Earliest US settlers came from Europe?

The commonly accepted theory for the original human settlers in the US is that 15,000 years ago they crossed over from Asia to America near the Bering Sea that had a land bridge then or at most required a short boat ride.

Hence I was intrigued by this news article (via Machines Like Us) that there is some evidence that the first humans here may consist of a people known as Solutreans who came from Europe 20,000 years ago by paddling in boats that hugged the then-existing ice-caps along the northern Atlantic coastline.

Source: Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley. The Washington Post

Part of the evidence for this claim comes from the remains of a 22,000 year-old mastodon that was found in 1970 near the Chesapeake Bay that had an eight-inch long sharp tapered stone blade still in it. This was presumably the weapon that had been used to kill the animal. This, along with other tools that had been found along the eastern coast of the US, match those used in Europe around the same time.

Of course, there is a lot more work to be done and much more evidence needed to overthrow the strongly entrenched Bering Sea migration theory. For example, there seems to be little or no evidence of human settlements that show European influence along the eastern seaboard from that time, so that it may be the case that even if the very first people did arrive by that route, they quickly died out.


  1. says

    John Hawks, an expert on early human origins, doesn’t seem to give this theory much credence.
    There is still no solid evidence – such as DNA – that points towards europeans rather than siberians, as the first Americans.

  2. Steve says

    Couldn’t this be just a case of parallel invention? Plenty of far more sophisticated technology has been independently invented by several people

  3. Rod says

    It could also be that any evidence (on the east coast as well as the west coast was flooded when the sea rose, the same rise that eliminated the Bering land bridge.
    Some have posited that there is evidence of a string of settlements off BC and the western states, all down to Chile, showing the pattern of migration, probably now pretty hard to find.

  4. Didaktylos says

    I refer you to the “Winter of the World” series of fantasy novels by Michael Scott Rohan …

  5. naturalcynic says

    I vaguely remember that a few years ago that the Solutreans were promoted by white supremacists to further a claim that North America belonged to the white race because they were here first. And then they were murdered by the interloping indians. At least twice as believable as the Book of Mormon.

  6. Anonymouse says

    My family tree includes both Norwegian and Irish ancestors, and it’s fun to imagine a few coming over by boat the way legends from both cultures tell, but it’s hard to buy into any large-scale population migration to the east coast of Canada and the United States. Look how difficult the Pilgrims found it centuries later; it’s a long, long way by water.

    It’s far easier to imagine entire tribes of people crossing the landbridge over the Bering Strait, and if you look at the Native American population, they certainly resemble Asians more than Caucasians.

    I’d really love to see wide-scale genetic studies done.

  7. Adela says

    “I’d really love to see wide-scale genetic studies done.”

    You need a good way to first tell apart First Nations population groups that do not have a post colonial European ancestor apart from ones that do. There is a lot of poorly or undocumented mixed heritage.
    For example by the government standard on paper I have a full blood Mi’maq ancestor recent enough for Metis status but the family tree shows that she clearly wasn’t but you know “one drop” standard of the period being what it was she was automatically full native.

  8. daved says

    There is a ton of debate about how old the earliest human settlements in the Americas are. There is evidence in South American of human presence 50,000 years ago. Similarly, there is a great deal of debate about who got to the Americas, when they got here, and how they got here. Try looking up “Clovis culture” in Wikipedia, for example.

    This has been kicking around for decades.

  9. peter says

    “Look how difficult the Pilgrims found it centuries later; it’s a long, long way by water.”

    Huge difference between farmers coming over and trying to farm an area that wasn’t prepared for it versus nomadic hunter-gatherers following their food sources and living off the land.

  10. Anonymouse says

    I can believe *a few* Europeans made it over, but not huge migrations of them such as obviously happened on the west coast.

  11. Stefan says

    While I’m not well versed in the background of this theory, I don’t think anyone is making the outrageous claim that the “Native Americans” are of European descent, simply that there may have been some European folks hanging around for a while before the tribes from the north made it down here.

  12. kraut says

    Here the what I think original article with a bit more info than the castrated Washington Post release:

    “Another key argument for Stanford and Bradley’s proposal is the complete absence of any human activity in north-east Siberia and Alaska prior to around 15,500 years ago. If the Maryland and other east coast people of 26,000 to 19,000 years ago had come from Asia, not Europe, early material, dating from before 19,000 years ago, should have turned up in those two northern areas, but none have been found.”

    “Now archaeologists are starting to investigate half a dozen new sites in Tennessee, Maryland and even Texas – and these locations are expected to produce more evidence.”

  13. says

    A very interesting idea that merits more research. Unfortunately it will have significant social and political ramifications, as some people will attempt to use it to attack the rights of First Nations peoples.

  14. timberwoof says

    there is a lot more work to be done and much more evidence needed to overthrow the strongly entrenched Bering Sea migration theory

    Overthrow? Supplement is more like it. I don’t see how this evidence could possibly contradict that theory. All the evidence for the Bering Strait migrations still has to be accounted for.

    The possibility that some nutcases will make stupid claims about “Europeans” being in North America first (“Europeans” whom their ancestors probably pushed to the edges of the continent long ago) or the possibility that that descendants of those who migrated from Asia will be upset that they are no longer the “first” should not stop this research.

  15. F says

    Too late. Wackos already believe stuff about Solutreans being “white” “Europeans” who were murdered by Asiatic (or proto-Polynesian, or whatever) invaders. The Solutrean hypothesis isn’t really news.

    But there’s that victimized superior race rearing it’s ugly head again. Just like the xtian nation where the xtians are marginalized.

  16. Charles Sullivan says

    But the first European settlers in the Americas did come from Iceland (via Greenland).

  17. longstreet63 says

    My only thought on this is “You don’t pursue your food sources for three thousand miles across open water.” It’s not like there are lots of islands to stop at to get shelter, fuel, fresh water, etc. Sea ice is not a hospitable terrain. Something bad would have to be chasing you. And you’d die before you got anywhere in a paddled boat.
    Europe wasn’t exactly overpopulated at the time, either. So, WHY go off to certain death?
    The fact that viking ships and renaissance caravels could just make the trip is no argument that some hide coracle could do so.

    All this because some stone tools look like other stone tools?

    No. Just no. I’m thinking somebody grasping at Eurocentric straws here.

  18. says

    I would be interested to see if the oldest human settlements on the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa has been dated. If they were concurrent with Solutrean culture, it is possible the Canarians had some contact with them and some were able to make it across the Atlantic carried by the same currents as Christopher Columbus but they never made a return journey. It’s a reach, but it provides an alternative to Solutreans skirting sea ice way up in the forbiddingly cold North Atlantic.

  19. says

    Well, after looking into it, it appears the dates are way off, with the Canaries not being settled until around the first millennium BCE. As Emily Littella used to say, “Never mind!”

  20. left0ver1under says

    I’ve heard about this before. “Iberia, not Siberia” is an interesting claim, though I’m very skeptical without more evidence. But that doesn’t mean I’m against them continuing to look.

    One thing not stated in the item is numbers. It mentions the number of people in the land-based migration to North America, but not the number of Solutreans. The reason none survived – if they were there at all – could well be the small number who did survive the trip. If it were in the dozens, or even the hundreds, there might not have been enough people to reproduce future generations. Or those who survived may have been too old to reproduce – who would try to bear children while supported only by canoes and pack ice?

    Or like many of the migrants 400 years ago, they may not have survived the weather after crossing the ocean and abandoning boats. They gave up the method of survival on water without having mastered the way of surviving on land.

  21. Mike Scott Rohan says

    Found this discussion because my name was taken in vain re my Winter of the World books, which I began nearly 30 years back. They’re fantasy with a strong scientific bias, and among the ideas they’re based on are the settlement of the US continent during the Ice Ages from across both oceans, chiefly by sea. I came to this, back then, because I was highly unsatisfied with the idea of man arriving down that “passage” which opened in the glaciers. “Passage” and “open” are relative terms; this was not the long green avenue I’ve seen in some supposedly serious illustrations. The terrain ranged from rough to mountainous, and even in high summer it must have remained dangerously wintry. People might venture along it — but only if they already knew there was habitable land down the far end. How did they know? From sea exploration. I was and am a great believer in Thor Heyerdahl’s faith in the sailing ability of supposedly “primitive” peoples (though not his exact anthropological theories). Both Siberians and Early Europeans had seagoing cultures; they could do it.

    Sorry, Longstreet, but sea ice *is* highly hospitable. Inuit spend whole seasons there, hunting and camping along the margins; I’ve seen them. During the Ice Ages, with the lower ocean heights, the intercontinental distances were much reduced, so much so that for a culture with something like Inuit skills — which we know from their artefacts the Solutreans had — finding the far side must have been almost inevitable. There’s considerable evidence that other cultures did the same; well before Columbus little Welsh fishing boats seem to have harvested the Grand Banks quite routinely. And there is archaeological evidence — the notorious Kennewick Man, for example — for the presence of non-Native American races. Serological evidence has found a firm link between the NW coast tribes and the Polynesian peoples.

    I’m sorry to hear that racists are latching onto that — as if a few early settlers and a secondary DNA strain could somehow devalue the unquestionable and extensive history of Native Americans. But they can be easily dismissed, because whatever the first settlers were, they were certainly not WASPs. The Solutreans, from southern France and Spain, were descended from Cro-Magnons, relatively recently arrived from Africa; they may even have been, er, brown! And Kennewick Man is if anything somewhat Polynesian. So much for white supremacy.


    Mike Scott Rohan, MA Oxon.
    hatever else, the first arrivals were certainly not WASPs, either!

  22. Mike Scott Rohan says

    One can’t judge whether the Solutreans reached the Americas by the lack of solid evidence they left. Their culture, very comparable with the Inuit, was ill equipped to leave any significant archaeological mark. They lived in glacially cold conditions, their materials were almost entirely natural and subject to decay, and they built no permanent structures, living chiefly around and in caves. Maybe some day we’ll excavate the right caves, but the US is a big place. What they do seem to have left was this strain of variant DNA among Native Americans, and that suggests both that they and their descendants were fairly numerous, but eventually subsumed among the greater number of Native Americans.

    But please don’t, as you do, think about their journey as so devastatingly hostile. To us, yes; but they would have been used to it. In glacial conditions the sea is a lot more fruitful than the land — think of present-day Antarctica. There would have been very little large life on land, most of the time; plant life would have been chiefly lichen staining the rocks. The most dependable sources are in the sea — fish, seal, etc., even whale — and the native hunters must follow them, living in igloos and skin huts as a matter of course and living directly on their catch, sometimes caching it for later recovery when they can find a fixed point. That would allow them to navigate, even if they had no celestial-orientation skills; and most hunter-gatherers develop those very early. Given that way of life, crossing the ocean really is not too far-fetched.



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