Brian Vastag, Washington Post, February 29, 2012
When the crew of the Virginia scallop trawler Cinmar hauled a mastodon tusk onto the deck in 1970, another oddity dropped out of the net: a dark, tapered stone blade, nearly eight inches long and still sharp.
Forty years later, this rediscovered prehistoric slasher has reopened debate on a radical theory about who the first Americans were and when they got here.
Archaeologists have long held that North America remained unpopulated until about 15,000 years ago, when Siberian people walked or boated into Alaska and then moved down the West Coast.
But the mastodon relic found near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay turned out to be 22,000 years old, suggesting that the blade was just as ancient.
Whoever fashioned that blade was not supposed to be here.
Its makers probably paddled from Europe and arrived in America thousands of years ahead of the western migration, making them the first Americans, argues Smithsonian Institution anthropologist Dennis Stanford.
“I think it’s feasible,” said Tom Dillehay, a prominent archaeologist at Vanderbilt University. “The evidence is building up, and it certainly warrants discussion.”
At the height of the last ice age, Stanford says, mysterious Stone Age European people known as the Solutreans paddled along an ice cap jutting into the North Atlantic. They lived like Inuits, harvesting seals and seabirds.
The Solutreans eventually spread across North America, Stanford says, hauling their distinctive blades with them and giving birth to the later Clovis culture, which emerged some 13,000 years ago.
When Stanford proposed this “Solutrean hypothesis” in 1999, colleagues roundly rejected it. One prominent archaeologist suggested that Stanford was throwing his career away.
But now, 13 years later, Stanford and Bruce Bradley, an archaeologist at England’s University of Exeter, lay out a detailed case — bolstered by the curious blade and other stone tools recently found in the mid-Atlantic — in a new book, “Across Atlantic Ice.”
At the core of Stanford’s case are stone tools recovered from five mid-Atlantic sites. Two sites lie on Chesapeake Bay islands, suggesting that the Solutreans settled Delmarva early on. Smithsonian research associate Darrin Lowery found blades, anvils and other tools found stuck in soil at least 20,000 years old.
Further, the Eastern Shore blades strongly resemble those found at dozens of Solutrean sites from the Stone Age in Spain and France, Stanford says. “We can match each one of 18 styles up to the sites in Europe.”
In 2007, Lowery, who also teaches at the University of Delaware, was hired by a landowner to survey property on Tilghman Island, Md., at a place called Miles Point. Almost immediately, Lowery saw a chunk of quarzite jutting out of a shore bank. It was an anvil, heavily marked from repeated beatings, a clear sign that it was used to make stone tools. Lowery dated the soil layer holding the anvil and other stone tools with two methods, radiocarbon dating and a newer technique, optical stimulated luminescence. Both returned an age of at least 21,000 years.
“We were like, geez . . . what the hell is going on here?” Lowery said.
Another site, 10 miles south, Oyster Cove, yielded more Stone Age artifacts. Those too, came out of soil more than 21,000 years old.
Lowery published the finds in 2010 in Quaternary Science Reviews, but the report made nary a ripple in the conservative world of archaeology, where new ideas tend to progress at a glacial pace. “People are going to think we’ve clearly gone off our rocker here,” Lowery remembers musing.
Stone tools recovered from two other mid-Atlantic sites — Cactus Hills, Va., 45 miles south of Richmond, and Meadowcroft Rockshelter, in southern Pennsylvania — date to at least 16,000 years ago. Those tools, too, strongly resemble blades found in Europe.
Little is known about the Solutrean people. They lived in Spain, Portugal and southern France beginning about 25,000 years ago. No skeletons have been found, so no DNA is available to study.
[SMU archeologist David] Meltzer is among those still skeptical of the Solutrean hypothesis, citing the scant evidence. “If Solutrean boat people washed up on our shores, they suffered cultural amnesia, genetic amnesia, dental amnesia, linguistic amnesia and skeletal amnesia. Basically, all of the signals are pointing to Asia” as the origin of the first Americans.
Since the 1930s, archaeologists have favored a single migration from Siberia to Alaska as the epic event that peopled the Americas about 13,000 years ago. Stone tools found at Clovis, N.M., and elsewhere, suggested that a single culture spread across much of the continent. This “Clovis first” idea became entrenched.
“People learned it in college and built careers on ‘Clovis first,’ ” Collins said. “They’re unwilling to turn it loose.”
But now they might have to adopt Stanford’s Europe-first slogan: “Iberia, not Siberia.”
However, Stanford acknowledges that his evidence is scant. He calls the Solutrean hypothesis “a skeletal idea.” And he worries that a rising sea might have washed away compelling evidence.