The Washington Post

The Solutrean conjecture

While reading the terrific story this morning by my colleague Brian Vastag, on the Solutrean hypothesis of Europeans coming to America 20,000 years ago, I kept thinking about the voyage across the Atlantic, all those hardy folks following the edge of the ice cap, sailing across open water two miles deep, braving storms, dodging icebergs, battling sharks and giant squid and Loch Ness Monsters and pterodactyls and fire-breathing dragons and the other scary megafauna of the Pleistocene, and it makes me ashamed that I can barely make it to Costco.

And I don’t picture the teenagers doing it. I know a lot of these young folks, and respect them a great deal, but I’m just not seeing them as the Follow The Edge of the Ice and Harpoon the Seals types. Yeah, they talk a good game, they make big plans, they threaten to burn up the town, but so often they wind up in the living room watching Glee reruns and drinking milkshakes. They’re just not very Solutrean.

I’ve heard about Dennis Stanford’s theory for years, and have an open mind about it. So too am I intrigued by the Kennewick Man. The simple scenario of a single migration by a single ethnic group from Asia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge seems to be under assault from multiple angles. The first Americans may have been watermen, not hikers. We already know the Vikings came to North America before Columbus, and the Basque fishermen may have been fishing off the Grand Banks. You can surf the Web and find all kinds of interesting ideas, including an African-Olmec connection. What’s true? We don’t know. But I bet prehistoric human migration in general was more complex and rambunctious than the textbooks taught us. (We discussed this on the Achenblog some years back. Geez we’ve been doing this a long time...)

But ... the Solutrean hypothesis is not a theory. The headline on Brian’s story says “theory,” which is fine as shorthand in a headline, but this is still very hypothetical and maybe even — I hope this isn’t a pejorative in scientific circles — conjectural.

The take-home quote is from a skeptical scientist, named David Meltzer:

“If Solutrean boat people washed up on our shores, they suffered cultural amnesia, genetic amnesia, dental amnesia, linguistic amnesia and skeletal amnesia. Basically, all of the signals are pointing to Asia....”

There is abundant evidence of Asiatic origin of early Americans and science is properly conservative when it comes to accepting radical new theories that upend the orthodoxy. Anomalies do not add up to a theory.

Show me some skeletons, or at least some teeth. Show me some campfires, some well-dated artifacts, maybe the favorite comfy chair of the Top Dawg Solutrean. Come on, persuade me.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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