Archaeological Find Puts Humans in North America 10,000 Years Earlier
January 13, 2017 10:17 AM   Subscribe

New evidence suggests human presence in a Yukon cave during the last ice age 24,000 years ago. A local (to me) science magazine has a story about evidence that humans arrived in North America years earlier than thought. Bluefish Caves in the Yukon contained some bone fragments and tools that is strong evidence of human settlement - years before it was thought to have happened. This institute and magazine is on an archaeological roll - The Hakai institute discovered the oldest footprints in North America, last summer, and is now working on cataloguing the data.
posted by joelf (23 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
And that's when all the trouble started.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:22 AM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

As far as I know Hakai has nothing to do with the Bluefish Caves finds other than the magazine reporting it.

One thing to remember about Bluefish is that during glacial times it is essentially part of Asia, being an unglaciated part of Beringia. So yes technically I'm North America in same way Iceland is part of Europe. We already know western Beringia had anatomically modern people by 30,000.

Anyway Bluefish had been a long standing anomaly and most people had written it off. I'd like to think the issue is now resolved but they are still looking at only a few bones with cut marks from thousands in the cave, and while they do a good job of explaining their criteria there are false positives in the cut mark world. And, differently from most Bluefish analyses these cut marks would demand substantial stone tools to make them while the evidence for stone tools themselves is still weak. There's also the weird lack of stratigraphy and context for many of the bones being analyzed and the whole thing, while moderately persuasive, is not the tight package we could hope for.
posted by Rumple at 10:34 AM on January 13, 2017 [12 favorites]

I didn't get the sense that Hakai had anything to do with the caves, but they did discover that footprint. I didn't realize that the cave wasn't part of North America. The article says it's in the Yukon. Maybe I don't get where you are coming from - you might have to explain it to me as if I was really dumb (which I am totally not. nope. not even a little - this is just for pretend).
posted by joelf at 10:41 AM on January 13, 2017

I think Rumple is referring to the fact that Asia was connected to North America by Beringia, and Yukon was essentially part of Beringia at the time, and both of them were cut off from the rest of North America by the ice sheets. So evidence of older inhabitation of the Yukon doesn't say much about when humans got further into the continent.
posted by tavella at 10:49 AM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh! So there was something that prevented people from going from the Yukon to the rest of North America?
posted by joelf at 10:50 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Clearly bones from the Elder Race. Wake up sheeple! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:51 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

discovered the oldest footprints in North America, last summer

Sorry. I forgot to wipe my feet.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:59 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Given the potential impact of the work's implications, why was this published in PLoS One? The only options I can think of are that either more prestigious journals rejected it for some reason, or the authors have an unusually strong preference for open science.
posted by gurple at 11:08 AM on January 13, 2017

Here's a 1989 NYT article on the original discovery.
posted by gurple at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2017

in your FACE mayflower descenants: redux
posted by poffin boffin at 11:52 AM on January 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

So there was something that prevented people from going from the Yukon to the rest of North America?

Yes, the Cordilleran and Laurentide Ice Sheets.
posted by tavella at 11:53 AM on January 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

in your FACE mayflower descenants: redux

Not sure what this means. I don't think it's ever been claimed that the people on the Mayflower were the first humans in North America. They weren't even the first Europeans.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:53 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

PLoS One is a prestigious journal.
posted by heatherlogan at 1:26 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I meant that at that time, which is close to the glacial maximum, it is very likely impossible to travel south of approximately the Yukon-Alberta border. New evidence shows the Ice free corridor was not open until about 13,000 years ago (a little dissent there but it sure seems it was not ecologically viable until 13,000). So Yukon was connected to NE Asia as the easternmost part of the subcontinent of Beringia (which was the size of Manitoba + Saskatchewan + Alberta combined -- i.e., not a "bridge" in a meaningful sense of the word. Beringia was largely unglaciated (too dry) and really is part of Asia at the time. Anyway that's semantics.

So this is a cool study but has a ways to go. Still no stone tools in association with the deepest cutmarks. The oldest bone with cutmarks was previously recorded, just re-dated (so the "confirmation" they note is that 14C dating works, not that there is more than one of them. Their comparative material is, for some reason, Italian bones modified by flint (no flint that I know of in the caves or anywhere up there) and the many would say the gold standard in controversial cut marks cases now is to use SEM to identify micro flakes of stone tools embedded in the groove. This was the clincher in the old African ones from 2010.

Other weird things in this paper also. "Less than 1% of the bones" have cut marks. Actually, 13 out of almost 6000 bones meet their criteria which is about 0.2% of the bones, a lot less than 1%, and the figure I would use for the likely percentage of bones with cut marks from an animal butchered by stone tools would be between 3% and 5%. So they are flirting with anomalously few specimens here.

They also say, "Americas were peopled ca. 14,000 years ago) which is not really defensible. Monte Verde in Chile alone is ca. 14,500 (with 2015 claims for 18,000), Page Ladson in Florida is 14,500, and so on, and I don't know any archaeologists who seriously dispute these two sites. So, assuming some reasonable rates of travel, people must have been south of the ice sheets by 16,000 or so. 2,000 years is a big time difference in the peopling of the Americas because it edges you ever closer to the glacial maximum and truly nasty conditions in the north. Bluefish itself apparently shows no occupation during glacial max, and only 3 specimens (four dates) before then. Post glacial maximum occupation at ca. 14,5000 is already known from Yukon at the Little John site.

Anyway, I could go on, but yeah, this is not watertight. It was peer reviewed by Hoffecker who is very knowledgeable, and PLOS One I think is a good journal, and many archaeologists do like Open Access because easier for the descendent communities to keep track of their research. So there's reason to take it seriously. But overall, even if watertight, this is a Beringian story more than a North American story, and its not watertight in my view.
posted by Rumple at 6:44 PM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I hadn't heard about Beringia either. The wikipedia page has a nifty animation that was helpful to understanding it.

It seems like the question of when humans arrived in North America would hinge very much on an exact definition of "North America". And an exact definition of "arrived".
posted by yohko at 11:23 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I go to the famous LeBrea Tar Pit Museum near my house (of which I am a member), that little 1 block x 1 block area which is the source of most Ice Age Fossils on display globally, I fucking laugh out loud at the outdated exhibit which posits humans came to North America via the Bering Strait Land Bridge. For fuck's sake. There are ocean currents you can use to get from 20 miles off the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean at the right time of year to Canada -- in a canoe!

Humans were traveling all over before the last major floods. Most evidence is underwater right now. We were not primitive cave people lacking agency. We were savvy and groovy before the last 2,000 years of history. Totes waiting for common knowledge to catch up!

My spouse is Egyptian. The Great Pyramids are far more technically advanced than all other surviving Egyptian pyramids, all of which are dated much younger. Of course there is a lot missing from our human story. Welcome to the party, everyone. Nice to see you all!
posted by jbenben at 3:34 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also. DNA evidence proves different ancient migration patterns than formerly proposed.
posted by jbenben at 3:37 AM on January 14, 2017

While it is certainly true that humans *could* have reached North America from Europe in prehistory, there is no solid genetic or archaelogical evidence that they did. While there is plenty of both indicating that humans did indeed migrate across Beringia and eventually into the rest of North America.
posted by tavella at 4:28 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

But is the Beringia "ice-free corridor" theory sufficient to explain prehistoric migration to the Americas? My understanding is that the coastal migration route/Kelp Highway hypothesis is being taken more seriously now?
Although ice sheet retreat led to the corridor physically opening in the bottleneck region starting around 15–14 cal. kyr BP, deglaciation was followed by regional inundation below the waters of Glacial Lake Peace for perhaps up to 2,000 years. By around 12.6 cal. kyr BP the ice sheets were several hundred kilometres apart and the landscape had become vegetated.


From our findings, it follows that an ice-free corridor was unavailable to those groups who appear to have arrived in the Americas south of the continental ice sheets by 14.7 cal. kyr BP, and also opened too late to have served as an entry route for the ancestors of Clovis who were present by 13.4 cal. kyr BP ...


More broadly, although Clovis people may yet be shown to represent an independent migration separate from the peoples present here by 14,700 cal. kyr BP, they must have descended from a population that entered the Americas via a different route than the ice-free corridor. This conclusion is relevant to the recent finding that ancestral Native Americans diverged into southern and northern branches ~13 cal. kyr BP (95% confidence interval of 14.5–11.5 cal. kyr BP). This implies that if that split occurred north of the ice sheets, there must have been two pulses of migration to the south. As the Anzick infant’s genome, dated to 12.6 cal. kyr BP and associated with Clovis artefacts, is part of the southern branch, its ancestors must have travelled via the coast.
M. W. Pedersen, A. Ruter, et al., Postglacial viability and colonization in North America’s ice-free corridor, Nature, 537:7618 (2016), 45-9.
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

"there is no solid genetic or archaeological evidence that they did"

Here is some.
posted by Oyéah at 8:06 PM on January 14, 2017

Another thing, I don't see how any ice sheet is a problem for early peoples who were hardy, nomadic, and able to live in inhospitable climates, that would be hard for us to survive. Today Tibetans, Nepalis, live at high altitude in very cold conditions, they have specialized ability to survive their land, and the low O2 levels at high altitude. Many Native American groups know their history, well back in time.
posted by Oyéah at 8:12 PM on January 14, 2017

Here is some.

From what I understand the Solutrean hypothesis is based solely on the similar shapes of the artifacts. This is problematic for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that there are only so many ways to break stone. Here is an example from Blombos cave in South Africa dated to about 70,000 years ago. Very similar to Solutrean methinks. Does this mean that Clovis originated in South Africa....or that Solutrean originated in South Africa? Obviously not. Furthermore, there is no genetic evidence of any gene flow between Europe and North America during this time period. Also, we have no evidence that Solutrean culture was a seafaring culture.

In my opinion the Solutrean hypothesis is yet another in a long line of racist eurocentric theories which when examined in detail fall apart. For the most obvious/famous example of this see McBrearty and Brooks' (pdf) famous take down of the "human revolution" hypothesis which posits that modern human behavior first emerged in....wait for it....Europe...of course where else, amirite?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:51 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oyéah, those people you reference certainly did not cross a thousand kilometres of resourceless ice sheet. it's the equivalent of reaching the south pole. I mean, the Solutrean idea of hugging the edge of the Atlantic ice sheet at least has the benefit of plentiful marine resources, as unlikely as it is otherwise. As Sonny Jim points out, the likelihood is the so-called Ice free Corridor was not ecologically viable until about 13,000 years ago (see Hickin et al 2016 Quaternary Research for a suggestion the corridor was open by 15,000 or so but even so two lines of evidence suggest it was not ecologically viable and a third suggests it was not socially viable until 13k or so). And the 13.4k Clovis dates are outliers within Clovis, and both are in the south - Central Texas and Northern Mexico - the latter is the southernmost of all Clovis, and the oldest (El Fin de Mundo site).

Anyway, point is, the coalesced ice sheets were a brutally comprehensive barrier to passing from Yukon to, say, Montana. People in the past were not suicidal.

Much like the Solutrean idea, passing over the ice sheets is a solution in search of a problem. There are no issues with a Pacific Coastal route being available in a timely fashion, and this is consistent with the DNA, bioAnthro and archaeology of the Americas. While it would be a serious mistake to over-invest in a certain model given how Clovis-First is such a beautiful example of the sociology of science, there are a number of reasons to believe the Solutrean connection is non viable. As pointed out upthread, the underwater material is of very uncertain association (a fact glossed over in Bradley and Stafford book). Overshot flaking by the Solutreans and Clovis people is also known from elsewhere in the world, and is certainly not a smoking gun for a cultural connection, while the plan shape of Clovis and Solutrean is actually quite different (less so perhaps before the Clovis flute is removed). And, Solutrean is 5,000 years pre-Clovis. Both are fairly thin in cross section, but not uniquely so. The DNA evidence can be readily explained in light of the connections between Anzick (Montana) and Malt'a - Altai remains, which are consistent with an emerging consensus that the "European" genes are themselves of Central Asian origin and spread in all directions from there, including to Europe and the Americas. Some people, including archaeologists, just have an extraordinary problem conceiving of Europe as an obscure peninsula of Asia vs. the rightful crucible of human history.

Anyway, as AElfwine points out, there is a long, long history of assigning Euro origin to remarkable cultural developments anywhere in the world when in fact these other places were centres of innovation and imagination in their own right (see Sulawesi rock art at 40,000 for example). Such connections aren't impossible but they come with a lot of cultural baggage and so, yeah, they probably do need to meet a higher standard of empirical evidence in the same way race-based science would need to.
posted by Rumple at 12:55 PM on January 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

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