The Peopling of the Americas Preconditions for the Initial colonization of the Americas

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The Peopling of the Americas

Preconditions for the Initial colonization of the Americas

  • Parent Population in Northeast Asia

  • Dependent on configuration of circumpolar ice sheets

  • Access to non-glaciated North America

  • Exposure of Bergingian land connection

  • dependent on advance of ice sheets and lower global sea level

  • possibility of sea borne movement

  • Exposure of habitable land areas in northwest North America

Expectations for Initial Colonization

  • New World populations should resemble ‘parent’ populations in northeast Asia, at least initially

  • Resemblance in biology and technology

  • Drift in both spheres should be expected over time.

  • Human impact on ecology of the New World may be striking.


  • Overland Routes:

  • Access via Beringia to Central Alaska refugium

  • Passage South through ‘Ice Free’ Corridor

  • May have been a two step process, pulsed by glacial advance and retreat

  • Oversea Passage:

  • Access via boats along Berring straits and down the Northwest Coast

  • Less obstacles to movement, probably associated with different economy

A Hunter’s Garden of Eden?

  • Effects of Human colonization in previously unoccupied environments:

  • No human competitors

  • Abundant ‘dumb’ animals

  • Often radical disruption of existing ecological relationships

Hunters in Paradise

  • No ethnographic analogy (again!)

  • New ecological relationships

  • potential for explosive population growth

  • large, shifting and mobile group territories, linked to movement of large (‘dumb’) animals

  • Potential for mass extinctions

  • Situation inherently unstable

  • Ecosystem will rapidly evolve toward more stable relationships

And so...

  • Potential for configurations of human culture and society that are unlike those known in the ethnographic present

  • Potentially rapid change in environmental and ecological conditions may make initial stage of colonization difficult to recognize and date.

Initial Colonization

Models and Chronologies

Short Chronology

  • Belief that the colonization of the Americas was a relatively recent event

  • Belief shattered by finds of obvious human tools in direct association with extinct Pleistocene fauna

  • Folsom, New Mexico 1926-27: discovery of 23 extinct bison with 19 in situ fluted points

Clovis as Industry of Earliest Inhabitations

  • Large, bifacially worked and fluted spear point as unique to the New World

  • Dates for Clovis tradition points fall in the range 11-12,000 BP

  • All later developments in the Americas arising from Clovis

  • Dates older than 12,000 BP are problematic


Long Chronology Models

  • Clovis: at an earlier date

  • Pre-Clovis Industries

  • Pre-projectile point model: Assumes earlier chopper/scraper industry, colonization by at least 30,000 BP

  • Early Bifacial Industries: Potential connections to Duktai Tradition and precursor industries in eastern Europe and Asia (Müller-Beck)

  • Very Early Man: Arrivals 50,000 BP or earlier

Müller-Beck Model

  • Development of biface industries in central Europe and Asia at 35,000 BP

  • associated with cold climate, big game hunting (Molodova, Kostyenki, etc.)

  • ~ 27,000 BP Emergence of Aurignacian Industries in Western Europe

  • biface industries persist in favorable areas Europe and Asia

  • ~20,000 BP Glacial Maximum makes northern Siberia and Beringia uninhabitable

  • 16,000-12,000, Aurignacia expansion into Siberia, disappearance of biface industries

‘Elephant House’


D’uktai Complex


Model Expectations

  • No occupation before about 28,000 BP

  • Earliest Stone working industry should be bifacial and should resemble Kostyenki, Aldan Valley Industries

  • Possible Second (later) Intrusion of assemblages with Aurignacian elements

  • No ‘Crude’ Industrial Stage

Archaeological Evidence

  • Northeast Asia: Aldan Valley Sites

  • Ezhantsy:

  • 30-35,000 BP, choppers, burins, small cores associated with Mammoth, Wooly Rhino, etc.

  • Verkhne-Troitskaya:

  • 23,500-18,300 BP, bifacial spear points, knives, burins, scrapers, associated with cold fauna [start of Diuktai tradition]

  • Diuktai Cave:

  • 13,000 BP, large assemblage of bifacial knives and points combined with abrupt retouch (Aurignacian) scrapers. [end of Diuktai tradition]

  • Alaska and the Yukon:

  • Bluefish Caves (Yukon)

  • collagen dates 12,000-15,000 BP

  • Biface trimming flakes, micro blades, wedge-shaped scrapers

  • Cold megafauna: mammoth, horse, caribou, bison

  • Dry Creek Sites (Alaska)

  • 11,200 BP

  • Cobble and flake tools, blades, bifaces, similar to Dyukhtai tradition sites in Siberia

Nenana Complex

Denali Complex

PalaeoIndian Industries

  • South America:

  • Tibitó, Columbia:

  • 11,740 +/- 110 BP, Mastodon, horse, deer

  • Cerro La China, Argentina:

  • 10,720 BP, classic biface dominated assemblage with ‘fish-tail’ points

  • Monte Verde, Chile:

  • 12,450 +/- 150 BP, flake assemblage associated with stream side huts.

Monte Verde

Monte Verde -- Structures

Biological Evidence

  • Dental Morphology: Sinodonty

  • Argument that most New World populations share affinity with a North Asian populations

  • Features not shared with Lake Baikal peoples or Stone Age Ukraine, or modern Chinese (split estimated at 20,000 years ago)

  • Genetic:

  • Studies of South American native populations suggest 1) groups probably arose from a single founder population, 2) initial population shared a single source in Northeast Asia

  • Possibility that earliest colonists genetically more distant from modern Amerinds

Sinodonts and Sundadonts

Linguistic Evidence

  • Geographical Distribution and formal characteristics of Languages suggest three distinct migrations to the New World

  • 1. Initial Amerind language superfamilies pre- 11,000 BP

  • 2. Na-Dene (Athabascan, etc.) between 9,000 and 5,000 BP

  • 3. Aleut-Eskimo roughly 4,000 BP

Current State of the Debate

  • Scarcity of unambiguous sites prior to 13,000 BP

  • May be due to small numbers of initial colonists and effects of later glacial advances

  • Early dates in South America

  • Possible support for multiple migrations into North America

  • Increased consideration of water-borne entry into North America

  • Very little support for either very early occupation or for initially ‘crude’ assemblages

  • although possibility of non-big game focused adaptations.

So What About Colonization from Western Europe?

The Solutrean Hypothesis

The Solutrean

Solutrean Hypothesis

  • Similarities in Bifacial tool working technologies of Solutrean of Western Europe and PaleoIndian Clovis.

  • Migration across ice-laden northernmost Atlantic on foot or by boat

  • Ritual usage of red ochre

Würm: circa. 20,000 BP

Contra Arguments

  • Chronology:

  • Solutrean (21,000-16,500 BP) predates earliest Clovis industry (circa 12,000 BP) by 5,000 yrs

  • “Pre-Clovis” non-fluted biface industry at Meadowcroft shelter, dates to 18,000 BP

  • Technology:

  • similarities are superficial, and can be accounted for by technological convergence.

  • Substantial differences in technique (most Solutrean formed on blades)

  • No fluting flakes in Solutrean

  • Impoverished bone/antler industry in Clovis

  • Geography:

  • Solutrean limited in distribution to Spain and southern France.

  • During Late Glacial Maximum (circa 18,000 BP), whole of northwest Europe unoccupied, including southern Britain.

  • Straight transatlantic crossing from Iberia, 5,000 km!

  • Subsistence:

  • Deep sea fishing or marine mammal exploitation necessary for transatlantic migration.

  • While coastal Solutrean sites do evidence mollusc collection and harvesting anadromous fish, no evidence for marine mammal exploitation, even though animals are present

  • Art and Ornamentation:

  • Red ochre used universally as important pigment

  • Paucity of representational art in Clovis compared to Solutrean

Another Theory for the Dust Heap?

  • Narrow focus on Solutrean, as opposed to more wide spread Bifacial tool traditions (e.g. Müller- Beck).

  • There were wide spread, high latitude hunters across much of EurAsia using bifacial industries.

  • Successful prehistoric circum-arctic adaptations

  • Colonization of Greenland, Iceland(?)

  • The Political Dimension: Was the early colonization of America achieved by Europeans or Asians?

  • Implications for “Native American” politics

And In The End …

  • Most likely that the colonization of the New World came from East Asia via Beringia.

  • Colonization may well have followed by land and sea routes, or a combination of the two

  • Initial colonization occurred prior to 12,000 BP, and quite possibly before 20,000 BP

  • Very likely that colonization occurred in several steps or pulses.

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