The Solutrean hypothesis vindicated?

By Razib Khan | May 9, 2011 2:39 pm

Here’s the model from Wikipedia:

This hypothesises similarities between the Solutrean industry and the later Clovis culture / Clovis points of North America, and suggests that people with Solutrean tool technology crossed the Ice Age Atlantic by moving along the pack ice edge, using survival skills similar to that of modern Eskimo people. The migrants arrived in northeastern North America and served as the donor culture for what eventually developed into Clovis tool-making technology. Archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley suggest that the Clovis point derived from the points of the Solutrean culture of southern France (19,000BP) through the Cactus Hill points of Virginia (16,000BP) to the Clovis point…This would mean that people would have had to move from the Bay of Biscay across the edge of the Atlantic ice sheet to North America. Supporters of this hypothesis believe it would have been feasible using traditional Eskimo techniques still in use today….

In my opinion there’s all sorts of things crazy with this model. But genome blogger Diogenes has been harping on the possibility that a low level substratum component among Northern Europeans which has affinities to Siberians and Amerindians may be a remnant of the original European hunter-gatherers. It follows then that these groups were later marginalized and absorbed by waves of farmers coming from the Middle East and south-central Eurasia. David of Eurogenes Genetic Ancestry Project has discerned the same element, which is modal among Finns among Northern European groups.

I don’t think that the “Classic Solutrean hypothesis” is viable, where Paleolithic Europeans manage to jump across the polar fringe to North America. Rather, my contention that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a set of post-Gravettian societies spanned the northern fringe of Eurasia, and that one branch went east to populate North America. Of those that remained it may be that on the milder fringes of western Eurasia, what became Europe, they were almost totally marginalized or absorbed. Only across the great expanse of Siberia where agriculture was marginalized did this people persist down the modern day. To bring it back to the present and over romanticizing the the possibilities one might then suggest that the displacement of Amerindians in North America over the past few centuries recapitulated the marginalization of their distant cousins in Europe between 5 and 10 thousand years ago!

A major point I would like to enter into the record is that I believe that the single-demic-diffusion model is wrong for Europe. I now believe it is wrong for South Asia, where Austro-Asiatic speakers are I believe implicated in the introduction of rice agriculture to the northeast of the subcontinent. Unless programs like ADMIXTURE are saturating our pattern-matching cognitive biases a map of human variation tends to be difficult to reconcile with single population expansions in many areas (e.g., South Asia and Southeast Asia, and I believe Europe). We might not be able to make out the shape of reality very well because of the nature of palimpsest, but it is hard to reconcile the genetic variation with single-wave models. With the coming online of ancient DNA in northern Eurasia I think we’ll get a better answer of what went down in the next 5 years.

  • ohwilleke

    * The notion that proto-Amerindians may have had a minority Northern Route component that fused with a predominant Southern Route component isn’t implausible. There are minority Amerindian mtDNA haplogroups, like X2, that would seem to make sense as Northern Route contributions, and the X2 component distribution seems to correlate fairly well with the Na-Dene language family which has language family affinities to the Yenesian languages of Central Siberia.

    Moreover, it seems as if the Northern Route affinities are absent from the communities from roughly California on South down the Pacific coast of the Americas, while present in North America. Clovis was a primary North American and East to West phenomena in another fit to that break. Thus, one can imagine the Northern Route Na-Dene component of Amerindians being the contributors of Clovis technology and a possible bridge to Solutrean industry.

    All together, a scenario in which a Northern Route group of Siberians are incorporated into some but not all of the Beringian tribes, with the tribes that include that group expanding East of the Cascade Mountains to start, and tribes that do not expanding down the Pacific Coast, would seem to be a pretty good fix to the data. It might even suggest that a search for a macrolinguistic family that break’s Greenberg’s Amerindian into North American and Pacific Coast families might bear fruit, although the time depth could simply be too great.

    This certainly makes for a better fit to the data than a glacier edge trip across the Atlantic to North America. Circumpolar back migration from North America/Beringia would also be a more plausible explanation.

    * The notion that Northern Europe may have a thin substrate of European hunter-gatherers also makes sense, although calling them “the original European hunter-gatherers” may slightly overstate the situation. There is some reason to think (from archeology and the historical accounts of the last populations to transition) that they, like the Jomon and the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Paleo-Eskimos may have had a somewhat less nomadic fishing society rather than a stereotypical terrestrial nomadic foraging and hunting method of food production. Fishers seemed to have more staying power viz agriculturalists rather terrestrial nomadic forager/hunters.

    The substrate in modern European populations probably derives from the first post-LGM hunter-gatherers, whom there is some reason (like the genetic affinities of the Saami and Berbers) to believe were quite genetically distinct from the pre-LGM hunter-gathers of Europe.

  • Eurologist

    I don’t think one has to go as far and postulate these populations were actually the same, from Europe to Beringia. Yes, I have always said a second northern (Siberian) route makes much sense, and archaeological evidence in fact demonstrates a movement of sites from Siberia (just north of the Gobi desert) east into Beringia, over time. But I don’t believe in (multiple) replacements of populations in Europe; minute eastern admixture in the north/northeast of Europe can easily be explained by ongoing contacts since LGM and even before, via known routes both south and north of the Urals. However, their main y-DNA and most (but not all) mt-DNA lines evidently split very early or, more likely, derive from two separate streams out of the subcontinent (one NW via Afghanistan, the other perhaps via NE India) in the first place.

    Still, there a number of other cultural similarities: living in tipis, sewn leather clothing, and early emphasis on bow-and-arrow hunting and use of harpoons (Hamburg and Ahrensburg cultures). All of that can be explained by ongoing contacts and similar lifestyles in the extreme north.

  • Justin Giancola

    I’ve seen some really great programs about this on PBS and Discovery, History and the like. That might not be saying much but I really think people should give it more of a chance. There is a good deal of compelling stuff out there.

    There’s an idea about how the Younger Dryas and possibly even a comet hitting the NA ice shelf really marginalized their genetic contribution. As well as made key animals go extinct which I find much more compelling than humans killed all the mammoths. Even using this to show how very early on N. Americans became dependent on the buffalo as buffalo survived these events better and came to dominate the landscape. And if the distance bothers you if you look on a globe, one that shows all the islands and continental shelf, could it not even be walkable under the right ice conditions?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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