Across Atlantic Ice: the origin of America's Clovis culture by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley iv + 319 pp., 80 figs, 6 tablesUniversity of California Press, Berkeley 94704, USA or via John Wiley and Sons Ltd, European Distribution Centre, New Era Estate, Oldlands Way, Bognor Regis PO22 9NQ, England, 2012, £24.95 (hbk), ISBN 978-0520227835
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 212–213, March 2013
How to Cite
Anderson, A. (2013), Across Atlantic Ice: the origin of America's Clovis culture by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley iv + 319 pp., 80 figs, 6 tablesUniversity of California Press, Berkeley 94704, USA or via John Wiley and Sons Ltd, European Distribution Centre, New Era Estate, Oldlands Way, Bognor Regis PO22 9NQ, England, 2012, £24.95 (hbk), ISBN 978-0520227835. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 212–213. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_3
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
In 2004 I was asked to review conflicting referee reports for a paper submitted to World Archaeology which, very sensibly, the editor was inclined to publish on the ground that however radical a scholarly hypothesis might be it ought to see the light of day. The paper, predictably, was very soon embroiled in debate and then largely disappeared from mainstream discussion. Now it is back. In this book, Stanford, Curator of Archaeology and Director of the Paleo-Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution, and Bradley, Associate Professor of Archaeology, Director of the Experimental Archaeology Programme at Exeter University, and a lithic technology specialist, have updated their material and added refinement and abundant detail to their hypothesis. They contend that the distinctive Clovis technology of North America originated in the Solutrean culture of southwest Europe at the height of the last glacial expansion, and was transported across the Atlantic by maritime hunters moving along the edge of the transoceanic ice-sheet. They call this the ‘Solutrean hypothesis’ and it is starkly different from the conventional view that the Americas were colonized from Siberia, either on foot across the Beringian land-bridge and then through an ice-free corridor east of the main cordillera, or by boat along the Pacific coast.
Stanford and Bradley do not deny the possibility that some terminal Pleistocene migration to North America occurred from east Asia, but they contend that there was, at least, also some colonization, probably earlier, from western Europe. The Solutrean hypothesis arises from a strong similarity between projectile points with indented bases that occur both in the Spanish Solutrean, 18–25,000 years ago and North American pre-Clovis sites, especially in the eastern states, such as Cactus Hill dated about 16,000 years ago.
Much of Across Atlantic Ice—in fact about three-quarters of the volume—is an extended technological argument which aims to show, on the one hand, that an Asian origin of Clovis assemblages is improbable and, on the other hand, that modern lithic analysis, in particular, places the distinctive common attributes of Clovis and Solutrean assemblages beyond coincidence. The argument flows logically and understanding it is enhanced substantially for non-specialists in lithics, by an introductory chapter explaining the terms and techniques involved in analysing flaked stone technology. The authors argue that the Asian origin model is doubtful because Beringian lithic traditions of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition exhibit very little of the large-flake bifacial technology exemplified by Clovis. In addition, the pre-Clovis sites in North America have lithic technologies with indented-base points, that appear to be ancestral to Clovis.
Turning to the Solutrean comparison, Stanford and Bradley compile an impressive dossier of evidence. Their cluster analysis of early Paleo-American tool types with Beringian and European assemblages shows a clear distinction between American and Beringian against European, which favours the conventional out-of-Asia hypothesis, but analysis by lithic technology, centred on the characteristic overshot flaking technique, groups pre-Clovis clearly with Solutrean. Wider cultural comparisons also show some intriguing similarities, for example in the spear motifs incised on stones. Some pre-Clovis sites in North America are also dated, although still controversially, to around 20,000 years ago, overlapping with the Solutrean-Age range. Out of these various sources of evidence the authors conclude (p.184) that, ‘the technological, behavioural and dating evidence overwhelmingly support the theory that the fluted-point traditions in North America derived from a regional and chronological variant of the Solutrean cultures of southwestern Europe’.
So far, so good; but the sea-elephant in the room is how that could have been accomplished. It is not difficult to accept that Solutrean subsistence was turning to greater reliance upon coastal resources, including large marine mammals, even if these are barely represented in Solutrean sites. Stanford and Bradley argue that the coastal hunting stations, and possibly base camps, in the Bay of Biscay were in areas now drowned by post-glacial eustasy. It is quite possible, as the authors argue, that the hard-rock coast and the margins of the pack-ice north of Iberia were suitable habitats for seal rookeries, given that they were within the flow of the Gulf Stream. Further northwest, however, the sea temperatures at the LGM may have been too cold and deep to support fish and seals at comparable densities. Even conceding sufficient subsistence resources, the distances to be travelling along the edge of the ice-pack are huge. Plotting the two proposed routes from off the north Iberian coast to the Grand Banks, shown in their figure 9.4, on Google Earth (thus, very much minimum distances) suggests that the shorter is about 4000 km, the longer about 4700 km. Having to hunt most days, being often weather-bound, and with the intervention of various family and other contingencies, would mean that, even travelling on every possible day, the journey on foot was likely to take four-to-six months. If resource abundance declined westward then a powerful motivation existed to return before even half the journey was over. This, of course, does not mean that it was impossible or did not happen. Exploratory instincts can be powerful, but a successful colonizing propagule would need to be quite large—probably in excess of 30 people—and gender balanced, and the high risk of failure in leaving familiar hunting grounds and venturing far along the ice-front must have been obvious from the outset.
In the current context, the issue of whether Solutrean explorers were competent seafarers naturally arises. Stanford and Bradley think they were, but there is no evidence either way in north Atlantic and west European archaeology. Appeal to other regions is not a particularly useful tactic. Clearly sea travel of up to a few hundred kilometres offshore occurred in the western Pacific more than 45,000 years ago, but the great advantage of bamboo rafts, even if they were only natural clumps, in supporting a substantial cargo weight, together with the warmest sea and air temperatures on earth and very short passage times (most not necessarily longer than a day or two), are no useful basis for comparison (Anderson, 2010, The origins and development of seafaring: towards a global approach, pp. 3–16 in A. Anderson, et al. (eds) The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring. McDonald Institute Monographs, Cambridge). Other arguments for more sophisticated early voyaging in the western Pacific are difficult to validate. A recent and widely accepted hypothesis that there was systematic tuna fishing at 42,000 years ago in Timor (O'Connor et al., 2011, Pelagic fishing at 42,000 years), is fatally flawed by the failure to identify any tuna at the site in question and by the related probability that the small specimens of Scombridae that were identified were more probably inshore fish such as scombrid mackerel. Offshore travel that suggests advanced maritime capability is essentially a Holocene phenomenon, as many examples cited by Stanford and Bradley show.
Where does that leaves us? The case for some connection between Solutrean and Paleo-Indian has been well-made, and, some aspects of it, including the lithic technology comparison and a genetic argument, look to be rather convincing. Inasmuch as the authors do not reject the possibility of an Asian connection, although they have it later than conventional wisdom asserts, there is no need to set one hypothesis against the other. Skin-boat technology probably did exist by the terminal Pleistocene, as suggested by sites of this age on islands along the Norwegian coast (for instance H. B. Bjerck 1995, The North Sea continent and the pioneer settlement of Norway, in A. Fischer (ed.) Man and the Sea in the Mesolithic, pp. 131–144), at a time when the Fennoscandian ice-cap was still extensive, so the implicit model of a pioneering population moving by sea along an ice-front is not outlandish. It is, in any case, envisaged in the Pacific coastal route for settlement of the Americas. Yet, crossing the north Atlantic by way of an immensely long ice front, especially if watercraft were not available, remains beyond my sense of what a Solutrean clan might have attempted, given the sheer distance and its prior unknowability, the environmental harshness and the logistics involved. Nevertheless, Stanford and Bradley have done a thorough job in constructing and defending an hypothesis which, though still conjectural, might turn out to be archaeologically demonstrable. It should be taken seriously and tested systematically by adherents of opposing views.