Did America's first migrants use boats?
New evidence challenges traditional theory of 'land bridge' from AsiaLos Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES - In a discovery that sheds new light on the human conquest of the New World, a team of scientists says that bones from an ancient woman who lived on the Channel Islands off Ventura County in Southern California might be the oldest human remains ever found in North America.
The extraordinary discovery provides important clues to a critical yet mysterious period in human history - the end of the last major ice age - when nomadic people began populating the Americas, but left little evidence about who they were or where they came from.
The woman's bones, subjected to recent re-examination after spending the better part of four decades in storage, join a growing body of ancient skeletal remains that challenge traditional theories that the first visitors came to North America from northern Asia by way of a land bridge to Alaska. The new evidence suggests that the first settlers could have been Polynesians or southern Asians who arrived by boat. Some of the recent remains have features more typical of Europeans, scientists say.
"The bottom line is that she may be the earliest inhabitant of North America we have discovered. It's a find of national significance," said John R. Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara museum, part of the team involved in the research.
The skeletal remains consist of two thigh bones scooped from a gully at Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island 40 years ago. They were tested in the 1960s and kept in their original soil before being encased in plaster and stored in the basement of the Santa Barbara museum. Researchers at the museum and Channel Islands National Park recently decided to subject the bones to sophisticated DNA and radiocarbon testing methods that were not available when the bones were discovered.
The tests were performed by Stafford Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colo., one of the nation's pre-eminent carbon dating labs. The results showed that the bones are probably 13,000 years old, 1,400 years older than previously thought. That would make the so-called Arlington Springs woman slightly older than the oldest known human skeletons in North America, which came from Montana, Idaho and Texas, scientists say.
Other members of the research team included scientists from the University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Radiocarbon Laboratory, and the National Park Service.
Results of the investigation have not been submitted to peers for critical review and have not been published in scientific journals. However, a paper describing the experiment, presented March 30 at the fifth California Islands Symposium at the Santa Barbara museum, has fueled excitement among leading scholars in the field.
Two sets of tests were performed on the bones and have produced differing estimates of their age. The first set produced a date of 11,000 years old.
A second set of tests revealed an age of about 13,000 years.
The bones from Santa Rosa Island join an exclusive group of skeletons from the very earliest people to arrive in the Western Hemisphere. In those days, the colonizers would have seen continent-size glaciers and woolly mammoths. The sea level was 120 meters lower than it is today. The northern Channel Islands near Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were joined in a contiguous land mass that scientists refer to as Santa Rosae.
The bones were found in a canyon on the island that ancient people have inhabited on and off for thousands of years. Until a couple of years ago, most scientists thought the earliest people to reach the New World arrived about 11,500 years ago, probably by walking across a land bridge where the Bering Strait now separates Alaska from Siberia. History books describe them and their descendants as the Clovis peoples, big game hunters who left stylized spear points that enabled archaeologists to track their migration south through parting glaciers along the Rocky Mountains into the present-day United States and Latin America.
But recent discoveries point to an earlier colonization of the Western Hemisphere. A campsite known as Monte Verde in southern Chile was occupied 12,500 years ago. At the Cactus Hill site in Virginia, scientists found stone tools and charcoal that may date back 15,500 years.
These discoveries challenge the theory that the first migrants slogged overland through passages in receding glaciers. Travel along that route would have been slow and perilous, and does not account for widespread distribution of humans at such an early date, the experts said.
Scientists increasingly postulate that the original colonizers of the New World might have taken a coastal route. Where glaciers stopped at the water's edge, protein-rich seafood was abundant and the visitors could travel by boats. The bones from the island woman bolster that hypothesis, said archaeologist Rob Bonnichsen, director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
"The broad significance is it puts humans in a maritime setting in western North America 13,000 years ago. It demonstrates the use of boats," Bonnichsen said. "This Arlington Springs find is really a significant find in terms of providing support for that larger theoretical idea."
The new discovery is likely to be controversial in part because many scientists say that the old skeletons found in the past few years around the western United States do not resemble modern American Indians. Detailed examination of the skulls reveal slender faces, narrower brain cavities, high foreheads and slightly protruding chins that are more typical of Caucasoid peoples.
Some of them bear striking resemblance to a very ancient race called the Ainu, a maritime people who were forerunners of Polynesian, - and long ago occupied Japan and China, said Douglas W. Owsley, head of the physical anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
In contrast, American Indians and their ancestors have features common to Eskimos and people of northern Asia, including round, flatter faces and pronounced cheekbones, Owsley said.
Many American-Indian groups strongly object to the theory that others got here first. In some cases, including one major one in the Northwest, tribes successfully have invoked the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to force researchers to return old skeletons for reburial before they can be tested.
Paul Varela, executive director of the Chumash Interpretive Center in Thousand Oaks, said oral traditions passed down through generations of Central Coast Indians confirm that they were the first inhabitants of California.
"If you ask a Chumash person, they will tell you they have been here forever. We've always been here," Varela said.
In part to resolve such questions, University of California, Davis anthropologist David Glenn Smith said he hopes to begin DNA testing by summer on bones from 18 very old North American skeletons, including the Arlington Springs woman. The testing would go far in determining the ancestry and closest living relatives of America's first inhabitants.