Evidence grows N. America's first colonizers were European
LONDON Stone Age Europeans were the first trans-Atlantic sailors. Columbus and the Vikings were mere ocean-crossing latecomers, according to a leading American anthropologist. Dennis Stanford, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, says Neolithic fishermen and hunters sailed the Atlantic in tiny boats made of animal skins 18,000 years ago and colonized the eastern United States.
Such a journey would represent one of the most astonishing migrations ever undertaken the Earth was then in the grip of the Ice Age and much of its high northern and southern latitudes were desolate wastelands blasted by storms and blizzards.
On the other hand, much of the planet's water was locked in icecaps and glaciers, and sea levels would have been much lower than today's. The edges of the continents would have extended further into the oceans.
"The gap between Europe and America was greatly reduced," Stanford said. "It could have been quite feasible for fishermen and whale and seal hunters to sail around the southern rim of the packs of sea-ice that covered the North Atlantic and reach land around the Banks of Newfoundland."
Stanford's theory outlined at a recent archaeology conference in Santa Fe, N.M. is based on discoveries indicating ancient American people were culturally far more like the Neolithic tribes of France, Spain and Ireland than the Asian people whom scientists had previously thought to be the sole prehistoric settlers of North America.
Stanford also points out although modern Native Americans possess DNA similar to that of Asians, they also carry some variants found only in European people. This genetic input could only be explained by accepting Stone Age people could sail ocean-going boats, he said.
"We now know that human beings learned to sail 50,000 years before the present," he said. "Mankind settled in Australia then and it was not linked by any land bridge to Asia. It could only have been reached by boat. Clearly, we had mastered sailing tens of thousands of years before America was colonized, so we should not be surprised by the idea that people took boat trips across the Atlantic 18,000 years ago."
The theory that prehistoric Europeans colonized America was first put forward in the 1950s by archaeologist Frank Hibben, but was discredited by evidence supporting the notion the continent was populated 20,000 to 15,000 years ago by Asian migrants who walked across the land bridge then linking Siberia with Alaska, and who then trekked south through the continent.
Stanford does not disagree Asian folk colonized ancient America, but argues current genetic and archaeological evidence shows an influx of Europeans must also have taken place. The prime candidates for these migrants are the Solutrean people who lived in Spain 23,000 to 18,000 years ago and later colonized parts of France and Ireland.
They designed and made beautifully crafted fluted stone blades that bore a striking similarity to those made by the Clovis people who lived in America 11,000 years ago. Like the Clovis, the Solutreans made stone scrapers to prepare hides and kept stores of stone implements, buried in red ocher, round the countryside. These ancient Spaniards therefore must have been among the first New World settlers, Stanford says. Native Americans are Iberian, not Siberian, in origin.
The theory's main problem stems from the fact an Atlantic crossing in tiny Ice Age boats would have been an awesome undertaking. However, Stanford argues it would have been a less arduous undertaking than might be expected. "If a storm arrived, they would have camped on an ice island until the weather got better. Eventually they would have drifted west until they reach eastern America," he said.