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Settlement History: Who Was First to America?

It was long assumed that Siberian nomads migrated to America over the Bering Strait over 13,000 years ago and settled the continent. But now anthropologists, genetic researchers and linguists are finding more and more evidence for other hypotheses

What has made the advocates of the Bering Strait theory so safe so far are the many finds. From Alaska to New Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, skeletons of slain animals, tools and weapons made of bones and stones have been recovered. With the help of the radiocarbon measurement method it was possible to determine that none of it is older than 13,350 years. In North America in particular, tools and spearheads have been the same for over 400 years - from 13,350 to 12,900 years ago - so much that archaeologists speak of a uniform culture - the Clovis culture. Because in Clovis in the US state of New Mexico in 1937 spearheads and bones of slain mammoths over 10,000 years old were found for the first time.

Scientists have long considered the Clovis people to be the indigenous people of America - and the ancestors of today's Indians. However, if the first people had immigrated to America via Alaska, then the oldest archaeological evidence of this settlement should also be found on this route. But although archaeologists, geologists and paleontologists have systematically explored the country over the past few decades, no clear traces of people have been found who could be the forerunners of the Clovis culture in the south.

Nevertheless, for a few years now the conviction has been gaining ground that the Clovis people were not the first and only Americans and that America was not only settled via the Bering Bridge, but also across the sea - by pioneers from China, Australia, Polynesia and maybe even from Europe.

The cautious among the "opposition" archaeologists estimate that the first Americans were a few thousand years earlier than the Clovis people. Some scientists, such as the Brazilian archaeologist Niède Guidón, speculate that people lived in South America as early as 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, and some even mention a period of 150,000 to 200,000 years. They have no evidence of this.

The reasons for this change of opinion have names: Monte Verde, Cactus Hill, Topper and Meadowcroft Rockshelter - names of sites in North and South America where archaeologists claim evidence of other cultures that are older than Clovis.

The archaeologist Thomas Dillehay, professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, has claimed since 1987 to have found huts, stone tools and wooden mortars, scraps of food such as nuts and berries, and even a child's footprint in Monte Verde in southern Chile, all of which are around 14,500 years old be. For many years he has received scorn and ridicule from his colleagues for this.

However, since 1997, according to Dillehay, most of his critics have fallen silent. He had invited them to Monte Verde so that they could get an idea for themselves: In fact, around 14,500 years ago people must have lived there who had nothing to do with the Clovis culture.

The late recognition of Dillehay and the Monte Verde site by most of its previous critics has given other pre-Clovis supporters a boost. For example, Cactus Hill, a discovery site in Virginia, is now also considered a pre-Clovis site by some scientists.

Archaeologists Joseph and Lynn McAvoy found stone tools 17,000 years old there. Stone tools up to 16,800 years old have also been found in the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The radiocarbon method, which has been continuously refined since its invention in 1947, delivers fairly exact results today, but it is not possible to say with certainty whether the investigated findings were contaminated and thus led to a wrong result.

But every "flawless" find is always embedded in certain layers of the soil, and can be mixed with charcoal, remains of bones, ashes and rocks from many periods. All this leaves the scientists with a relatively large scope for conclusions, doubts and interpretations on a case-by-case basis.

So it is difficult to answer the question: Where did these people come from? And in what ways? How did you live What did they feed on? How did they bury their dead? Why is it so rare to find bones?

But because the new data are recognized or at least considered significant by some scientists, the Clovis dogma wavers.

Alternative theses are sprouting that can be reduced to a few basic assumptions. And they all have in common the assumption that the first Americans came across the sea:

  • According to the Siberia thesis, the early seafarers approached the American west coast across the northern Pacific and fought their way south.
  • According to the Polynesia thesis, they settled the coasts of South America from the South Pacific - either also across the North Pacific or, as some believe, across the Pacific in the south.
  • According to the Europe thesis, they crossed the Atlantic along the polar cap, which reached far to the south, and landed on the east coast of North America.
  • Or: They migrated from France north-east through Russia and Siberia and arrived from this direction.

Together with the old Bering Strait thesis that all Native Americans have Siberian ancestors, this results in four basic assumptions, only one of which may be true. However, it cannot be ruled out that two of them are correct or three - or all four.

This chaotic conglomerate of speculations suffers from two problems: There are hardly any bone relics from those immigrants, let alone entire skeletons - and no credible trace of a boat or raft.

The supporters of the multicultural colonization consider Luzia, a 13,500 year old skeleton from Brazil, to be one of the most important finds. It is not so much its age that is interesting, but the shape of the skull. It doesn't fit in with any of the 1,000 or so Indian groups in America.

The skull is not Mongoloid like that of the Indians, but rather like those of some Southeast Asians and former Australians, says the anthropologist Walter Neves from the University of São Paulo.

Neves had sent the computer data on Luzia's skull to the University of Manchester in England. There, the coroner Richard Neave reconstructed Luzia's face on the basis of the data and came to the conclusion: non-mongolide, rather negroid, especially nose and jaw.

So from Africa? No, more from Australia, South Asia or Southeast Asia. The Brazilian suspects Luzia could have descended from a small group of nomads who arrived in the New World via the Pacific 15,000 years ago. He even thinks it is more likely that she belonged to a Southeast Asian group, part of which settled Australia (Aborigines), while another traveled north along the Asian coasts, crossed the Bering Sea to North America and then south.

But not only Australians, Polynesians and Asians settled America before the Clovis people: but also Europeans. At least that's what Dennis Stanford, head of the anthropology department at the Nation Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., suspects. If the Clovis people had come from Siberia, tools that they left behind, or at least forerunners of them, would have had to be found there.

Because the Clovis technology is quite unique in the world. However, there are exceptions, for example the stone tools of the Solutréen, made by people who lived 16,500 to 22,000 years ago in what is now France, Portugal and Spain. Their stone-working technique is older than that of the Clovis people, but very similar.

The archaeologist Michael Collins has also compared products of the Clovis culture with those of the Solutréen culture. The striking resemblance between the Clovis and Solutréen spearheads could indeed suggest that Europeans, like the Vikings later, came to America across the Atlantic.

This assumption coincides with the assumptions of Stanford, who also considers a passage of the Solutréen people across the Atlantic to be possible. (But there is no thesis without an antithesis: The anthropologist Lawrence Guy Straus of the University of New Mexico recently expressed great concern. After all, the Solutréen tradition ended a few thousand years before the Clovis culture can be dated in North America.)

Crossing the Atlantic by boat - is that even conceivable? William Fitzhugh, director of the Center for Arctic Studies at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, says: Perhaps the Solutreaner didn't need vehicles. The North Atlantic was frozen over from Norway to Newfoundland. Coming from France to England should not have been a problem for Stone Age people either. From there they could have got to Scotland, and then it wasn't far to Iceland.

From there, they could have walked across the ice to Greenland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia - always along the edge of the Atlantic.

In 1996, the European thesis was briefly given more weight: through the discovery of the so-called Kennewick Man.

When did this 1.75 meter tall man live and especially when did he die between the ages of 45 and 45? The answer was provided by radiocarbon dating based on the fifth left metacarpal bone: 9460 years ago.

Then the coroner and anthropologist James Chatters took a closer look at the Kennewick Man's skull and classified it as "Caucasoid-like". This term means a skull shape that is common in Europe - but also in Southeast Asia and among the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people.

So did the Kennewick Man's ancestors come from the Far East?

Linguists also support the multi-immigrant hypothesis of the colonization of America. Johanna Nichols from the University of California at Berkeley, for example, counted 143 Indian language groups from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, which differ as much as French from Japanese, for example.

If two languages ​​develop from a single one and lead to such a big difference, then, Johanna Nichols estimates, it would take at least 6000 years for this process alone. And she estimates that it will take 60,000 years for those 143 languages ​​to develop from a single one.

This time of 60,000 years could be halved if one assumes several waves of immigration with different languages. That means: The first immigrants came to the New World about 30,000 years ago - which is in line with the assumption of geneticists who, on the one hand, discovered a genetic match between the indigenous people of Siberia and the majority of the North American Indians; on the other hand, DNA similarities between Europeans and a handful of Indian tribes in the north. The fact that there have been waves of immigration can be deduced from the degree of "genetic mixing" of the respective peoples.

The linguist Johanna Nichols goes even further with her theses: Since she identified the greatest linguistic diversity on the Pacific coast, she suspects that most people reached America along the western coastal strip. According to their latest research, however, the ancestors of the peoples east of the Rockies came into the country more than 22,000 years ago - that is, before the glacier maximum of the most recent Ice Age; their neighbors to the west did not follow until 10,000 years later.

Whatever anthropologists, archaeologists, geneticists and linguists will be bringing out of American soil into the light of day in the future? One thing is certain: that the continent was what it was to become again in the Stone Age: a "melting pot", a melting pot of peoples.