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Who Really Discovered America?

The Solutrean is the latest in a long line of theories about the discovery of the New World.

by Jason Colavito
Originally published in Skeptic 12.3 (Summer 2006).
> Read more in my FREE, expanded eBook Mysteries of Ancient America HERE

Pity poor North America, a land whose history can never be her own. For centuries scholars, prophets, and cranks have tried to prove that the continent did not belong to the native peoples who populated it when the European explorers first arrived. Instead, America's ancient monuments were assigned to a "lost race," her people declared a lost tribe of Israel, and the continent's first discovery credited to ancient Europeans, Atlanteans, or space aliens--anyone but the native Americans themselves.

Today, a pair of archaeologists believe that they have found evidence that finks ancient Noah America to Stone Age Europe. Since 1999, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution has been the most prominent spokesperson for the "Solutrean hypothesis," a theory that claims the first people to arrive in the New World came from prehistoric Spain and brought with them a distinctive way of making stone tools. In a paper presented in 2004, Stanford and his colleague Brace Bradley outlined the proposed route the Spaniards took on their trek to the Americas. (1) However, a closer look at the Solutrean hypothesis shows that the idea does not prove what its authors claim.

The Traditional View

The peopling of the Americas has been a controversial subject since Columbus. But scholars reached a rough consensus in the 20th century that nomadic hunters from eastern Siberia came to Alaska across the Bering Strait some 14,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, a time when sea levels were low enough to create a land bridge. These hunters followed herds of wooly mammoths and other large prehistoric animals (the wonderfully-named paleomegafauna). They traveled through an ice-free corridor in the Canadian Shield, between massive glaciers, into the heart of North America. From there they spread out across the unpeopled landscape and thereafter gave rise to the people we know as the American Indians.

Support for this idea came from an unexpected place--Clovis, New Mexico. In that out-of-the way corner of the desert in the 1930s, archaeologists discovered a distinctive type of stone point, known afterward as the "Clovis point." It was a spear tip, worked on both sides ("bifacial"). Clovis points had very distinctive characteristics. They were much taller than they were wide, had a concave base, and a long groove carved up the middle of both sides, called "fluting." This fluting allowed the point to be wedged into a slit in a wooden or bone shaft to create a spear. This innovation separated the Clovis point from nearly all other contemporary stone tool technologies, a magnificent accomplishment for the people who used these points between 10,500 and 9,000 BCE.

Clovis points were found throughout North America, although more often in the east. For over a millennium, it seems much of the continent used the same tools and hunted the same way. This became known as the Clovis culture, though whether it represented an actual cultural homogenization or just a sharing of a useful toolkit is not known. Because in the early 20th century Clovis points were the oldest artifacts discovered, it was argued that the Clovis people were first to inhabit the New World and that America's first human inhabitants were big game hunters--exactly what the Bering crossing hypothesis suggested.

The Solutrean Hypothesis

"Clovis-first" was the default position for most of the 20th century, and it still has supporters today. But as early as the 1930s, some began to propose that Clovis technology was not an American development. Archaeologist Frank Hibben noticed the similarities between Clovis points and the stone points made by prehistoric European people called the Solutreans. They had arisen in modern France and Spain around 25,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic, and were famous for their finely-worked flint tools and their art. They were replaced by the Magdalenian culture, whose stone tools were less sophisticated.

While other cultures simply hit one stone with another to chip away flakes by percussion, the Solutrean and Clovis peoples manufactured stone tools by a distinctive technique called "pressure flaking," which used a sharp instrument for precision knapping of the stone. The Solutreans developed this technology around 20,000 BCE and spread across Western Europe before disappearing around 14,500 BCE (the dates vary slightly depending on whom you ask). Hibben believed the similarities with the later Clovis points showed that the Solutreans had peopled North America and brought their tools with them. (2) Strangely, however, little else of the Solutrean lifestyle, such as their art, came to the Americas with them.

Not long after the Solutrean hypothesis was proposed, however, archaeologists dismissed the idea with three arguments: (1) though both cultures used pressure flaking, Solutrean points were not fluted like the Clovis points--many Solutrean tools had a roughly diamond shape while Clovis points often had a concave bottom; (2) the Solutreans, who had no boats, had no way to get to North America; (3) most important, there was a gap of thousands of years between the latest Solutrean points and the earliest Clovis points--it seemed chronologically impossible for the Solutreans to have given rise to Clovis.

By the late 1930s, anthropologist Theodore McCown further noted that linguistic ambiguity created a false similarity to those trained only in the archaeology of North America or that of Europe. The very word Solutrean had come to mean both the pressure flaking technique and the culture of prehistoric Spain. Since the word now had two meanings, it was sometimes hard for non-specialists to know in which sense the word was being used. Clovis points may very well have used a Solutrean pressure-flaking technique, but that did not necessarily make them a relative of the Spanish points. (3) (There are only so many ways to make a stone tool, so perhaps it is inevitable that some techniques will resemble one another.) Only later was the term Solutrean restricted to a specific culture.

Lacking any firm evidence, the hypothesis died a quick death.

New Challenges to Clovis-First

In the second half of the 20th century, new challenges to the Clovis-first theory began to undermine archaeology's traditional view of ancient America. Sites with anomalous findings began to appear with dates older than the oldest known Clovis sites. Although the media would often hype these findings as overturning the established theory about the peopling of the Americas, many archaeologists rejected the sites out of hand while others cautioned that more work was needed before abandoning the Clovis-first paradigm.

Though several of the ancient sites would later turn out to be younger than first thought, a few made a compelling case for a peopling of the New World before Clovis. Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, in Pennsylvania, seemed to show continual use stretching from the colonial period back to 18,000 BCE or earlier. Many archaeologists accept the Meadowcroft site as valid, but others claim contamination has tainted the dating.

The site of Monte Verde, Chile, however, offered the best proof for a pre-Clovis settlement in America. Radiocarbon dated to around 10,500 BCE or earlier, the site was older by a thousand years than Clovis sites in the Americas. As archaeologist Brian Fagan told Archaeology magazine, the age of the site was "so unexpected that some archaeologists, this reviewer among them, wondered if the site really was an undisturbed cultural layer. We were wrong. Dillehay (the excavator) has proved Monte Verde is a settlement, probably at the threshold of colonization of the Americas." (4)

For people to be in South America that early implied that they must have been in North America even earlier. This pushed back the likely date for human arrival in the New World by millennia. After heated debate, a blue-ribbon panel declared the Monte Verde site valid. (5) In another blow to the Clovis-first theory, Monte Verde's evidence indicated that plant-based foods were more important than big game hunting to the early peoples, an indication that the first Americans may not have followed big game to the New World.

These challenges to Clovis-first created a rush of new theories about how and when the first people came to the Americas. A new batch of ideas proposed numerous routes from Asia to America. Many of these new theories favored some type of Pacific crossing by boat anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 years ago. A plausible alternative to the ice corridor migration is that the first migrants arrived by hugging the coasts and sailing from Asia to America. This theory predicted the oldest sites would be found on the coast instead of the interior of North America. Ironically, this helped explain why Monte Verde was found along the coast of South America. After the end of the Ice Age, ocean levels rose, drowning coastal sites in North America, but preserving those in South America, where coasts eroded less.

By the end of the 20th century it was generally believed that the New World was populated by waves of immigrants from Asia to America, traveling at intervals from the remote past to the very recent present. The last wave before the European conquest--the Inuit and Eskimos of the Arctic--arrived around 1000 CE. There was no one migration but instead a series of migrations over millennia. However, new controversies arose over whether at least one of those migrations came from Europe.

The New Solutrean Solution

The Solutrean connection lay dormant for almost six decades, until Stanford resurrected it at a 1999 conference. With the acceptance of Monte Verde, the time was right for challenging old theories about the peopling of the Americas. Moreover, in July 1996, a skeleton uncovered in Kennewick, WA, raised anew the idea that Europeans had colonized the continent before the ancestors of today's Native Americans.

Initial reports said Kennewick Man, as the bones became known, had "Caucasoid" features. Confusing an obsolete technical term for skull shape for the racial category "Caucasian," some commentators and activists said Kennewick Man proved white Europeans were "really" the first Americans. These commentators were unaware that skull shapes vary greatly both among individuals and through time. A U.S. government investigation determined that the Kennewick remains were Native American and around 7,000 to 9,000 years old. (6)

The controversy did not die down, and today several groups ranging from scholars to neo-Norse Pagans to Aryan supremacists still cite Kennewick as proof for prehistoric European colonization of America. Though the bones were dated to around 7200 BCE and were too young to be even Clovis, the door was open for new claims about Paleolithic European voyages to the New World. The Smithsonian's Dennis Stanford and his colleague Bruce Bradley seized the moment to propose the long-abandoned Solutrean solution anew.

Essentially, the two researchers repeated and expanded Hibben's claims about the similarity between Solutrean and Clovis technologies. First, they noted that no Siberian tools had fluting like the Clovis technology, ruling out Asia as a source for the Clovis culture. "Years of research in eastern Asia and Alaska have produced little evidence of any historical or technological connection between the Asian Paleolithic (Stone Age) and Clovis peoples," they wrote. (7) That the Solutreans lacked fluting posed fewer challenges, however, since other morphological evidence would serve to connect them to Clovis.

They also cited the similarity in tool kits--the scrapers and knives prehistoric hunters used to chop up big game. They argued that the Solutreans must have originated these points and tools and bequeathed them to the Clovis people. Though the Solutreans had a greater variety of tools, the Clovis people had nothing that was not paralleled in Solutrean finds. In short, because they looked alike, there must be a connection. (8)

To do Hibben one better, Stanford and Bradley incorporated the new pre-Clovis sites into their hypothesis. They claimed these new sites proved the relationship by showing that pre-Clovis technology was even closer to the Solutrean and "could represent transitional technology between Solutrean and Clovis." (9) The fluting seen in Clovis points was therefore an American development from stone tools even more similar to the Solutrean. Thus, Clovis was not a copy of the Solutrean but an outgrowth from it. (10) Why the fluting could not be a development from earlier Asian technologies is less clear.

The Solutrean hypothesis met with immediate criticism from experts like G. L. Straus and G. A. Clark, who found it lacking, just as an earlier generation discarded it after its first proposal. But even accepting the idea on its face presented logical problems that were difficult to overcome.

Factual Problems

First, the evidence seems weighted against a European origin for early Americans. There is not a single artifact or set of human remains from the time period that is unambiguously European. Remember, Kennewick Man, even if he were European, was thousands of years too late.

Also, today's native North Americans have clear genetic origins in Asia, not in Europe. Stanford and Bradley attempt to refute this by pointing to research on a type of mitochondrial DNA called haplogroup X, a genetic marker, which is found in a higher frequency in Asian populations than either Native American or European populations. (11) Superficially, this would seem to show a link between Native Americans and Europeans.

However, since the first migrants to the Americas were likely few in number, well-known evolutionary mechanisms like the founder effect and other forms of genetic bottlenecking could have easily affected the frequency of haplogroup X. In fact, after examining the mitochondrial DNA code instead of its relative frequency, a 2002 study linked the Native American haplogroup X genetically to that found in Siberia. This clearly tied Native Americans to Asia and not Europe. (12) All other genetic data to date have confirmed the Asian link.

Second, the old questions from the 1930s about the Solutrean connection still remain unanswered. Why were Clovis points fluted when the Solutrean points were not? What were they doing for the thousands of years that separate the Solutrean and Clovis cultures? How did the Solutreans come to North America if they are not known to have boats? Bradley and Stanford propose that the Solutreans arrived by traveling along the edge of the great Ice Age glaciers. (13) Their boats, if they had them, simply failed to survive in the archaeological record.

For the other questions, Stanford and Bradley have a convoluted explanation. Essentially, they concede that Clovis was not the first North American culture. Earlier cultures, such as that represented at Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, had unfluted points that may be transitional from Solutrean to Clovis. (14) Thus, for thousands of years the Solutreans hung out in the Americas gradually developing Clovis technology.

This raises an obvious logical problem. If Stanford and Bradley admit that there were cultures in America before Clovis, and if they concede that Clovis points may have developed from previous stone tools used in the Americas, why bother with a Solutrean origin at all? Weren't the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, known to scholars as Paleoindians, intelligent enough to invent their own tools? Unfortunately, since there are so few pre-Clovis sites, it is difficult to say how closely the earlier stone tools matched their alleged Solutrean counterparts, so a true test of this still awaits the proverbial turn of the spade.

Logical Problems

But let us accept for a moment, as a thought experiment, that Stanford and Bradley are right that Clovis stone tools are clearly derived from Solutrean predecessors. Would this prove that prehistoric Spaniards migrated to the New World and made a new life on a new continent, as the authors claim? (14) Even accepting the identification of Clovis and Solutrean stone tools, one cannot logically deduce this conclusion.

First, technology is not identical with culture, and culture is not identical with genetic or geographic origins. To take a slightly exaggerated example, one can travel into the Amazon rain forest or the Kalahari Desert and find tribes whose members wear Nike merchandise. Does this mean that these people are from the United States? That is what the cultural origins of their clothing would tell us. But since the labels on their clothes tell us the garments were made in China, does that make these people Chinese?

Following Stanford's and Bradley's logic, we must conclude that these people are Chinese since for them cultural indicators like stone tools or Nike sneakers must travel with the people who invented them. Their logic precludes handing these indicators from person to person across a great chain of interaction, commerce, and trade. In short, if the Clovis people did use Solutrean technology, it does not necessarily make them Spaniards.

However, since there is no likely Atlantic trade route from Spain to America until the Arctic was peopled around 3000 BCE, our thought experiment forces us to consider that Solutreans did come to America. But again, assuming a Clovis-Solutrean connection does not prove that these people were one and the same.

Let us imagine Stanford's and Bradley's hearty band of Solutreans traveling along the edge of the glaciers and arriving in the Americas. These Solutreans discover a thriving population of Paleoindians and share their technology with them. The Paleoindians jump for joy that the Spaniards have brought their benighted people pressure-flaked stone tools and eagerly share the new technology with all their friends. The Solutreans, disillusioned that there are so many Paleoindians to share in the mammoths and mastodons, turn around and go home. Thus technology, but not people or genes, has traveled to the New World.

It is because of this possibility that Stanford and Bradley indirectly expose the weakness of their argument in the abstract of their recent paper: "Evidence has accumulated over the past two decades indicating that the earliest origin of people in Noah America may have been from south-western Europe during the last glacial maximum. In this summary we outline a theory of a Solutrean origin for Clovis culture and briefly present the archaeological data supporting this assertion." (15)

Notice the misdirection: impersonal "evidence" shows the first North Americans came from Europe, but the authors merely suggest Clovis "culture" came from the Solutrean. The two are not the same, and the authors know that one does not prove the other, however much they wish to imply it. But since the authors previously admitted, and archaeology accepts, that Clovis was not the first North American culture, even a Solutrean origin for Clovis does not contribute to the claim that the "earliest origin" people in the New World came from Spain.

Under the most favorable interpretation, they can prove little more than diffusion. Under no interpretation does the theory make Europeans America's first colonists.

A More Likely Story

For the moment there is no clear evidence relating Solutreans to the Clovis people--or any earlier people of North America. Anthropologist G. A. Clark makes a compelling case that the similarities between the two cultures are coincidental, the result of two independent peoples stumbling across similar solutions when faced with similar problems in hunting ancient big game. (16) It has happened before. The bow and arrow were developed independently in the Americas and in the Old World. Writing developed on its own in the ancient Near East, in the ancient Far East, and in Mesoamerica. Witness, too, the mountains of paper devoted to supposed connections between Old and New World pyramid building and mummification.

As anthropologist Lawrence Guy Straus told National Geographic, "One of the great failings of archaeology ... is a continuous falling back on the notion that if a couple of things resemble one another, they have to have the same source. But these similarities appear and reappear time and again in different places." (17)

The Solutrean hypothesis is simply the latest in a long string of ideas that have sought the ultimate origins of American history in other lands. Since the first explorations of the New World, researchers have tried to tie the continent's history back to Europe, as if to fulfill a need to own America's most distant past as well as its present.

The Clovis culture was likely an indigenous creation, a product of some very clever people working with what they had thousands of years ago. Until there is physical evidence that ties the ancient Americas to Europe, there can be no justification for continuing to deny Native Americans their history, their culture, and their accomplishments.



(1.) Bradley, Bruce and Dennis Stanford. 2004. "The North Atlantic Ice-Edge Corridor: A Possible Paleolithic Route to the New World." World Archaeology 36(4): 459-478.

(2.) Holden, Constance. 1999. "Were Spaniards Among the First Americans?" Science 286: 1467-1468.

(3.) McCowen, Theodore D. 1939. "That Magic Word, Solutrean." American Antiquity 5(2): 150-152.

(4.) "Monte Verde under Fire." 1999. Archaeology (Online Feature). http://www.archaeology.org/online/features /clovis/

(5.) "Monte Verde under Fire," 1999.

(6.) National Park Service Archaeology and Ethnology Program. 2004, May. http://www.cr.nps.gov/aad/kennewick/

(7.) Stanford, Dennis and Bruce Bradley. 2000. "The Selutrean Solution--Did Some Early Americans Come from Europe?" Discovering Archaeology, February. Reprinted in Clovis and Beyond. http://www.clovisand beyond.org/articles1.html

(8.) Stanford and Bradley, 2000.

(9.) Holden, 1999, 1468.

(10.) Holden, 1999, 1468.

(11.) Stanford and Bradley, 2000.

(12.) Malhi, Ripan and David Glenn Smith. 2002. "Brief Communication: Haplogroup X Confirmed in North America." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 119: 84-86.

(13.) Bradley and Stanford, 2004.

(14.) Bradley and Stanford, 2004.

(15.) Bradley and Stanford, 2004.

(16.) Clark, G. A. 2000. "Deconstructing the North Atlantic Connection." Current Research in the Pleistocene, 16.

(17.) Parfit, Michael. 2000, "Hunt for the First Americans." National Geographic, December: 40-67, 61.

2006 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.