We finally have a definitive answer to the timeless mystery of where the First Americans came from: They walked across the Bering Straits from Asia (and not from southwest Europe paddling kayaks across the frigid Atlantic sea).
The first people to successfully colonize North America are called “Clovis,” and they made their appearance in the lower United States just prior to 13,000 years ago.
The only known Clovis burial is in Montana, about 40 miles north of my house on the Yellowstone River (also known as the Anzick site). Here prehistoric people buried a one and a half year old boy with about 115 stone and bone funeral offerings, all covered with sacred red ocher. The burial objects, discovered by construction workers in 1968, constitute the largest and most spectacular assemblage of Clovis artifacts ever found.
A recent analysis of the child’s DNA published in the February issue of Nature reveals a genome sequence showing the Montana Clovis people are direct ancestors to some 80 percent of all Native North and South Americans living today. The child’s ancestors came over in a single migration from Northeastern Asia. This data is a very big deal.
Archeologists call this report “the final shovelful of dirt” on the European hypothesis. And, yes, previous to the release of this information, a popular alternative theory argued that the sophisticated Clovis stone-flaking technology came from Southwestern Europe, from Solutrean people living in Spain and France who paddled across the ocean 18,000 years ago.
That meant the Clovis child should have been of European ancestry. The iconic Clovis projectile point—many of which have been found imbedded in the bones of huge animals who became extinct around 12,900 years ago—appeared suddenly and is a large, extremely well-crafted weapon. A troubling insinuation of the “Solutrean” theory is that Native Americans weren’t somehow able to invent the distinctive Clovis point on their own.
One might think that the Out-of-Europe hypothesis was, at its worst, a harmless crackpot theory—that this very terrestrial-adapted culture of the Iberian Peninsula, with no evidence of maritime technology, overcame a frigid Atlantic ocean during a time span of 5,000 years by iceberg-hopping in skin boats in order to deliver the distinctive Clovis weapon system to the Southern United States. But this scholarly squabble quickly grew ugly with the discovery of Kennewick Man in 1996.
Civility evaporated during the nasty eight-year legal squabble over Kennewick Man (a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in the Columbia River), and we were reminded that archaeology lingers yet as a barely disguised insult to many Native Americans. The central issue of Kennewick Man was his ancestry: Was he of European origin? Some anthropologists thought he looked like a Caucasian actor from Star Trek.
The legal maneuvering and sequestering behind the discovery of Kennewick Man was a media-fest fed by the loony assertions of white supremacists that the Aryan race discovered America. The result was increasing polarization between the white, male litigants who wanted to run tests on the bones and the local Umatilla people who wanted him reburied.
In 1999, archeologists Mark Papworth and Larry Lahren and I asked the Anzick family for permission to revisit the burial site. We would interview the surviving discoverers who found the burial back in 1968 and re-excavate the backfill of previous archeologists’ digs in order to establish the original stratigraphy of the short cliff-face, into which the burial bundle had been stuffed.
I was writing an article for Outside, whose expense money helped finance the excavation. The article advocated reburying the child and, in this, it failed. Inadvertently, the press coverage advertised the burial items for wealthy artifact collectors and as a gold mine for academically connected archeologists.
The Iberian versus Siberian debate followed the archeological gold trail from Kennewick back to Montana. Solutrean advocates said the Anzick child’s bones were buried completely apart from the 115 artifacts and at a different time. Furthermore, the Clovis-Out-of-Europe school argued, even if they were interred at the same time, the boy’s DNA would indicate a European origin.
Well, the February article in Nature proves definitively that the Clovis child’s ancestry is Asian, not European. It’s solid science. The Solutrean fans are out of luck. This should be the biggest American archeological news in decades. That is, if archeology could let it stand without spinning the hard facts to fit an ambitious pre-conceived political agenda.
The Washington Times once called North American archaeology “one of the nastier academic communities on the planet,” and in that tradition these obvious conclusions surrounding the Montana burial now sag with the baggage of dogma.
There is an additional theory of the origins of Clovis, which not coincidentally is the brainchild of the Nature article’s senior author, Michael Waters, who initiated the DNA study of the Anzick burial. That theory, call it “Texas First,” argues that pre-Clovis folk lived on Buttermilk Creek in central in Texas starting at 15,000 years ago, a period which “provides ample time for people to settle into the environments of North America, colonize South America … develop the Clovis tool kit and create a base population through which Clovis technology could spread.”
The credibility of the Texas site is controversial: No radiocarbon dates are provided and, of the claimed 15,528 artifacts, less than one-half of a single percent (56) of the “artifacts” appear to be tools, and they don’t look much like Clovis. In fact, to a layperson like myself, this tool complex looks like what you’d get if you threw chunks of chert on the driveway and drove your pickup truck over them for two years. Nonetheless, the popular press received Water’s unfiltered claims with a unanimous embrace.
The Texas First agenda plays a major role in the interpretation of the Anzick child burial. Waters’s theory depends on when the boy was buried, and here a bit of technical detail is necessary. For Clovis technology to originate in Texas and spread upriver to the boonies of Montana would take a long time, hundreds of years, and the iconic Clovis projectile point would arrive at the very end of the Clovis culture, which bloomed explosively and only lasted from about 13,100 to 12,800 years ago.
The Waters team has chosen 12,600 years ago, from a wide range of available carbon-14 dates on the Anzick skeleton that stretches from 12,680 (in 1983) to 13,550 (in 1997). The same investigator and co-author analyzed both samples and now rejects the older date. There are other radiocarbon dates on the child’s bones. But why pick one carbon-14 date on the child’s bones over another? Or why does a single investigator get to choose which of several carbon-14 dates is best?
This might be the time for archeologists to cut each other some slack when it comes to shaving radiocarbon dates into 100-year slices. For example, the 900-year discrepancy might be due to human contamination: Starting in 1968, every scientist who visited the Anzick site ran off with samples of the child’s skeleton and his bones were handled by dozens of curious bystanders. Could modern human DNA contamination affect the resultant radiocarbon date? Now, I know next to squat about the complexities of accelerator mass spectrometry or XAD-collagen analysis. But others do and we have a problem here.
You can’t radiocarbon date stone tools but you can radiocarbon date bone. Among the artifacts are elk antler “foreshafts” that were presumably used to bind the Clovis projectile points to a detachable rod. In 2006, independent archeologists dated two Anzick elk antler foreshafts; the results were uncannily identical and convincing—both dated 13,040 years old. Most all investigators accept these radiocarbon dates on the elk antlers as rock solid.
So, 400 years, that’s the problem. Either the child was buried at the same time the elk antler tools were made or 400 years later. The most obvious choice is that the Clovis boy was buried at the time the foreshaft tools were made and the radiocarbon dates on the child’s bones are so far inaccurate.
But that wasn’t good enough for the DNA team who felt obliged to spin the results. Michael Waters explains, without serious evidence, that elk was “a rare animal in the plains at that time.” The difference in age between the skeleton and the 400 year-old heirloom antler tools, he explains, suggest the elk antler tools were "very special ritual objects passed down for generations."
The fact is that elk run in herds; they’re either grazing in your valley or not, but they are never rare, just absent. When elk are present, they drop their antlers in late winter. You can find hundreds of pounds of elk antlers in a few hours walking the spring hills in nearby Yellowstone Park.
That date of 13,040 years ago also marks the first known appearance of elk in the lower 48. Humans in central Alaska hunted elk around 13,300 years ago. Elk only arrived in North America from Siberia at the very end of the last Ice Age, after the onset of global warming 14,700 years ago, and had to wait in Alaska for the Ice Free Corridor (IFC) to melt open in order to get down to Montana. If you can find dropped antlers and make an elk ivory foreshaft in a few hours, why haul this hefty stuff around for 400 years, a time span most archaeologists believe exceeds the entire life of the Clovis culture?
The reason is that lugging these tools—made from common, abundant and heavy raw material—around for 400 years fits the Texas First agenda. If the origins of Clovis technology lie in Texas or other southern states, it would imply two pre-conditions: First, that it took these southern pre-Clovis people about 400 years to make the trip north, up from Buttermilk Creek to remote Montana and, secondly, according to the Texas hypothesis Clovis would have arrived at the Anzick site from the south, and not from Alaska, trekking southward down the IFC.
By not accepting at face value the solution to the mystery Clovis origins, the First American DNA team open a very wide door into which the “Solutrean” hypothesis advocates will certainly stick their European-theory feet. Why didn’t the Anzick genetic team simply say the burial is Clovis and the child is of Asian ancestry? But that wasn’t the case. They had to infect the perfectly adequate data with the totally improbable idea of a 400-year-old heirloom elk antler tool.
In 2012, Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley, the leading advocates for the Solutrean hypothesis, wrote in Across Atlantic Ice, “It may be that they [the child’s bones] were not associated with the Clovis Cache but were incidentally buried nearby and the red ochre staining the toddler’s bones is purely coincidental.” That far-fetched claim means that even if the child’s DNA is Asian, that doesn’t matter because he is not associated with the artifacts and therefore is not Clovis, whose ancestors must be European. This whacko assertion has yet to be seriously refuted by establishment archaeologists.
Those advocating the Solutrean theory can now claim that the 12,600-year-old date on the child’s bones is far too young to be Clovis, a culture that major archaeologists believe marched into the sunset along with the extinction of the American megafauna (mammoths, sabertooths, etc.) at the time of the Younger Dryas cooling event at about 12,800 years ago.
Into these muddied waters, another possibility for the origins of Clovis intrudes: the oldest theory of all, that Clovis progenitors came down the IFC from Alaska, ran into mammoth and invented a projectile point big enough to kill elephants.
The first evidence of elk south of the ice sheets at the Clovis burial site in Montana is a good example of Late Pleistocene migrations. The habitat requirements of elk and their speed of migration are probably the same today as at the end of the Pleistocene. That would have meant a fully re-vegetated (that is, lush with elk food) ice-free corridor. Any elk habitat expert, modern hunters as well as biologists, might take a stab at the time required for elk to make that journey. I would guess—Yukon to Anzick—perhaps at least a couple hundred years.
The elk antler foreshafts provide evidence for the use of the ice-free corridor and when that route was available for human passage. If modern elk first came down the corridor at least 13,300 years ago, humans could have made the same trip earlier: People wouldn’t have required a completely recovered habitat in terms of flora and fauna. Humans, with their dogs for hauling sleds and as emergency food, packs full of pemmican and waterfowl hunting skills for the melt-water corridor lakes, could have used the same passage earlier than the elk and made it down to Montana in a few years instead of centuries.
That could push back the date for earliest possible human travel down the IFC back to around 13,500 years ago—contrary to both the Texas First and Solutrean theories. An interesting question is why did potential ancestral Clovis people, who inhabited the Yukon River drainage 13,300 years ago and hunted elk, wait until around 13,100 years ago to make the journey southward to Montana? Maybe they were afraid of something (like the gigantic Short-faced Bear in the south).
One thing is clear: DNA analysis of human bone is a destructive process and the Anzick child has contributed more than enough to Western science. It’s time we all cooperated to find him an earthly home. A repatriation ceremony would help bury the ignominious squabbles of the past. Natives from all over the New World could host a great celebration to honor their oldest ancestor.
For additional reading see:
Peacock, Doug. In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene. Oakland; AK Press 2014
Doug Peacock is a naturalist and author who lives in Montana. In the Shadow of the Sabertooth was produced with support from the Guggenheim and Lannan foundations.