The idea that Native Americans had at least some ancestry from a trans-Atlantic migration has been around since the earliest days of American anthropology. The earliest proponents of this idea looked at the spectacular burial mounds and art from North America and insisted that they could not have been made by the ancestors of the indigenous (or as they put it, “primitive”) peoples they encountered. Obviously, they reasoned, a “Lost Race” of “Moundbuilders” (identified variously as Atlanteans, Europeans, and Israelites) must have been responsible for the great archaeological sites in North America. But systematic excavation of these sites has thoroughly debunked that idea.**
Nevertheless, an idea that there must be a European origin for at least some Native Americans has persisted in various forms. In its modern iteration, this idea is known as the “Solutrean Hypothesis.” The Solutrean hypothesis claims that the Clovis people, the makers of the earliest known stone tools in the Americas, were the cultural and biological descendants of the Solutrean peoples of southwest coastal Europe.
I have written before about why the genetic diversity present in contemporary and ancient Native Americans does not support this hypothesis (“Problematic science journalism: Native American ancestry and the Solutrean hypothesis”). Here, I want to discuss a new challenge to the Solutrean hypothesis that came out in the archaeological literature just today.
One artifact critically important to linking the Clovis peoples with the Solutrean culture is known as the Cinmar point. A bifacially flaked stone blade (see image below), this point was reported to have been dredged from the bottom of the Atlantic continental shelf near Virginia, along with mastodon remains dated to ~22,760 years before present. If valid, this date means that the Cinmar blade is older than any other known tool in the Americas, and its presence on the east coast would seem to be very convincing evidence for an early occupation there, consistent with the idea that people might have migrated across the Atlantic before any peoples moved into North America from Beringia. But since the tool itself isn’t directly dated, its association with the dated mastodon material is critical to its legitimacy. And since it was dredged up from the ocean by a ship, rather than carefully excavated under strict, controlled conditions, there have been a number of criticisms that this stone tool might not have been associated with the mastodon bone at all. It could have just as easily been pulled up from a much more recent layer of soil.
Anticipating these concerns, proponents of the Solutrean hypothesis have discussed the circumstances of the finding of the blade and mastodon remains in several places, including Lowrey’s 2009 dissertation, and Stanford and Bradley’s publications in 2012 and 2014. But an open-access paper out today in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Eren et al. ( “The Cinmar discovery and the proposed pre-Late Glacial Maximum occupation of North America”) issues a strong new challenge to this hypothesis by identifying some serious problems with the provenance of the Cinmar point.
Taking note of the multiple accounts (Lowrey et al. 2009, Stanford and Bradley 2012, and Stanford et al. 2014) of the discovery of the Cinmar materials that differ slightly in their particulars, Eren and colleagues carefully investigated the Cinmar materials’ history through maritime registration records, newspaper accounts, and interviews. They uncovered numerous serious discrepancies in the published account of the Cinmar biface discovery, which I’ve summarized below.
|The Cinmar biface and associated mastodon remains were on display in the Gwynn’s Island museum since 1974 or 1976, with a written label giving an account of their discovery and significance. They were discovered in the museum by Lowery in the spring of 2008 (well after the first publications proposing the Solutrean hypothesis: Preston 1997, Stanford 1999, Stanford and Bradley 2000).||Gwynn’s Island museum wasn’t founded until 1991. The museum’s website indicates that the Cinmar materials were loaned to the museum in 2002, 3 years after the Solutrean hypothesis was published. Prior to that, the Cinmar materials were in the possession of an artifact collector named Parker (a fact omitted from the Lowery 2009 and Stanford and Bradley 2012 accounts of the discovery).|
|The site where the Cinmar finds were dredged is precisely known.||There are no original nautical charts or logs currently known that show the location of the Cinmar finds. Its location must have been determined solely by a telephone interview with the captain, 40 years after the discovery. The captain died a month after the interview, so no further information can be obtained from him.|
|The Cinmar was a wooden dredger built in the 1950s and smaller than modern dredgers, as illustrated in a photograph published by Stanford and Bradley (2014). Its small size means that it would have dredged only a small region, so that the association of the Cinmar blade and mastodon remains must have been very close.||The Cinmar (more properly “Cin-Mar”) was constructed in 1963, and was one of the largest wooden-hulled vessels in the region. Its dimensions, engine power, and dredging capacities greatly exceed those provided by Stanford and Bradley. The photograph published by Stanford and Bradley may not be the Cin-Mar that discovered the biface and mastodon remains, and no other vessels named Cinmar were operating in the region. It is not clear where the photograph of a small vessel with the name “Cinmar” came from, or what boat it is actually depicting, and Stanford and Bradly refused to share the photograph with Eren et al.|
These discrepancies undermine the integrity of the purported association between the Cinmar biface and the mastodon remains, an association that is critical for accepting the Cinmar biface as legitimate evidence of a Solutrean occupation of the Atlantic coast. I think that it’s now essential that Lowery, Stanford, and Bradley address these discrepancies, and own up to any errors they may have published.
This might seem like just an obscure academic quibble, but the idea that Europeans contributed to Native American prehistory, whether genetically or technologically, has wide-ranging political and social implications. White nationalists like it because it gives them “scientific” justification for asserting primacy and manifest destiny, and conspiracy theorists like it because they see it as another example of mainstream archaeologists suppressing “the truth” (see comments here). I am emphatically not equating Stanford, Bradley, etc. with those people, but it’s important to understand their ideas both in the context of history, as I discussed briefly at the beginning of the post, and the ways in which their ideas are being used by unsavory folks to advance particular social agendas. That’s not their fault, of course. But I do criticize them for making incorrect statements about an artifact key to their hypothesis. It’s worth noting that Stanford and Bradly have recently claimed that an additional twelve bifaces are “Solutrean”, and that those claims have been robustly challenged because of similar problems with lack of context and provenance, as well as the fact that similar bifaces are routinely found throughout the Eastern Seaboard in mid-Holocene times. Eren et al.’ s new paper and other recent studies raise significant questions about the evidence for the Solutrean hypothesis, and even the viability of that hypothesis, and illustrate that there is very little, if any, verified evidence for it.
Lowery D. (2009) Geoarchaeological Investigations at Selected Coastal Archaeological Sites on the Delmarva Peninsula: The Long Term Interrelationship Between Climate, Geology, and Culture (Ph.D. dissertation) Department of Geology, University of Delaware.
Stanford D. (1999). Alternative views on the peopling of the Americas. Paper Presented at the Clovis and Beyond Conference, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Stanford D., Bradley B. (2000). The Solutrean solution Sci. Am. Discov. Archaeol., 2: 54–55
Stanford D., Bradley B. (2002). Ocean trails and prairie paths? Thoughts about Clovis origins. In: N. Jablonski (Ed.), The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World, San Francisco: Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco vol. 27: 255–271
Stanford D., Bradley B. (2012). Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture University of California Press, Berkeley.
Stanford D., Bradley B. (2014).Response to O’Brien et al. Antiquity, 88: 614–621
**Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson excavated a mound on his property in order to test this exact question, and was one of the first scholars to come to the conclusion that the people who built the mounds are the ancestors of contemporary Native Americans.