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24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

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Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley with a Clovis spear point
BBC Two, Thursday 21 November, 9pm
Stone Age Columbus
Next on Horizon
Homeopathic medicine defies scientific logic. How can diluting a drug make it more potent? In Homeopathy: The Test, Horizon pits sceptics against believers.

Stone Age Columbus - questions and answers

What was the Ice Age climate like in southern France/Spain?

During the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago the climate was a lot colder and drier than now. In southern France one could expect summer temperatures of between 5-10°C and winter temperatures dropping below -20°C. Even so, there were three basic land types that had their own advantages and disadvantages for people:

  • Wide coastal plain that was probably an open grass land with sparse vegetation
  • Uplands that would have been much like the Arctic tundra today
  • Inland valleys that were well sheltered and supported milder and more protected climates

What evidence is there that the Solutreans were a sea faring race?

It is not really correct to think of the Solutreans as a sea faring people, any more than we think of the modern Inuit of the Arctic as sea faring. A more proper term is maritime. This means that people were focused on marine resources and had the knowledge and ability to make their living on the margins of these, as well as inland. We have good evidence that Solutrean age people were well aware of and using marine resources along the shores of Spain and France; we find shell fish remains and seal bones in sites, as well as cave paintings of seals, auks, and ocean fish. We must remember that much of the ocean edge evidence is now under the sea on the ancient continental shelves that were exposed during Solutrean times. If we find evidence of maritime resources in Solutrean sites that would have been far from the beach. Imagine what we would find if we could investigate sites on the prehistoric ocean margins.

Why migrate west not south?

For Solutrean people in northern Spain and south western France, south was blocked by the glaciated peaks of the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa. In both cases, even had it been possible to traverse the mountains, south of them was a high, barren, wind-swept plain - a very uninviting and harsh area. We do see Solutrean-related people on and adjacent to the coasts of Portugal and Mediterranean Spain and France. Nevertheless, for people who live and are adapted to Arctic conditions going south was not the obvious option. The ice and sea were their garden and as the North Atlantic sea ice grew southward during the last Ice Age, it became one of the richest areas of sea life imaginable. West was the direction of plenty.

How far was the transatlantic journey 18,000 years ago?

The distance of the ice edge journey between land falls varied a lot from decade to decade and even season to season. At the maximum extent of North Atlantic winter sea ice, the distance between land was probably around three thousand kilometres. If you think of ice as different from land, this is quite a long way. However, to ice edge adapted people, ice is land. It has all that is needed for sustenance, freshwater, food, fuel, and with a bit of ingenuity, shelter from even the harshest conditions. Again, we need only look at the Inuit people to get an idea of what is possible.

Could people in an open boat and with few fuel reserves survive an extended period sailing through icefloes?

Boating along the ice and in ice floes gives ample protection from winds and high seas. If things get dicey, simply pull up on the ice and wait things out. We don't know what fuel reserves they may have had or needed. Seal, auk, and whale blubber is abundant in ice edge environments and has been used successfully as a fuel for thousands of years. Driftwood is also readily available along sea ice margins at times.

Were the Solutreans ahead of their time in many ways? How advanced were they?

In most ways, Solutrean people were a product of their times. They lived a typical late Pleistocene existence along with other cultures. What we do see, possibly related to the special environmental situation during the glacial maximum, is a tendency toward innovation. The Solutreans are credited with a number of technological innovations, such as the spear thrower, the bow and arrow, self-barbed spearhead, refined flaking techniques (eg pressure flaking) and with the beginning of maritime exploitation. It seems that the Solutreans represent one of those leaps forward in cultural development that mark the march of human advancement.

How dependable is the mitochondrial DNA analysis?

The research on human migrations has depended on many scientific disciplines. DNA research is complex and has many complications and qualifiers. The older samples are, the more difficult it is to obtain reliable results. In modern samples, a lot of assumptions have to be made about mutation rates and parent populations. Nonetheless, it is useful to make comparisons between different areas of the world to see what can be discovered. Current results are best regarded as preliminary, but nonetheless extremely interesting.

How far did the Europeans get in North America? Over the Bering Strait?

Assuming that Ice Age people did get from what is now southwestern Europe to North America, it is likely that they were the ancestors of what archaeologists call Clovis Culture. Clovis people spread throughout North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, and from northern South America to southern Canada. It is also clear that people entered North America from northeastern Asia and ultimately spread throughout the Americas. The answers really depend on when do we think of people as North Americans rather than Asians or Europeans? When do a people become native to a place?

If Clovis people came from Europe, has there ever been an influx to North America from Asia? How many influxes?

There is no question that people have been coming to the Americas from Asia for thousands of years. Anthropologists are certain of at least three major migrations from Asia over the last ten millennia, based on archaeological investigations. These just mark the major migrations; there has probably been a nearly continuous influx since the end of the Pleistocene. We must also consider that people have also been going in the other direction. The main difference between access from Europe and Asia is different geographical situations. Because of proximity of land, it has been possible for people to get from Asia to North America, with or without a land bridge, but it was only during the last Ice Age that a way was available for Stone Age people to arrive along an 'ice bridge' from Europe. As the glaciers receded and the sea rose, the means of travel between Europe and North America was cut off until the advent of true sea faring peoples.

Weblinks and bibliography
The First Americans
J M Adovasio, not yet published
The Settlement of America
Thomas D Dillehay
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