Most of us recall learning about the Bering land bridge that existed more than 14,000 years ago and connected Siberia to Alaska, allowing the prehistoric Siberians to migrate into and begin populating North American. However, some of us may recall learning about the controversial alternative theory of the earliest North American human inhabitant. In the late 1990s, there arose a small (yet very vocal) group who advocated an alternative theory for an earlier migration. The alternative “ice bridge” theory—called the Solutrean hypothesis—suggests that Upper Paleolithic Europeans traveled from Europe into northeastern North America via an “ice bridge” that might have existed more than 22,000 years ago. After decades of analysis, it seems that this alternative theory for the earliest settlement of North American has finally, and definitively, been disproven.
The evidence put forth by the Solutrean hypothesis was discovered in the 1970s when the crew of a scallop trawler called Cinmar hit a snag on the ocean floor off the Virginia coast of the Chesapeake Bay. As the trawler skimmed the ocean floor, it dislodged and pulled up an ancient man-made stone blade as well as the partial skeleton of a mastodon, a distant relative to our modern elephants. Since carbon dating doesn’t work on rocks—most rocks are millions of years old, which means that carbon dating a stone tool would provide a much older date than when the tool was made—researchers dated the mastodon skeleton at more than 22,000 years old and assumed the blade was the same age.
Proponents of the Solutrean “ice bridge” hypothesis have long pointed to similarities between American stone blade such as the one recovered from the Chesapeake and those made by the Solutrean foragers in western Europe, which is how the “ice bridge” theory got its name. According to scholars who have been analyzing this theory, the main problem with using the stylistic similarities in the tools of Europeans and those found in North America is that the Solutrean culture didn’t occur until long after these early Europeans are alleged to have peopled North American via an ice bridge. In other words, the tool discovered in the Chesapeake couldn’t have been 22,000 years old because Solutrean tools weren’t developed until later than 22,000 years ago and could have been made as late as 17,000 years.
Another thing that has helped to disprove the Solutrean hypothesis is the lack of firsthand accounts of the recovery of the stone blade and mastodon remains, and what documentation that exists is often contradictory or unclear. In fact, all of the published accounts of the Chesapeake recovery were written by proponents of the Solutrean hypothesis, which appears to have colored, biased, and possibly even skewed the documentation.
University of Missouri scholars who have been reviewing the evidence and documentation conducted a phone interview with the Cinmar captain, who recalled taking “particular note of the water depth” and “plotted the area on his navigation charts.” However, although the authors of the Solutrean hypothesis reported that the captain recorded the discovery in his charts, the report doesn’t indicate that the authors even looked at that data. However, when the Mizzou scholars reviewing the evidence looked back over the charts, they never found anything to corroborate the blade and mastodon’s discovery, not even on the day when it’s alleged to have occured. “One of the most famous snags of all time—when the crew pulled up a mastodon—and it’s just not reported,” says Michael J. O’Brien, University of Missouri professor of anthropology and dean of the College of Arts and Science.
In addition to nearly nonexistent information on the actual discovery, O’Brien and his postdoctoral students also found inconsistencies regarding the ship’s origin and ownership, discrepancies in photographs of the ship, inconsistencies in the Cinmar‘s size and even its place of assembly. “Until inaccuracies are cleared up, there really is no reason to accept the find as evidence of anything connected with the early peopling of North America,” O’Brien concluded.
With the “ice bridge” theory more or less fully disproven, we can all agree on what’s now the only answer to the questions of who the first settlers of North America were, when they migrated into North America, and from where they came. The “land bridge” theory—also known as the Bering Strait Theory and Beringia Theory—was first proposed by in 1590 by José de Acosta, but has been widely accepted since the 1930s.
You can read this article’s source material here at the University of Missouri New Bureau.