HUGGING THE SHORE

Since Holmes and Hrdliimageka, archaeologists and anthropologists have tried to separate themselves from Abbott’s modern descendants: the mob of sweaty-palmed archaeology buffs who consume books about Atlantis and run Web sites about aliens in Peru and medieval Welsh in Iowa. The consensus around Clovis helped beat them back, but the confused back-and-forth ushered in by the genetic studies has provided a new opening. Unable to repel the quacks with a clear theory of their own, archaeologists and anthropologists found themselves enveloped in a cloud of speculation.

The most notorious recent example of this phenomenon is surely Kennewick Man. A 9,400-year-old skeleton that turned up near Kennewick, Washington, in 1997, Kennewick Man became a center of controversy when an early reconstruction of the skeleton’s face suggested that it had Caucasian features (or, more precisely, “Caucasoid” features). The reconstruction, published in newspapers and magazines around the world, elicited assertions that Indians had European ancestry. Archaeologists and Indian activists, for once united, scoffed at this notion. Indian and European mitochondrial DNA are strikingly different. How could Indians descend from Europeans if they did not inherit their genetic makeup?

Yet, as Fiedel conceded to me, the collapse of the Clovis consensus means that archaeologists must consider unorthodox possibilities, including that some other people preceded the ancestors of today’s Indians into the Americas. Numerous candidates exist for these prepaleo-Indians, among them the Lagoa Santa people, whose skulls more resemble the skulls of Australian aborigines than those of Native Americans. Skull gauging is, at best, an inexact science, and most archaeologists have dismissed the notion of an Australian role in American prehistory. But in the fall of 2003 an article in the journal Nature about ancient skulls in Baja California revived this possibility. Aborigines, in one scenario, may have traveled from Australia to Tierra del Fuego via Antarctica. Or else there was a single ancestral population split, with the ancestors of Australians heading in one direction and the ancestors of Indians heading in another. In either version of the scenario the ancestors of today’s Indians crossed the Bering Strait to find the Americas already settled by Australians. Migration across Antarctica!—exactly the sort of extravagant notion that the whitecoats sought to consign to the historical dustbin. Now they may all be back. If Clovis was not first, the archaeology of the Americas is wide open, a prospect variously feared and welcomed. “Anything goes now, apparently,” Fiedel told me. “The lunatics have taken over the asylum.”

Despite such misgivings, one can see, squinting a little, the outlines of an emerging theory. In the last few years researchers have focused more and more on a proposal linked to the name of Knut Fladmark, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia. As a graduate student in the mid-1970s, Fladmark was so surprised to learn of the paucity of evidence for the ice-free corridor that he wondered if paleo-Indians had instead gone down the Pacific coast by boat. After all, aborigines had reached Australia by boat tens of thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, most archaeologists pooh-poohed the idea, because there was no substantiation for it.

By examining pollen in the ocean sediments near the Pacific coastline, researchers have recently learned that even in the depths of the Ice Age warm southern currents created temperate refuges along the shore—islands of trees and grass in a landscape of ice. Hopping from refuge to refuge, paleo-Indians could have made their way down the coast at any time in the last forty thousand years. “Even primitive boats,” Fladmark has written, “could traverse the entire Pacific coast of North and South America in less than 10–15 years.”

Evidence for the coastal route is sparse, not least because archaeologists have never looked for paleo-Indian settlements on the shoreline. Future searches will be difficult: thousands of years ago, the melting glaciers raised the seas, inundating coastal settlements, if they existed. Coastal-route proponents like to point out that Clovis-firsters believed in the existence of the ice-free corridor without much supporting data. The coastal route has equally little empirical backing, but in their view makes more sense. Most important, the image of a seagoing people fits into a general rethinking of paleo-Indian life.

Because the first-discovered Clovis site was a hunting camp, archaeologists have usually assumed that Clovis society was focused on hunting. Indeed, Clovisites were thought to have entered the ice-free corridor by pursuing game—“follow the reindeer,” as skeptics refer to this scheme. In contemporary hunting and gathering societies, anthropologists have learned, gathering by women usually supplies most of the daily diet. The meat provided by male hunters is a kind of luxury, a special treat for a binge and celebration, the Pleistocene equivalent of a giant box of Toblerone. Compared to its brethren around the world, Clovis society, with its putative focus on massive, exterminating hunts, would have been an anomaly. A coastal route helps bring the paleo-Indians back in line.

Then as now, the Northwest Coast, thick with fruit and fruits de mer, was a gatherer’s paradise: wild strawberries, wild blueberries, soapberries, huckleberries, thimbleberries, salmonberries; clams, cockles, mussels, oysters; flounder, hake, salmon. (To get breakfast, the local saying says, take a walk in the forest; to get dinner, wait for low tide.) Perhaps the smell of candlefish fat, ubiquitous in later Northwest Coast Indian cookery, even then hovered over the first visitors’ fires. One can guess that their boats were not made of wood, because they had long lived on the almost treeless plains of Beringia. Instead they may have been made from animal skin, a readily available resource; though soft beneath the foot, fragile-looking hide vessels have been known to traverse hundreds of miles of open water. A visitor to the Northwest twenty thousand years ago might have seen such a craft bobbing over the waves like a long, floating balloon, ten or twenty men lining its sides, chasing minke whales with stone-tipped spears.

All of this is speculative, to say the least, and may well be wrong. Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

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