Extraordinary claims require a lot of evidence

By Razib Khan | March 5, 2012 8:23 pm

Several people have emailed me about the Solutrean hypothesis. The trigger is the publication of Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. To my surprise this has received a lot of media attention. The Washington Post, io9, and The New Scientist. Granted, the coverage has been appropriately skeptical. But it still gets to the truth of it that all publicity is good publicity, and here I am talking about a model which I believe is pretty much bunk.


My own current estimation is that there is a 99.5 percent probability that the basic outlines of the Solutrean hypothesis are false (that Paleolithic Western Europeans traversed the North Atlantic ice, that the Solutrean culture substantively contributed to the Clovis culture). I don’t say 100 percent because the past few years have indicated that certainty is something you shouldn’t adhere to with much ardor in the area of human prehistory. The post over at io9 alludes to the relative weakness of any genetic connection. The papers linked are actually that dispositive, but the overall claim is correct: there is no strong genetic evidence connecting modern Native American populations to the Solutreans. Or is there? One presupposition is that for there to be evidence of Solutreans Amerindians need to exhibit some relationship to modern Europeans, the putative descendants of the Solutreans. This assumption has made the Solutrean hypothesis very charged and political, because the lack of Solutrean genes implies replacement of the Paleolithic Europeans by the ancestors of the Amerindians (to the credit of the authors they don’t appeal at all to such political motives from what I can gather).

But the crux of the matter is that we may have to be careful in assuming that modern Europeans are an appropriate proxy for the Solutreans. The Solutrean culture flourished ~20,000 years ago. It may be that they were replaced by successive waves of other peoples, and that modern Europeans have little genetic connection to them! The most recent work on Southern and Eastern Eurasia, and further on toward Oceania, indicates massive changes over the past 20,000 years in the genetic character of the populations. Why would one presume the West European fringe was any different?

This does not mean that I think that the Solutrean hypothesis is correct. Only that many of the questions and answers we propose may not even be wrong. The ultimate answer may be that real prehistory was more complex and strange than heterodox models proposed by “bold” archaeologists.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

  • DK

    Hopefully all this will soon be resolved by grind’n'PCR: there have to be bones associated with Solutrean tools and there have to be tons of pre-Columbian bones.

  • DK

    Oh, and by the way, that guy, Kyle Bristow, in your link to the hypothesis being “very charged and political”, is a real riot. He now has a web site called Solutrean Liberation Front ( http://solutreanliberationfront.blogspot.com ). When I saw it, I first thought it was someone’s joke, a parody site. But no, it’s all very serious. Eh.

  • http://www.ahnenkult.com/ Ortu Kan

    DK — Hopefully soon, right?, but that might be getting ahead of ourselves. Stanford and Bradley state in their new book that at present no undisputed remains of Clovis or Solutrean people have been found to provide genetic data for comparisons.

    Bones aside, the quality of soft tissue preservation in those ancient Floridian sinkhole and bog remains is often quite remarkable (with the crania in some cases containing still-intact brains). mtDNA work’s already been conducted on some of them (by Pääbo on ca. 7 Ka material from Little Salt Spring, and by Hauswirth on 7-8 Ka material from Windover Bog), but the outcomes were inconclusive haplogroup-assignment-wise and remain open to doubt.

    Keep your ears open.

  • Justin Giancola

    How synchronistic would it be though if West & East Eurasians and Australasians all overlaid into the New World people? An OoA confluence.

  • chris y

    at present no undisputed remains of Clovis or Solutrean people have been found to provide genetic data for comparisons

    That’s damn convenient, isn’t it?

    I noted Hawkes’ preliminary comment:

    There is no new evidence, no revelation, no reason why other archaeologists should revisit this issue at this time. The news is free publicity for the release of a book.

  • dave chamberlin

    I love the phrase “rogue anthropologist”, it makes them sound like elephants gone bad. Anyway I don’t see why it is so impossible for a few random boatloads of people making to the Americas but then because it is a very small population that they die out. If we don’t find evidence in the genes then so what. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Why don’t people get this? How do we beat it into their heads.

  • Naughtius Maximus

    Isn’t part of the genetic arguement the finding of mtDNA X2; as far as I can tell it is found in Iberia and apparently in small parts the native population on the East Coast, so the logic seems to be it came from Iberia. What is known about the spread of X2, isn’t a likely sceanrio that it got to both American and Iberia from a common area? And is this possible for any artefacts also?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, the normal argument is that siberians brought it. and yeah, the common area would be central eurasia (i think the kets have something similar).

  • pconroy

    I suspect that although there isn’t much new about this, that such a voyage or migration would have been relatively easy.

    If it did happen, I expect the some of the last of these people would be the enigmatic Dorset Culture:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorset_culture

    Then there is Kennewick Man:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kennewick_Man

    Who looks like Patrick Stewart to me:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Stewart

    Then you have the 25% mtDNA X2 among the Ojibwe:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe_people

    The other question is, where would descendants of the Solutreans be found in the Old World today, and the answer is that maybe:
    1. There are none
    2. Among the Basque, Canarians (Guanche), Berbers, Sami, Finns

    @Razib,
    I think the Ket people are related to the Na-Dene peoples – who migrated into the Americas relatively recently

  • pconroy

    Comment in moderation…

  • http://www.ahnenkult.com/ Ortu Kan

    This writeup I composed includes a compilation of frequency data for X2 in modern-day Amerindian populations. It seems more accurate to say “Great Lakes” and “Great Plains” (with pockets of ~10% incidence in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest U.S. — the Nuu-Chah-Nulth/Nootka and Pueblo tribes plus Navajo, respectively) than “East Coast”, though perhaps the picture would be different had the mid-Atlantic Algonquian speakers persisted more strongly. (And who’s to say what the pattern was in deep prehistory?)

    @pconroy: I’m not sure I find the “Caucasoid” appearance of the Kennewick Man and Spirit Cave Man reconstructions all that compelling — not after all the double-takes I had to do while looking through old photographs of Ainus. Consider this man (or this one) and know that I’ve seen even more remarkably “West Eurasian”-looking individuals! (I’ll put up some more scans on my blog when I find the time.) Certainly it’s striking, but first impressions go only so far.

    @Razib: I think you were thinking of Altaians (who exclusively bear X2e, at sub-5% frequencies), instead of Kets. It’s sometimes claimed that they’re the only Siberian population known to have X2; as Reidla et al. (2003) note, that’s not strictly correct:

    In contrast to the Altaians, the Evenks did not harbor any West Eurasian mtDNA haplogroups other than X. However, neither of the two Evenk X haplotypes showed mutations characteristic of the Native American clade X2a. Instead, one sequence was a member of X2b and the other of X2. Thus, one possible scenario is that several X haplotypes arrived in Siberia from western Asia during the Palaeolithic, but only X2a crossed Beringia and survived in modern Native Americans.

    So far as we can tell, X2a is exclusively New World. The same’s true of the much more recently discovered X2g, a whole other subclade presently known from a single Ojibwa individual. That said, I’m obligated to mention an interesting result from Fernandes et al. (2012):

    A curious feature of the tree is the possible connection of X2a to the north-African clade X2j through a mutation at position 12,397. However, this mutation might be a recurrence; X2j appears to be extremely recent. The rare X2g, also found only in Native Americans, indicates that the spread from the Near East toward the Americas could have begun as early as the emergence of the X2+225 clade [which their tree roots at ~21 Ka], given that this could have been the only founder sequence.

  • pconroy

    @Ortu,

    Very interesting – especially the second Ainu, who definitely looks similar to Kennewick Man.

    In terms of X and downstream, judging from my own results, it’s found in Irish and other Western Europeans in low frequencies.

    Out of 837 results (Irish), I have:
    X – 1
    X2 – 2
    X2b – 9
    X2b4 – 1
    X2c1 – 1
    Total = 14
    These are all Western Europe, mostly Irish, plus one Italian (X2c1) and one Swede (X2b).

    Of my wife’s 289 results (1/8 German, 1/8 Irish, 1/4 Polish, 1/2 Sicilian), she has:
    X1a1 – 2
    X2 – 2
    X2b – 3
    X2b4 – 1
    X2c1 – 2
    X2d – 1
    X2e – 1
    Total = 12
    These are mostly Sicilian, with German (X2b) and Irish (X2b).

    So there is X2e in Sicily, as well as among the Altains?! This seems to point to a radiation from the Middle East, along the coasts and possibly up the Atlantic facade to Ireland. Note that I have an Irish X… the root of the clade.

  • Tom Bri

    Well, what do we know of Solutrean material culture that would cause us to suspect this type of journey is even possible? Not much, other than that they had some awfully good artists amongst them, and made a few clever tools, harpoons with detachable heads (like Eskimos?) and the like. Beyond that we have no knowledge of any boating skills or other construction skills. I’d have to see solid genetic data, or a trail of Solutrean artifacts in a swath across Britain, Iceland, and on down the coast of N. Am. Of course, they would have been out on the ice, or in boats over water, so such evidence is now probably 300 meters under water, if not a lot deeper.

    It would not surprise me a bit to find out this idea is true, since we know other peoples of the same era did have boats, and there is that crazy-good art to indicate a high degree of material skill. A handful making the trip, not enough to carry the full Solutrean cultural toolkit, spreading out very thinly and swamped later by Asian immigrants. Not too unlikely.

  • http://thesubversivearchaeologist.blogspot.com Rob Gargett

    You make an excellent point. If anything, the ‘experts’ should have sampled people with deep roots in the Basque area of Spain, or the Saami, in Finland. Both groups are often cited as, perhaps, relict populations of the ‘indigenous’ people of Europe who were, for the most part assimilated by the Indo-European speakers that infiltrated during the Neolithic ‘revolution’ in Europe. Regardless. Bravo! We could use more clear thinkers like you in palaeoanthropology.

  • free thinker

    The Solutrean hypothesis might be settled by doing a full genome on the mummies from the Parancas Valley in Peru. I know that a lot of nonsense has been written about these very Caucasian-looking people, but you don’t have to be an anthropologist to notice racial differences.

  • Neil
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #16, i bet it is that stupid people don’t realize hair can lose its dark color?

    http://tinyurl.com/7lo8caw

    #15, don’t use the retarded word caucasian in these comments when you mean european or white (this is not an invitation to discuss this).

  • Justin Giancola

    “i bet it is that stupid people don’t realize hair can lose its dark color?”

    bring this up all the time.

  • ackbark

    According to this,

    http://www.livescience.com/10226-atlantic-ocean-waters-reversed-direction-study-finds.html

    the lower level of the Gulf Stream flowed in reverse 20,000 years ago, from south to north. Doesn’t say though if that meant the upper level would also have been going in reverse.

    But if it was it may have been relatively easy for a fishing boat venturing up north to get swept along to the west.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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