The Solutrean Theory

This essay was written in 2005 for an introductory course on Archaeology

The conventional understanding of the peopling of the Americas is that Asian hunters armed with Clovis points entered North America via Beringia, following herds of woolly mammoths (Holden, 1999, p. 1467). Archaeological evidence in the form of stone tools show that the groups from Siberia penetrated the heart of North America and reached New Mexico by following an ice-free corridor that opened up about 12,000 years ago just east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada (Holden, 1999, p. 1467). The theory holds that the Clovis people “in an unprecedented (among hunting societies) population explosion, swept across the continent at a spectacular pace, reaching the tip of South America—a distance of some six thousand miles—in five hundred years or less” (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 124). This theory is referred to as the ‘Beringia Theory’.

The Beringia Theory cannot by itself explain the complexity of how North America came to be occupied by humans during the Paleolithic. This essay examines archaeological evidence that suggests Europeans from Northern Spain known as the Solutreans may have crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum (Straus, 2000b, p. 219-220). During the Last Glacial Maximum, an ice-bridge linked Europe and North America and could have served as a migration route for seal-hunting Solutreans. Many Clovis stone tool kits have many similarities with Solutrean tool kits.

Inadequacy of the Beringia Theory

Migrants from Asia likely did enter North America via Beringia, but as the sole explanation for the Paleolithic peopling of the Americas, the ‘Beringia Theory’ has several problems. The biggest problem with the theory is that several sites have been found that pre-date the opening of the ice-free corridor. A site known as Meadowcroft in western Pennsylvania contains evidence of human occupation, such as spear points and baskets, dating as far back as about 14,000 years before present (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 187). Also, the Cactus Hill site in Virginia shows evidence of human occupation between 15,000 to 18,000 years before present (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472). And, in Chile the Monte Verde site contains evidence of human occupation between 13,000 to 12,500 years before present (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 211). In fact, at least one biface from the Monte Verde site may be as old as 33,000 years before present (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 215). So far, at least five archaeological sites in the Americas show human habitation that pre-dates the opening of the ice-free corridor, and that figure may be as high as twelve (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 284). Clearly, human beings have been living in the Americas before the ice-free corridor opened up. That means they must have entered the continent from one or more alternative routes.

Further undermining the Beringia Theory is the genetic evidence that indicates that North American aboriginal peoples originate from a variety of source regions. Some North American aboriginal groups are genetically related to Europeans (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). Mitochondrial DNA is passed on from one generation to the next from mothers (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 239). Over time, mitochondrial DNA mutates due to copying errors and radiation (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 239). It is possible to link certain mutations with populations that occupy certain geographic regions (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 239). Also, by looking at the rate of mutation it is possible to estimate how long a given population has occupied a region (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240).

DNA analysis of North American aboriginal peoples has revealed four main lineages or haplogroups (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 239-240). These haplogroups are labeled A, B, C, and D (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). All four haplogroups except B are found among modern Asian populations, but never among Europeans, Africans or Australians (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). The interesting finding for my argument is the haplogroup X. Haplogroup X is found among three percent of the modern European sample and on the Indian subcontinent (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). Haplogroup X is never found among Asians or South Americans (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). Interestingly, haplogroup X has been found among North American aboriginal peoples (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). Haplogroup X is scattered geographically among North American aboriginal populations (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). It has been found among “the Ojibway of the upper Midwest, the Zuni of the Southwest, and the Bella Coola of the Pacific Northwest” (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). Rate of mutation analysis indicates that haplogroup X arrived in North America between 15,000 to 30,000 years before present (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 240). As latter sections of this essay will show, the more recent part of this time interval overlaps with the period when the Solutreans could have been migrating to North America.

Solutrean Theory for the Peopling of North America

During the Last Glacial Maximum, winter ice in the world’s oceans would have formed much further south than today (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 469). At its peak, the winter marine ice would have connected Europe and North America with an ice bridge that would have traversed the North Atlantic (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 469). See Figure 1 for a map of the North Atlantic ice bridge. The southern limit of marine ice is known as the ice-edge margin (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 469). This area is rich in marine resources as marine mammals such as seals are supported by an abundance of micro-flora and fauna (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470). As the ice-edge advanced south every winter, it would have brought “a major annual influx of migratory sea mammals, birds and fishes into the Bay of Biscay” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470).

Fig. 1 North Atlantic Ice Bridge During Last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years before present Source: Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470

During the Last Glacial Maximum a group of complex hunter-gatherers known as the Solutreans occupied the shores of the Bay of Biscay and much of Southwestern Europe (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 465). Their sites have been dated between 22,000 to 16,500 years before present (Straus, 2000b, p. 220). The Solutreans are known for their distinctive stone projectile points that resemble laurel and willow leaves (Straus 2002b: 221). Southwestern France and the Iberian Peninsula offered the Solutreans refuge from the harsh climatic conditions that existed further north (Straus 2000a: 46). There, the Solutreans hunted large game animals such as reindeer, horse, red deer and ibex on the tundra and grassland plains (Straus 2000a: 52; Bradley and Stanford 2004: 468).

Given the harsh climate of the time, large game may not have always been available. We know that at least part of the Solutrean diet came from the sea. They were eating fish and shellfish and one Solutrean site has revealed a rear first phalanx of a seal (Straus, 2000b, p. 222; Straus 2000a: 53). We also know that the Solutreans were aware of other marine resources because they left behind “rock art depicting sea mammals, deep-water fish and great auks” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470). Given this evidence, combined with the abundance of marine resources at the Solutreans’ doorstep, it seems likely that marine resources would have formed a major part of their diet (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470).

Under this scenario, the Solutreans would have developed the tools necessary to efficiently exploit the resources of the sea, such as ”waterproof clothing, nets, harpoon gear and watercraft” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). They also would have learned the skills necessary for such activities (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). They would have learned to seek shelter on large ice floes “as the surrounding ice greatly reduces wave formation” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). On the ice, seals would have provided the Solutreans with all the resources they needed for survival (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). Besides providing them with food, seals would have provided them with oil that could have been used as fuel for fire (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). Also, the hide and bones of seals could have been used for clothing, material for tents and boats and tools (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471). They could have melted ice for water (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 471).

The Solutreans likely developed this marine economy during the coldest period within the Last Glacial Maximum, when the ice-edge margin reached its maximum southerly extent (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472). As the climate began to warm, the Solutreans would have had to travel further and further from land to the ice-edge margin (Stanford and Stanford 2004: 472). Bradley and Stanford (2004) postulate the following scenario for the Solutreans’ migration to North America:

Inevitably, a group following the European seals on their northward migration would have ended up at the western end of the gyre, not knowing until too late that they were hunting Canadian seals heading southward to rookeries along the Atlantic coast of North America. Once they understood the seal migration patterns, the hunters could work the pattern back and forth. The entire distance along the ice bridge would have been around 2500 km, shorter that the Thule Inuit migrations from Alaska to Greenland. Some families eventually established camps along the Western Atlantic seaboard and did not return to Europe.

Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472

Geological evidence indicates that the ice sheets of the Last Glacial Maximum reached their maximum extent between 20,000 to 24,000 years before present (Trenhaile, 2004, p. 192). Between 18,000 to 15,000 years before present the ice was already retreating (Trenhaile, 2004, p. 193). The Solutreans occupied Southwestern Europe between 21,000 to 16,500 years before present (Straus, 2000b, p. 220). These time lines fit in nicely with Bradley and Stanford’s (2004) scenario described above.

Solutrean and Clovis similarities

Solutrean lithic technology is remarkably similar to that of the Clovis people. Perhaps the most striking similarity is that both groups employed a technique known as overshot flaking to produce bifacially thinned points (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 465). This method works by repeatedly striking flakes across the entire width of the biface “removing a small portion of the edge opposite the striking platform” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 461). According to Bradley and Stanford (2004), “the only deliberate and systematic use of this technique occurs in Solutrean and Clovis” (465). See Figures 2 and 3 for photographs of Solutrean and Clovis bifaces, respectively.

Solutrean point styles differed by region; and various style zones have been defined (Straus 2000a: 43). Stemmed points are found along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, while basally concave points are found along the Bay of Biscay coast (Straus, 2000b, p. 222). The assertion that Solutreans specifically from the Bay of Biscay coast migrated to North America is supported by the fact that the Bay of Biscay regional style of Solutrean tools is the style that is the most similar to Clovis tools (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 465).
In addition to point similarities, the Solutreans and Clovis people used the same method for producing large blades. They both used pre-shaped cores and similar “detachment techniques” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 466). Bradley and Stanford (2004) argue that “Solutrean blade technology is more like Clovis than it is like any other European blade core technology” (466).

Fig. 2 Solutrean bifaced thinned point Source: Solutrean Bifaces

Solutrean and Clovis stone technology share many other similarities. These similarities include “distinctive end scrapers, retouched biface flakes, strangulated blades, borers and multiple gravers (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 466). While rare, burins are also sometimes found among assemblages from both groups (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 466). In addition, both groups are known to have used pressure flaking and pre-heating of stone to facilitate flaking (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 465). Also, some stone tools from both groups feature geometric and animal designs (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 467).

Fig. 3 Clovis bifaced thinned point Source: Texas Indian Arrowheads and Artifacts.

Both groups used bone, antler and ivory for tools. Bone shaft wrenches were used by both groups (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 467). Also, the eyed bone needle was a Solutrean invention in Western Europe (Straus 2000a: 50). At least one such implement has been uncovered in Florida (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 467).
There is evidence that the Clovis and Solutreans exhibited similar behaviour regarding their tools. The Solutreans preferred raw materials such as quartz and agate for stone tools (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 467). The Clovis people also preferred exotic raw materials (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 462). Also, both groups left behind caches of large bifaces (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 467).

The Critics

Lawrence Guy Straus (2000b) vehemently opposes the Solutrean Theory. Straus (2000b) attacks the argument that Solutrean and Clovis tools are similar and therefore represent cultural diffusion by attributing any similarities between Solutrean and Clovis tools to technological convergence (200). He also points out many differences between Solutrean and Clovis toolkits. Solutrean projectiles were often shaped so as to resemble willow and laurel leaves (Straus: 2000b: 221-222). This characteristic has not been found among the Clovis assemblages. While both Solutrean and Clovis points are basally concave, Solutrean concavities are not as deep (Straus, 2000b, p. 222). Also, one of the most important features of Clovis bifaces is that they have flutes (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 461). Straus (2000b) points out that Solutrean bifaces are “never fluted” (221). In addition, Clovis assemblages lack “microblades, tanged and shoulder points—all common in various Solutrean assemblages” (Straus, 2000b, p. 222). As stated previously, Bradley and Stanford (2004) point to bone shaft wrenches as one of the similarities between Clovis and Solutreans (467). Straus (2000b) points out that only a single Clovis bone shaft wrench has been found (222).

Bradley and Stanford (2004) respond to such criticism with their insistence that the similarities outweigh the differences between Solutrean and Clovis tools. They argue that the archaeological evidence “would be considered conclusive were it not for the intervening ocean” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 473) and that “if a Solutrean assemblage were found in Siberia, everyone would consider the question of Clovis origins resolved” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 468). They also argue that too much attention has been focused on the characteristic fluting of Clovis bifaces (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 461). They contend that fluting “is not technically different from other thinning flake removals; it just originates from the base of the preform rather than the side. Its distinctiveness comes from the intentional retention of the flake scar on finished pieces” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 461).

The Solutreans could have developed the practice of fluting in North America. The Meadowcroft site in Pennsylvania, which dates to about 14,000 years before present (older than fluted Clovis points), revealed unfluted points (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 156). Other pre-Clovis sites include Cactus Hill in Virginia and Page-Ladson in Florida have also yielded unfluted points. The unfluted points of these sites represent a transitional point technology between Solutrean and Clovis (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472). Notably, all of these sites are located on the eastern seaboard of North America—the Solutreans’ possible point of entry into North America (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472).

Another major criticism of the Solutrean Theory is that Solutrean and Clovis sites are separated by thousands of years. Straus (2000b) claims that 5000 years separate the Solutrean and Clovis sites (220). This is simply not true. The evidence suggests that the Solutreans were in Europe up to at least 16,500 years before present (Straus, 2000b, p. 220). The transitional Clovis site at Cactus Hill in Virginia has been dated between 18,000 to 15,000 years before present (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472). In fact, “there is a clear overlapping of declining radiocarbon ages from Solutrean, Cactus Hill, Meadowcroft, Page-Ladson and the earliest Clovis in the East and the western Clovis” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 472).

There is no evidence that the Solutreans participated in a seafaring marine mammal economy (Straus, 2000b, p. 223). Straus (2000b) points out that there is “no empirical support for assertions that Solutrean people could have survived on pack ice or navigated across the open Atlantic” (223). I must admit that this part of the Solutrean Theory amounts to speculation. However, the lack of evidence can be explained by the fact that sea level has changed since the last ice age (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470). During the Last Glacial Maximum the northern coastline of Spain was hundreds of kilometres north of its current location (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470). Any Solutrean harpoons or boats that were left on the beach would now lie under the Bay of Biscay (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 470). Also, the notion that Paleolithic people reached North America by boat is becoming less radical as more and more evidence is found indicating that the use of watercraft played an important role in the peopling of the South Pacific (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 464).

Just as there is no evidence for a Solutrean transatlantic crossing, there is no evidence to support the alternative theory—Asians equipped with Clovis points entered North America via Beringia and traveled down the ice-free corridor after it opened up after 12,000 years ago (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 462). Bradley and Stanford (2004) point out that “there are no pre-12,000-year-old sites in Beringia that contain a lithic technology that remotely resembles anything we would be expecting as a precursor to Clovis” (462). In addition, there is no evidence for early Clovis points in Alaska (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 463). While the Nenana Complex in Alaska has been advanced as being related to Clovis, it is contemporary to other Clovis sites (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 463). Furthermore, Bradley and Stanford (2004) assert that the technological connection between Nenana and Clovis is weak (463). They argue that “it is more likely that the ‘Clovis-like’ traits found in Nenana assemblages were derived from contact with Clovis-related people moving north rather than the other way around” (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 463). Empirical evidence that supports the assertion that Clovis peoples migrated through the ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada is also non-existent (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 463). Also, passage through the corridor may not have been possible until after 11,000 years ago (Bradley & Stanford, 2004, p. 463).

Diverse Origins

The genetic evidence discussed in this paper indicates that some North American aboriginal groups are related to modern Europeans. Several North American archaeological sites pre-date the opening of the ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains. All of these sites are located on North America’s East Coast, where migrating Solutreans would have first arrived. These people could have arrived in North America as a result of hunting seals along the North Atlantic ice-edge corridor that linked North America and Europe during the winters of the Last Glacial Maximum. We know that the Solutreans made use of at least some of the oceanic resources at their doorstep and that they were aware of the large number of seals that would have made their way south every winter because they painted seals on rocks. The lack of evidence, such as seal harpoons and boats can be explained by the fact that such evidence likely lies at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay because modern sea level is much higher than it was during the Last Glacial Maximum. There is considerable evidence, however, that the Clovis tool technology revealed at so many North American sites is related to the Solutrean tool technology of Paleolithic Europe. The tool kits of the two groups are very similar. In particular, the overshot flaking method of production of bifacially thinned points is extremely similar between both groups. In response to criticism that Clovis points are fluted and Solutrean points are unfluted the Cactus Hill site in Virginia with its unfluted points provides an example of a transitional technology. The date of this site, 15,000 to 18,000 years before present, also provides a temporal link between Solutrean sites in Europe and Clovis sites in North America.

The diverse origins of North American aboriginal peoples indicated by genetic evidence necessitates considering diverse routes of entry into the continent. If the Solutrean Theory is correct, it would not overturn the Beringia Theory, but merely compliment it. There is no reason to believe that the peopling of North America occurred via one route. All the theories may be correct and it is quite conceivable that the peopling of North America occurred via the Beringia Route, and a trans-Atlantic route, as well as a Pacific coastal route (Adovasio & Page, 2002, p. 276).

References

Adovasio, J. M. and Page, J. 2002. The First Americans. Toronto: Random House of Canada.

Bradley, B. and Stanford, D. 2004. “The North Atlantic ice-edge corridor: a possible Palaeolithic route to the New World.” World Archaeology, 36(4): 459-478.

Holden, C. 1999. “Were Spaniards Among the First Americans?” Science, 286(5444): 1467-1468.

Solutrean Bifaces. N.D. Retrieved online July 18, 2005.             http://www.ele.net/containers/solutrean_bifaces.htm

Straus, L. G. 2000a. “A Quarter-Century of Research on the Solutrean of Vasco- Cantabria, Iberia and Beyond.” Journal of Anthropological Research, 56: 39-58.

Straus, L. G. 2000b. “Solutrean Settlement of North America? A Review of Reality.” American Antiquity, 65(2): 219-226.

Texas Indian Arrowheads and Artifacts. N.D. Retrieved online July 18, 2005. http://members.tripod.com/ltcrow/N%20F%20S%20.htm

Trenhaile, A. S. 2004. Geomorphology: A Canadian Perspective, second edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada.

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