a stronger attachment to a spear shaft. Not all Clovis points have fluted bases, however, and the unfluted Clovis points are indistinguishable from their European Solutrean counterparts. Similarities such as these are what had led earlier scholars such as William Sollas to suspect a trans-Atlantic migration in the first place.

The pre-Clovis artifacts discovered at Cactus Hill were not only of this unfluted variety, but they were sufficiently older than the Clovis layer that they finally matched the time period assigned to the Solutrean culture in Europe. The chronological gap that seemed to exist between the Solutreans and Clovis people vanished as archaeologists showed the pre-Clovis tools to be even more similar to their European counterparts. The journal Quaternary Geochronology published a study in 2006 which used optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating to assign the pre-Clovis occupation at Cactus Hill at about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. The authors of that study noted that the OSL method produced results that were “consistently slightly younger than the calibrated radiocarbon dates from comparable horizons.” [8] In other words, C-14 dating of the same material, if they had been performed, would have likely produced consistently older dates. Meanwhile, the Encyclopedia Britannica dates the Solutrean era from about 17,000 to 21,000 years ago [9]. The periods thus overlap as much as any archaeologist or anthropologist could want to justify the cultures existing simultaneously. Even if the absolute C-14 dates are erroneous by some unknown factor (as they may very well be), their relative position in the geological strata of their respective continents, combined with the great resemblance of the distinctive points of both continents to one another, would be enough by itself to reasonably argue for a prehistoric connection between these two cultures or technological complexes. In either case, the depth of time that 15,000 to 20,000 years ago represents, though much less than the multiple tens of thousands of years of variation thrown around by gradualists regarding the Carolina Bays, is still all but incomprehensible from the perspective of a single lifetime.

Between the early 1900s and today, the dates archaeologists assigned to Pleistocene and early Holocene populations first expanded to great ages of multiple tens of thousands of years into the past, but by the mid-1980s the accepted dates were converging back to a relatively short period of time circa only 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, and sometimes much more recent periods of half that age. Regardless of absolute age, the discovery of the pre-Clovis layer at Cactus Hill represented the confirmation of an entire geological strata of prehistoric occupation preceding the Clovis culture.

Issues in Solutrean Chronology in Prehistoric Europe

Several cultures that came after the Solutreans in Europe also used the same distinctive pressure-flaked points, and even in the same general regions. It is not surprising that many scholars find it difficult to accept Stone Age populations crossing the Atlantic, but interestingly, most European academics seem to be reluctant to draw a connection between the Solutreans and even other prehistoric European cultures. As there would have been no ocean to traverse in this case, and the stone points and their technique of manufacture bear obvious resemblance, what else would make scholars reluctant to make such connections? Once again, it is the chronology archaeologists associate with these cultures in Europe that does not permit these prehistoric relationships. Archaeologists have assigned dates to these prehistoric cultures that also separate them by thousands of years, appearing to make it impossible for them to have interacted and directly spread the distinctive point-making technique.

Andrew Collins and Greg Little explain the situation as follows in Denisovan Origins:

“In the Northern Hemisphere, pressure flaking appears initially in northern Eurasia, central Mongolia in particular, before reaching the Ural Mountains and crossing eventually into Europe. Here, it is taken up by the Solutreans, circa 20,000 to 15,000 BCE. … Following the demise of the Solutreans circa 15,000 BCE, pressure flaking vanishes temporarily from European history. It only resurfaces with the emergence of the Swiderian tradition in central and eastern Europe around 11,500 BCE.…Thereafter, pressure flaking was used by various Post-Swiderian cultures, including the Kunda of Finland, Scandinavia, Karelia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and so on, and the Butovo of central Russia and Ukraine.…” [10]

The “demise” of the Solutreans (but not their distinctive technique!) around 15,000 BC, and the appearance of the Swiderians around 11,500 BC, would give all appearances of being a continuous Stone Age technological complex if not for the dates and chronological framework imposed upon them. But are these chronological frameworks beyond criticism? Why, for example, should any researcher be more reluctant to question the dates and methods rather than to question the obvious technical similarities and overlapping geography? When archaeologists resort to carbon dating and other isotopic methods, they put aside their own expertise and defer to chemists or other technicians who are supposed to be more qualified to interpret the lab results. It is perhaps because archaeologists do not feel qualified to comment on chemistry and nuclear physics that they often seem so reluctant to question the prehistoric time periods which the technicians return to them. A lack of expertise in chemistry or physics does not prevent other basic observations from being made, however.

The Solutreans “disappearing” around 15,000 BC and their would-be successors appearing as if suddenly around 11,500 BC means that there is a gap of roughly 3,500 years between these cultures. If this chronological gap is real and not simply an artifact of imperfect dating techniques, then it would be impossible for the Solutreans to have directly passed on their knowledge of tool-making to people who appeared 3,500 years later. Yet the tools being manufactured on both sides of this gap were clearly created using the same pressure-flaking technique. The question is: Is it possible that the dates provided by experts could be in error by as much as 3,500 years?

The answer is: Yes, and more.

Redating Pleistocene Skeletons

In 1985, American Antiquity published a paper by R. E. Taylor and ten other scientists from four different universities announcing that the immense antiquity attributed to thirteen skeletons was in error by as much as tens of thousands of years. These remains had been previously dated by various methods including C-14, but primarily by a technique called amino acid racemization (AAR). Rather than measuring levels of isotopic carbon in dead organic matter as the C-14 technique does, AAR measures changes in amino acids that occur after an organism dies. While the C-14 dates for these skeletons were in error by as much as over 10,000 years in at least one case (a skeleton recovered from Baldwin Hills near Los Angeles), the AAR method produced dates which the authors found to be in error by as much as about 60,000 years (a skeleton recovered from Sunnyvale, California). To make things that much more troubling, the same team of researchers had produced both sets of contradictory dates using the same methods.

The team, led by R. E. Taylor, first published a study in 1983 dating the latter skeleton at approximately 70,000 years old. Two years later, in 1985, Taylor and others issued a correction to their own work, redating the same oldest skeleton down to only 3,600 to 4,850 years old. The age of this particular skeleton was in error by a factor of over fourteen times, or 1,400%, and the correction reassigned it from deep in the Pleistocene to well into the modern Holocene period, obviously a considerable change. All of the other skeletons had to be similarly moved closer to the present, having been previously been dated anywhere from 5,800 to over 50,000 years old, when, according to the new dates assigned to them, none of them were older than about 11,000 years. [11]

Even more troubling, the authors were at a loss to explain what had led to these discrepancies:

“Perhaps the most puzzling aspect is the AMS C-14 values obtained for the Los Angeles and Laguna skeletal fragments. Both of these samples had been previously C-14 dated by one of us (RB). The original C-14 value for the Los Angeles skeleton had, in fact, been obtained on a total amino acid fraction (Berger et al. 1971:47). For both the Los Angeles and Laguna skeletons small amounts of sample were available for decay counting permitting a finite date only for one Laguna specimen. At present, it is unclear why there should be such a difference between the decay and AMS counting results for both skeletons. In order to clarify this discrepancy, further measurements are planned.” [12]

At the end of their paper, the authors conclude that “in a significant number of situations, there is no clear relationship between the C-14 age and the extent of aspartic acid racemization in bone samples.” In other words, C-14 data and AAR data, despite both of them supposedly being scientific dating techniques, were producing wildly different results in a “significant number of situations.” [13] The obvious implication is that at least one of these dating methods is not scientifically reliable, and possibly both of them, as even their own previous C-14 dates had to be greatly revised. Who can say that the new dates given by Taylor, et al. in 1985, of roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago for the end of the Pleistocene and appearance of these prehistoric people, will not receive yet another massive correction at some point in the future? For now, the corrected results still seem to fit within the accepted scheme of dates.

Compared to revisions of 10,000 or even 60,000+ years seen in this example, from two studies involving the same group of researchers employing the same methods, the gap of 3,500 years between the Solutreans and their successors seems rather trivial. The margins of error associated with these analyses cannot be taken seriously either, as these two studies and many other examples also demonstrate. The supposed 3500-year gap separating the Solutreans and Swiderians could very well be an artifact of imperfect dating techniques, and the successors of the Solutreans may have directly inherited the older technology as a living tradition.

Populations and Generations over Time

Though it is a much smaller span of time than the massive corrections in Taylor et al.’s studies, three and a half thousand years is still an enormous amount of time in real terms. Again, the modern United States developed from the small fort at Jamestown in only 400 years or so, from muskets to space flight. Similarly rapid developments have taken place throughout the well-known historic period, but our ancestors before recorded history, who were also anatomically modern humans, apparently did not progress from simple stone tools to clay pottery for well over 10,000 years or more. These most remote dates for the late Pleistocene and early Holocene still seem to be grossly exaggerated in their ages considering, for example, how little material evidence there is for prehistoric human occupations over such incredibly long spans of time.

Consider that even if populations remained the same size and did not grow and expand over time, the accumulation of remains and artifacts from twelve thousand years ago until the time of Columbus would be truly enormous. Beginning with North American populations at the end of the Pleistocene and beginning of the Holocene, conventionally dated to around 12,000 years ago, and subtracting a generous 600 years since first historical contact, some 11,400 years are left for all the prehistoric societies of North America to develop before first European contact. Assuming an unrealistic average prehistoric childbearing age of 30, that would still be a potential of 380 successive generations, each one likely to be larger than the last, who could have occupied any given site and left behind skeletal remains and artifacts. A more realistic average prehistoric childbearing age of 20 produces a potential of 570 successive prehistoric generations over all of this time. After native societies established permanent settlements and more intense agriculture, population sizes expanded at greatly increased rates, and then each one of these hundreds of successive generations from that point forward could be very large in and of itself. Only a handful of generations from these large agricultural societies are needed to explain the largest mounds, earthworks, and other archaeological sites left by prehistoric peoples. The prospect of potentially hundreds of successive generations of large size can hardly be reconciled even with the prodigious number of earthworks of the Woodlands period. Archaeologists typically suggest that even the largest mounds and earthworks were individually created over relatively short spans of time, perhaps by a handful of generations living in a particular locality and honoring a particular dynasty of leaders. The Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia, for example, may be the resting place of a succession of leaders from a single native dynasty. Despite being the largest mound of its kind, it could have easily been created in only a few generations, and in fact only contained two distinct burial chambers. Again, this is the largest mound of its kind, of the Adena-Hopewell variety. If the logistics of these efforts are considered carefully, it should become apparent that 400 or 500 successive generations of inhabitants anywhere in North America is simply not supported by the physical evidence.

The rare finds of these earliest stone points here and there hardly justifies the idea of multiple thousands of years, and hundreds of generations of continuous occupation by evolving societies. In fact, Stanford himself cites data indicating that the Clovis culture, discussed next, may have only flourished across North America for as little as two or three centuries. [14] This is the equivalent of only 6 to 15 generations of Clovis using the same average childbearing ages, which seems more fitting to the scarcity of physical evidence left from their early era than multiple thousands of years.

References: [1] Firestone, Richard B., and Topping, William. “Terrestrial Evidence of a Nuclear Catastrophe in Paleoindian Times,” The Mammoth Trumpet 16, 9 (Corvallis: Oregon State University, March 2001).

[2] Andrew Collins and Gregory L. Little, Denisovan Origins (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2019), 93.

[3] Lawrence Guy Straus, David J. Metzler, and Ted Goebel, “Ice Age Atlantis?: Exploring the Solutrean-Clovis ‘connection’,” World Archaeology 37, 4 (2005): 507–532.

[4] Vanessa Faria Gonçalves, et al., “Identification of Polynesian mtDNA Haplogroups in Remains of Botocudo Amerindians from Brazil,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 16 (April 2013), 6465–6469.

[5] David Glenn Smith, Ripan S. Malhi, Jason Eshleman, Joseph G. Lorenz, and Frederika A. Kaestle, “Distribution of mtDNA haplogroup X among Native North Americans,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 110, 3 (November 1999), 271–284.

[6] Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley, Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 110; Collins and Little, 94.

[7] Bradley T. Lepper and Robert E. Funk, “Paleo-Indian: East,” Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 3: Environment, Origins, and Population (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2006), 175.

[8] James K. Feathers, Edward J. Rhodes, Sébastien Huot, and Joseph M.Mcavoy. “Luminescence dating of sand deposits related to late Pleistocene human occupation at the Cactus Hill Site, Virginia, USA.” Quaternary Geochronology 1, 3 (August 2006), 167–183.

[9] Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Solutrean Industry,” accessed June 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solutrean-industry.

[10] Collins and Little, 52–54.

[11] Taylor, R. E., et al. “Major Revisions in the Pleistocene Age Assignments for North American Human Skeletons by C-14 Accelerator Mass Spectrometry: None Older than 11,000 C-14 Years B.P.” American Antiquity 50, 1 (January 1985), 137.

[12] Taylor et al., 138.

[13] Taylor et al., 138–139.

[14] Gregory Little, Path of Souls (Memphis: ATA-Archetype Books, 2014), 211–212; Stanford and Bradley (2012).

Monday, August 08, 2022