- - Friday, April 27, 2012

By Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley
Foreword by Michael B. Collins
University of California Press, $34.95, 319 pages

This scientific treatise might be as dull as alluvial mud - except for its meteoric ideas and luminous subtext. Didactic, pedantic, densely detailed and minutely argued, “Across Atlantic Ice” shines between the lines.

Two central points can be stated in as many sentences: Contrary to common belief, the first people to inhabit the Americas were not Asians who walked across a land bridge spanning the Bering Sea. Other people arrived earlier, between 25,000 and 13,000 years ago, and they came from Europe by boat.

Smithsonian archaeologist Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley present their persuasive Solutrean hypothesis in arduous detail. Only an obsessive Eagle Scout will want to know more about flint-knapping, or making stones into tools using only materials, techniques, practice and patience that archaic people knew. Here the book benefits immeasurably from drawings by Marcia Bakry, a scientific illustrator.

Paleolithic Europeans lived off the land until the last ice age brought an ever-colder climate, the authors reason, when they learned to live off the sea and shore, too. They hunted quarry that appeared in the changing habitat and followed prey where it led - onto sea ice and offshore. These Solutrean people “were led by subsistence behavior appropriate to their time and place to exploit the ice-edge environment,” which eventually stretched from the Bay of Biscay to Newfoundland. After millennia in this new world, they gave rise to “what we know as the Clovis peoples who eventually spread far and wide across the Americas.”

This theory dismisses the widely popular notion that the first Americans were Asians who arrived after an ice age drained away the shallow Bering Sea, creating a span of dry land. From Alaska, this scenario envisioned, they radiated across the continents and transformed into hundreds of cultures.

But that Beringian theory has been proved fanciful. For one thing, when the sea level was lower, Alaska was covered by glaciers and then became a frigid bog. For another, nothing like Clovis’ distinct flint-knappery has been found in Alaska, nor has anything that might be ancestral to Clovis appeared in northeastern Asia. Next, chronology is backward, as Clovis sites are oldest in the mid-Atlantic states, youngest in the West. Finally, artifacts nearly identical to Clovis - named Solutrean for the premier site in Solutre, France - have been found in many much older sites in Europe.

(None of this is to say that Clovis became principal ancestors of modern American Indians, nor to deny that most are descended from Asians - who must have come later, or by other routes.)

Data aside, Mr. Stanford and Mr. Bradley express an extrascholarly respect for Paleolithic people, who they believe were as intelligent, inventive and adaptable as we are. As inland Europe’s climate worsened during the run-up to the last ice age, the authors say, our ancient cousins would have done what they needed to do. In archaeologese, these “modern humans learned to exploit the available resources and developed many technological innovations to improve their efficiency at doing so.”

If they couldn’t live in the barren Alps, they moved to the river valleys and seacoasts. If they couldn’t track bison and elk, they learned to fish for cod and flounder. As the degrading climate brought sea ice farther south over many centuries - until the Atlantic froze solid from France to Canada - they learned to hunt the seals, walruses and flightless great auks that frequented ice floes. As the climate changed, excavations show, these people changed their ways of life and their localities.

These were not the mammoth hunters of cartoon drawings, wearing off-the-shoulder hides and brandishing clubs. Like indigenous peoples of Arctic regions in recent centuries, such as the Inuit and Scandinavia’s Sami, they must have worn protective clothing. Solutrean people endeavored to adjust to “the weather shifts that punctuated the ice age Paleolithic world,” the authors write. “Being out on the ice, they would have learned to harvest the fruits of what the Inuit elders called the ‘garden’ at their doorstep.” Mr. Stanford and Mr. Bradley find proof of these adaptations in cave art and bone artifacts such as eyed needles - handy for sewing seal gut into waterproof parkas and walrus hides into kayaks.

Referencing several scientific disciplines, the authors cast some arguments defensively against likely attacks by other scholars, with North American archaeology as one of the nastier academic communities on the planet. (Talk about hostile climates - but that’s another story.) Their hypothesis assumes that the first Europeans to reach America had boats, though no traces of boats have ever been found. Nor are they likely to be found, because early mariners sailed seas that were 400 feet lower than now, and the coasts lay as much as 40 miles seaward of modern shores; marine Solutrean sites should be under water.

In broadening a reader’s view of humankind, the text twists another frame of reference: time. Witness, a Clovis site in Montana is older than one in Wyoming by nine centuries, as many years as the Norman Conquest preceded the Nixon administration. Witness, Europe’s Solutrean sites predate America’s Clovis by 5,000 years, or the span from our day back to ancient Sumer, plenty of time for transplantation. Witness, Solutrean traditions lasted 8,500 years, yet some folks today say our world would be unrecognizable to their parents 85 years ago. Ergo, times change. Even the pace of time is accelerating, something the Solutreans, for all their kinship with us, might never have understood.

• Philip Kopper, author of books about science, history and art, wrote “The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians” when the Beringian theory was in full favor.

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