America’s Atlantis: did people first come to this continent by land or by sea?

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EXCERPTS: . . . as early as 50,000 years ago, the ancestors of Oceania’s Aboriginal peoples became the first hominids to ever make an open-water migration. Off Indonesia, a few of them slipped into simple watercraft and braved at least 90 kilometers of waves to reach Sahul, the landmass that has since split into New Guinea and Australia. Still-greater seafaring adventures lay ahead. New research suggests that the Māori made it to Antarctica 14 centuries ago. The Lapita people island-hopped from Taiwan to Samoa and Tonga by watching subtle colors on the underside of Polynesian clouds. A growing number of archaeologists now suspect that the first Americans also came by sea.

Nearly all dates in Paleoindian archaeology are contested, but there’s a relative consensus on the timing of the peopling of the Americas. The genomes of living Native Americans suggest that their ancestors first arrived in North America more than 15,000 years ago.

[...] Holguin is a member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. Although they do not currently inhabit the Channel Islands, the Chumash called the area home for at least 8,000 years, and perhaps go all the way back to Arlington Man and his ancestors, who were likely the first Paleoindians on the islands. When the Spanish [...] first arrived in Chumash territory, in the 16th century, as many as 25,000 Chumash were living in California, and those on the coast were a decidedly waterborne people...

[...] Holguin is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Maria Solares, the modern tribe’s cultural matriarch, who helped preserve many of its traditions. In the early 20th century [...] Solares gave a series of interviews to an anthropologist from the Smithsonian. Decades later, transcripts of the interviews were used to reconstruct the Chumash language Samala, giving it new life.

Among the lore that survived is the Chumash origin myth. According to this story, the Chumash people bloomed from a seed in the soil of the Channel Islands, planted by the Earth goddess herself. After allowing them to flourish there for thousands of years, she told some to leave, to go fill the mainland, which was then empty of people.

Braje, Holguin, Hoppa, and I hiked toward the sea from Arlington Man’s final resting place. As we sidestepped down the steep walls of the lower canyon, Braje argued that the age of the Paleoindian femur fragment supports the idea that people lived on North America’s west coast while the continent’s inner regions were still uninhabited, as the Chumash legend suggests. He told me he suspects that Arlington Man’s ancestors alighted on this island’s shores hundreds or even thousands of years before the Clovis people made their southward sprint into the interior.

Arlington Man’s remains were originally excavated by the archaeologist Phil Orr in 1960 [...] Orr originally suspected that Arlington Man hailed from the end of the Ice Age ... But it wasn’t until 2008 that radiocarbon analysis confirmed its age as 13,100 years old.

According to the Clovis-first theory, people entered the Americas less than 500 years before Arlington Man died here. If Arlington Man’s ancestors were part of the Clovis culture, that means they would have taken only a few centuries to journey thousands of miles to California’s coast. That’s not altogether implausible, given the speed of Clovis expansion, but if they did take this route, they then promptly shed their existing hunting tools (no Clovis points have ever been found on the Channel Islands) and developed a sophisticated set of coastal technologies. This scenario strikes Braje as unlikely, because the artifacts in the Channel Islands appear to have emerged from a culture that had long lived in ecological communion with the ocean.

We get a clue as to the potential sophistication of this culture from the location of Arlington Man’s remains. During the Ice Age, when fewer carbon molecules were afloat in Earth’s atmosphere than today, more sunlight bounced off the planet’s surface and back into space. Much of Earth’s water was locked into thick ice sheets. Sea levels fell so low that some of California’s beaches stretched dozens of miles farther out to sea than they are now—and Santa Rosa was joined with three of the other Channel Islands into a super-island, called Santarosae. The channel separating the island from the mainland was narrower, but it was still too wide and violent for people to swim across. Arlington Man’s presence on Santarosae is widely considered the oldest evidence of watercraft use in the Americas.

[...] Before that “big melt,” when the Clovis people would still have been penned up near the North Pole, wondering what lay beyond the great white wall to the south, the descendants of the first Americans may have been living along Santarosae’s beaches, in small settlements that have since been claimed by the waves, just like the Atlantis of myth...

[...] Looking over the port side of their small boats, toward Alaska, these explorers would have seen the edge of the Cordilleran ice sheet, the blue-veined white behemoth that ranged hundreds of miles inland. Archaeologists once assumed that this sheet barred entry to North America’s interior, and perhaps forbade coastal navigation altogether.

[...] But new modeling suggests that the ancient coastline was not uniformly icebound. Instead, North America’s west coast appears to have been a complex fractal of microenvironments, including some ice-free zones along the mainland, and even more on offshore islands, which were outside the ice sheet’s reach. A coastal people would have known to look for bountiful ecologies where major rivers came to the sea...

[...] South of the Columbia River, the great wall of white on the mainland would have given way to a more porous fence of evergreen. These early travelers might have been astonished when they first laid eyes on the fog-shrouded redwoods that coated California’s coastal ridges. Perhaps some decided to make their home among the giant trees, while others moved on to the ice-free promised land of the Channel Islands. If you believe Braje, some sailed farther south still, along the finger of the Baja peninsula, the horn of Central America, the bulge of northwestern South America, all the way down Chile’s dry coast to Monte Verde.

[...] After the Monte Verde site was excavated, a group of the world’s most prominent experts in the peopling of the Americas flew down to Chile in 1997 to see it for themselves. “This was the Clovis mafia,” Braje says. [...] And yet, upon returning from Chile, nine of their names appeared on a consensus paper affirming that Monte Verde was a pre-Clovis site.

[...] If Gusick finds Ice Age middens on the sea bottom, she will help vindicate the coastal-migration theory. She may pull up a core sample that’s full of shell bits, and perhaps a stone tool or two. Or with cutting-edge technology at a European lab, she could even search for telltale strings of humanity’s genetic code. If one of Gusick’s core samples contains definitive evidence of a pre-Clovis settlement [...] It would tell us, perhaps once and for all, that the first Americans were people of the sea.

Of course, Gusick may not find a pre-Clovis site here, and others along America’s Pacific coast may not turn up. The inland-route theory could make a comeback. America’s Atlantis could end up being dismissed as a myth, like Plato’s Atlantis. The Chumash could lose their patience with this academic feud altogether, and bar further excavations on their ancestral lands.

On this last possibility, Holguin has a more optimistic view. He told me he expects the tribe to warm up to archaeology. “I think they’ll realize how beautiful it is to be a part of a story that starts with the evolution of humans and runs all the way to our modern tribes.” (MORE - missing details)

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