Europeans colonise America first?
the end of the Palaeolithic period, around 21,000 years ago, humans
living in what is now France and Spain, developed a very finely crafted
and technically sophisticated lithic technology, referred to as the
Solutrean industry (from the type site in the Solutrè region of eastern France).
The people who developed this new technology were probably the same
people who executed the beautiful cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux
(right) and other cave sites that also date from the Upper Palaeolithic.
Their innovations are thus seen as part of the first flowering of
human artistic expression that has survived.
Although humans had been making finely flaked
bifaces (“hand axes”) of the Acheulian type for hundreds of
thousands of years, the new Solutrean flint technology was far superior
to anything that had been seen before.
Many of the implements produced were arrow heads and spear
points, usually leaf shaped, and exceptionally thin in cross section.
Some examples are shown below.
To make these lanceolate (leaf-shaped) points,
the Solutrean people developed an exceptionally deft technique of
pressure flaking – pressing with a soft tool such as an antler tine or
bone point – instead of striking directly with a soft or hard hammer.
There are other examples of this technique in prehistoric
implements but the Solutrean people raised this technique to an artform
where their arrowheads and spearpoints were as efficient as possible and
like many optimum designs - an aircraft’s wing, say – they also
exhibit a form of beauty.
The Solutrean technology is largely isolated in the
prehistoric record. It was
preceded by an industry based on Acheulian bifaces and scraper tools and
it was succeeded by the widespread adoption of microlith technology in
the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods.
It was the dominant technology for the relatively short space of
time around 21,000 years ago to around 15,000 years ago.
This relatively short time span, and the dates it
occupied, have given rise to one of the major controversies in the
history of lithic technology – did Europeans colonise America first?
The accepted view is that the first humans
colonised American around 16,000 years ago, from Asia, crossing the
Bering Straits via an ice bridge that was then in existence. The flint
implements made by these settlers are found at many places in the Unites
States and Central and South America (see examples below) notably Clovis
Points and Folsom Points . They,
too, are leaf-shaped and are made by a closely similar advanced knapping
technique based on pressure flaking.
The close similarity of the two lithic
technologies has led some archaeologists to suggest that it was not
Asians but Europeans who first colonised America, taking their Solutrean toolmaking
skills with them. Dennis
Stanford, an anthropologist with The Smithsonian Institution and Bruce
Bradley, an archaeologist with University of Exeter, put forward this
theory in a paper published in World Archaeology in 2004 and, in expanded form, in their book
‘Across Atlantic Ice’ (2012).
authors say, ‘Over the years, various scholars have noted similarities
between Clovis projectile points and "Solutrean" points, the
product of a Paleolithic culture on the north coast of Spain between
22,000 and 16,500 years ago. Little credence has been given to
suggestions of a direct connection between these technologies because of
the 4,500-year time gap between the last of Solutrean and the first of
Clovis, and because of doubts that people of the Upper Paleolithic could
navigate the Atlantic Ocean.’
‘But indirect evidence for Paleolithic ocean
travel has been mounting. Although no boats have been found, we now know
that by at least 40,000 years ago, watercraft carried a founding
population to Australia. By 28,000 years ago, flintknappers were
collecting raw materials from islands far off the Japanese coast. And
closer to Spain, Paleolithic peoples inhabited some of the Mediterranean
islands at least 14,000 years ago.’
‘Solutrean peoples could have used this knowledge
of watercraft to travel and exploit marine resources, which would have
been especially important during the last glacial maximum, about 18,000
years ago, when most of Europe was covered with ice and competition for
diminishing land resources must have been intense. Given these facts, we
believe the hypothesis of a western Old World ancestry for Clovis should
The theory is highly controversial and has been
robustly contested by archaeologists who continue to back the ‘out of
Asia’ theory. Some archaeologists have rejected the idea on the
grounds that the similarity in knapping is just a coincidence.
However, anyone who has practiced flint knapping themselves will
appreciate that to adopt such a specialised and difficult to manage
technique is very far from a natural outcome of lithic
development. Indeed, the whole trend of Mesolithic lithic
technology was in the opposite direction - away from elegant
time-consuming core tools towards utilitarian technologies like adzes
To investigate their idea Stanford and Bradley examined
archaeological collections in Spain, France, and Portugal, looking for
technological affinities between the European Upper Paleolithic and
Clovis. They say, ‘Our cursory examination revealed an amazing
correspondence between Solutrean and Clovis; in fact, Solutrean has more
in common with Clovis than with Paleolithic technologies that followed
it in Europe.'
and Clovis flintknappers used nearly identical stoneworking
technologies. We observed a high degree of correspondence between stone
and bone tools, as well as engraved limestone tablets, and caching of
extra large bifaces and other tool stock. The Solutrean toolkit is, with
a few exceptions, nearly identical to that of Clovis. Although some of
the Solutrean concave-base projectile points are heavily thinned, none
that we saw exhibited a well-developed Clovis-style flute. Clovis
assemblages lack shouldered points and the Solutrean laurel-leaf
There is clearly a PhD (or indeed several PhDs)
waiting for young archaeologists of the future who can settle this
dispute with evidence from the field.
Above: Dennis Standford and Bruce Bradley compare
Solutrean and Clovis blade technology.