East Coast Ice v. West Coast Kelp

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has been living large in St. Louis the past few days, with scholars and educators attending its annual meeting getting not one, but two new explanations for how and why human beings occupy the North American continent.

According to this story on LiveScience.com, the concept most of us vaguely have in our minds — that the Americas were first populated via a land-ice bridge across the Bering Strait and then gradually moved south — might be wrong. The glaciers began melting 17,000 years ago, recent studies show, rendering that transitway impossible. But also:

(W)hen archaeologist Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution places American spearheads, called Clovis points, side-by-side with Siberian points, he sees a divergence of many characteristics.

Instead, Stanford said today, Clovis points match up much closer with Solutrean style tools, which researchers date to about 19,000 years ago. This suggests that the American people making Clovis points made Solutrean points before that.

There’s just one problem with this hypothesis—Solutrean toolmakers lived in France and Spain. Scientists know of no land-ice bridge that spanned that entire gap.

Stanford has an idea for how humans crossed the Atlantic, though—boats. Art from that era indicates that Solutrean populations in northern Spain were hunting marine animals, such as seals, walrus, and tuna.

They may have even made their way into the floating ice chunks that unite immense harp seal populations in Canada and Europe each year. Four million seals, Stanford said, would look like a pretty good meal to hungry European hunters, who might have ventured into the ice flows much the same way that the Inuit in Alaska and Greenland do today.

But wait! Couldn’t Asia’s ancients use boats too? According to another anthropologist’s study (also summarized on LiveScience), humans from Asia might have followed an “ocean highway” made of dense kelp. Jon Erlandson of the University of Oregon found:

Today, a nearly continuous “kelp highway” stretches from Japan, up along Siberia, across the Bering Strait to Alaska, and down again along the California coastline, Erlandson said.

Kelp forests are some of the world’s richest ecosystems. They are homes to seals, sea otters, hundreds of species of fish, sea urchins and abalone, all of which would have been important food and material sources for maritime people.

Although the coastal migration theory has yet to be proven with hard evidence, it is known that seafaring peoples lived in the Ryukyu Islands near Japan during the height of the last glacial period, about 35,000 to 15,000 years ago. These peoples may have traveled 90 or more miles at a time between islands.

Some scientists believe that maritime people boated from Japan to Alaska along the Aleutian and Kurile Islands around 16,000 years ago. Before that, people may have island-hopped their way to Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.

Scientists have discovered settlements 11,500 to 9,000 years old along the coasts of some of these Pacific islands, which also have ecologically-rich kelp forests nearby that Erlandson believes existed when people were island hopping. The remains of kelp resources have been discovered in a settlement in Daisy Cave in the Channel Islands off southern California, dated to about 9,800 years ago.

“The fact that productive kelp forests are found adjacent to some of the earliest coastal archaeological sites in the Americas supports the idea that such forests may have facilitated human coastal migrations around the Pacific Rim near the end of the last glacial period,” Erlandson said. “In essence, they may have acted as a sort of kelp highway.”

Kelp forests also provide a barrier between coastal settlements and the rough open seas and lessen the wave forces on beach-side settlements. Sometimes the kelp washes up on land, where land animals, which humans could kill and eat, can munch on it.

These were just two of hundreds of papers presented in St. Louis over the weekend (where it’s been in the 20s overnight and topping out in the low 40s during the day. Was the LA Convention Center booked up?) AAAS’s Board of Directors took the occasion to denounce legislation and policies that would “deprive students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community.” Among the states considering anti-evolution legislation: Missouri. According to a release on the AAAS website:

Some of these bills would seek to discredit evolution by emphasizing “flaws” in the theory of evolution, or “disagreements” within the scientific community, the AAAS Board noted. Other bills would encourage teachers and students to explore the concept of intelligent design or other non-scientific “alternatives” to evolution, or to “critically analyze” evolution and “the controversy”. But, AAAS emphasized, “There is no significant controversy within the scientific community about the validity of evolution.”

Moreover, “Evolution is one of the most robust and widely accepted principles of modern science,” the AAAS Board concluded, reconfirming its October 18, 2002 statement, as well as the December 2005 ruling of federal District Court Judge John E. Jones III, who found that intelligent design is based on religion, not science.

I can’t find the citations right now, but from what I’ve read on a few conservative sites (especially on The Corner), Judge Jones’ smackdown of Intelligent Design is going to cause political ripples. It’s apparent that the Republican Party’s supporters in the religious right continue to see Intelligent Design as occupying a legitimate place in the classroom, and don’t take kindly to Republicans who admit they think it’s hooey.

From the tone of the attacks on the conservative pundits who dared to admit they found Intelligent Design an intellectual embarassment — and from the rapid “I never meant to suggest” backfilling that followed — anti-evolution is fast becoming a religious right litmus test on the same level as anti-choice and anti-gay marriage.

As the east-coast/west-coast migration theories show, there is plenty of room for debate about how we got here and who we are. To paraphrase former President Clinton, we don’t have the brain cells to waste on debating settled matters.

2 thoughts on “East Coast Ice v. West Coast Kelp

  1. I doubt the Pacific kelp highway would have been at all traversible prior to the Bolling inter- stadial of ca 14,000 PB. But the transit of the Solutreans, via a North Atlantic archipelago was feasible much earlier, accounting for the proto-Clovis points at Cactus Hill VA which date to ca. 17-18,000 BP. (See Roots of Cataclysm, Algora Publ.NY 2009.)

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