The 1970 deep-sea scallop season was underway, and Captain Thurston Shawn of Mathews County was skippering the scallop boat Cinmar out of Hampton, Virginia. While dredging forty miles off the Virginia Capes in 240 feet of water on the outer edge of the Continental Shelf, the crew dredged up something besides scallops—a portion of ivory mastodon tusk, a mastodon upper molar, its skull bones, and a large, laurel leaf bi-face stone knife blade.
Although commercial fishermen bring up the occasional odd object in their nets from time to time, this find was unusual enough that Captain Shawn noted its location on his charts. The findings however went unreported and Shawn later sawed the tusk into sections, dividing the pieces among his crew, and keeping part of the tusk, the tooth, and the blade. Several years later, Dean Parker acquired the three artifacts and in 2002 loaned them to the Gwynn’s Island Museum for display.
Stone artifacts are not unusual finds in coastal Virginia, but the size and style of this blade, knapped from banded meta-rhyolite from South Mountain on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, and the location in which it was found, was highly unusual. So unusual that when it was spotted by Smithsonian Institution archeologist Darrin Lowery during a chance visit in 2009, the discovery added tinder to an already fiery debate among archeologists that had been raging for years. Where did the first Americans come from, and how?
Since the early 1920s, paleo-scientists have believed that the first hunter-gatherers migrated to North America by way of the then Bering Strait land mass some 12,000-13,000 years ago, moving south and east, eventually reaching the shores of the Atlantic. This theory was based upon empirical evidence in the form of mammoth remains uncovered in Clovis, New Mexico and the stone projectile points used to bring the animal down.
Clovis technology is the most famous of the cultural toolkits archeologists have identified from America’s pre-historical past. Thanks to their distinctive fluted projectile points, Clovis literally left artifacts all over the face of North and South America. But whether that technology spread from west to east or vice versa, and whether it was imported or home-grown, remains at the heart of the great debate.
DNA testing of ancient human remains shows similarities between the Mongols of East Asia and those of Native Americans, hence the course black hair, high cheekbones, reddish complexion, and slanted eyes. No claim of human settlement earlier than 20,000 years had stood up to close scrutiny, but the Cinmar findings help challenge all that.
Prior to Darrin Lowery’s fortuitous trip to Gwynn’s Island, a handful of archeologists, working at various inconspicuous sites along the Eastern seaboard, have suspected that human occupation in the East occurred long before Clovis. DNA and radiocarbon testing of habitation sites at Cactus Hill in Virginia, Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, and the Topper-Allendale site in South Carolina are among a handful that have uncovered artifacts that appear to pre-date Clovis by several thousand years. The available evidence is scanty however, so that many in the scientific community have yet to acknowledge the possibility of an alternative history.
Even as the Clovis story began to unravel, it remained the default explanation for the peopling of America until the late 2000s, when increasing finds convinced more and more archeologists that there were people here thousands of years before Clovis arrived. That’s when Dr. Dennis J. Stanford and Dr. Bruce A. Bradley first put forth an abstract whose hypothesis is now called the Solutrean Solution.
Stanford, Curator of Archeology and Chairman of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and Bradley, a Research Associate at the Carnegie Museum, adjunct Professor at Augustana College, and independent archeological consultant, put forth their theory that, at the height of the last ice age, prehistoric Europeans known as the Solutreans paddled along the edge of the ice sheet jutting into the North Atlantic.
Like the Inuit who would inhabit the Artic region centuries later, the Solutreans traveled in hide-covered boats, harvesting fish, seals, and seabirds, eventually reaching North America. In the Stanford-Bradley abstract, the Solutrean culture from Spain and France brought their knapping technology with them, providing the basis for the later Clovis technology that would spread across North America. Their hypothesis was based upon similarities in Solutrean and Clovis elements that have no known counterparts in Eastern Asia or Beringia, from or through which early Americans were believed to have migrated.
This would make Clovis the first great American invention with origins in the East, a home-grown technology that would eventually spread westward across the country. In fact, archeologists had noted for some time that the further west you go in dating Clovis artifacts, the younger they become. “Iberia, not Siberia” became the new slogan. It was a face-off between the old guard and a new generation of archeologists.
“The reason people don’t like the Solutrean idea is the ocean,” Stanford explained in an interview with The Washington Post, “no Solutrean boats have been found, but given that people arrived in Australia some 60,000 years ago—and they didn’t walk there—wood-frame and seal-skin boats were clearly possible.”
By the time graduate student Darrin Lowery visited Gwynn’s Island Museum, the debate had been raging a decade. Spotting the artifacts on display, Lowery was clearly excited. He had already found evidence of pre-Clovis occupation along the Delmarva, a region that would have been well above sea level during the last ice age. These artifacts on display in a local museum stunned him. He placed a phone call to his boss, Dr. Dennis Stanford, urging him to come to Mathews.
The following weekend Stanford stood before the display case, extremely excited by what he saw. The laurel blade measured 7.4 inches long by 2.2 inches wide and a quarter inch thick. It exhibited fine percussion-thinning flaking on
both faces and wear patterns that indicated it had once been used as a hafted knife. Like other blades found along the Eastern Shore, it bore strong resemblance to those found at dozens of sites in Stone Age Spain and France. Had it been used to butcher the mastodon?
With permission from Dean Parker, the artifacts were taken back to the Smithsonian for analysis. After two years of radiocarbon assay of collagen extracted from the tusk, DNA analyses, and x-rays, it was concluded that the mastodon remains were 22,760 years old. The wear on the molar and the diameter of the tusk told them the mastodon was a small female, about thirty years old when she died.
The date was consistent with the terrestrial landscape of coastal Virginia during the time she was alive; the off-shore site where her remains were recovered would have been well above sea level, some fifty miles further east than our current shoreline. The region would have been rich in flora, streams, and bogs; ideal Mastodon habitat.
Stanford and Bradley point out that during Solutrean times, lower sea levels greatly reduced the distance between Europe and North America, and the connecting ice shelf meant that ancient travelers did not have to cross 4,000 miles of open water to get here. They later documented their findings in a book entitled Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture.
As more Solutrean-style blades are uncovered, like the ones found in the private collection of the late Mark Small, an avid artifact hunter who lived in Mathews, and those identified by David Sweet, who is brokering Mark’s extensive collection, the question arises: what are the origins of the first Americans?
Proponents of the Solutrean theory do not deny that a prior migration to the Americas via the Bering Land mass took place. Today, geneticists all agree that Native American DNA comes from more than one source. At times, new findings raise more questions than answers.
In 2014, a team of scientists led by Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev analyzed the DNA harvested from the remains of a Clovis-era infant buried 12,600 years ago in what is now the state of Montana. Their findings indicate the child was descended from a Siberian tribe, and that 80% of all native peoples in the Americas, from the Aleuts in the north to the Aymaras in the Andes, are descended from the Montana boy’s lineage. So does this finding negate the Solutrean hypothesis?
Oceans, rivers, and mountains, once considered obstacles by 20th century archeologists, may have served as early man’s highways instead. Rather than bands of isolated tribes, a new idea emerges of a modern, problem-solving people, from divergent backgrounds, who came together and developed social networks capable of transmitting information and exchanging technology over great distances.
As archeologists continue to push back the origins of mankind, so too do they push back the arrival of hunter-gatherers to our continent—20,000, 30,000 even 40,000 years. It’s possible that the continent was inhabited by humans tens of thousands of years before any known group that has been discovered to date. The answer may lie in the next shovel full of dirt.