Sunday 29 January 2012

Belated Touchstone Thursday With a Wacky Weekend Flavour. Yayyyyy! Finally a story about Peopling the New World!!! Knut Fladmark's 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America'

I begin with one of those 'Tell me somethin' I didn't know' stories, but I'm blogging it 'cause it opens the door to me bringing a touchstone back into the light, one that I've wanted to showcase before now. First, though, the all-but-unnecessary justification for so doing. [Note: Tongue firmly in cheek for the moment.]

     This just in! Native Americans are genetically related to people on the other side of the Bering Strait. [*catcalls ... shouts of 'No sh@t, Sherlock!'*]
     No, really! has a story about new DNA evidence linking indigenous populations in the Americas to the present-day people of the Altai highlands and mountains in the middle of bloody nowhere Siberia, where China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan converge.
For the geographically challenged, the Bering Strait between Russia and Sarah Palin Land is top right and Scandinavia is top left. The North Pole is dead centre, top. The Altai Republic is coloured red.
 It's difficult to say, at this remove in time, just how the ancestors of the first people to colonize North America knew how to get there from the center of the Asian continent. Quite possibly they had a map. And, speaking of maps. Whilst searching Google images for the location map of the Altai region shown above, I came across further, cultural (as opposed to genetic) proof of the link between the Altaians of today and present-day Native Americans (at least those living in the United States). 
"Map of special gambling areas of Russia" [I swear this is for real! And I know I keep sayin' it. But you just can't make this stuff up!]
As you can clearly see from the cultural evidence shown in the map above, apparently the Palaeolithic emigrants from the Altai region travelled first to the east, then, most likely, north along the Pacific coast to Beringia, following the pachyderms and other steppe micro-, meso-, and mega-fauna and flora that abounded on the exposed circumnorthern-Pacific-Ocean continental shelf that included Beringia (shown below--once again, for the geographically [and in this case Palaeolithic-archaeologically] challenged). Then on down into the Americas, establishing outposts of Altai culture on small patches of country that the Europeans, in their infinite generosity, allowed the ex-pat Altaians to keep after they stole the land out from under them. [Pardon the chronologically imperfect narrative concocted in the interest of a funny story. *Right, Rob. Funny. What. ever.*]
In this map, found at, Beringia is top left. [Tongue is herewith parted from cheek.] Commonly referred to as a 'land bridge,' Beringia was in fact continental in scale, and throughout the last glaciation would have been largely un-glaciated--comprising a biome known as a Mammoth Steppe. Note the altogether-glaciated northern North America. Note, too, that the route shown south from Beringia through the heart of the coalescent Cordilleran and Laurentide Ice Sheets is, according to the available science, a load of hooey. The so-called 'ice-free corridor' wasn't ice-free at any time during the Last Glacial Maximum, the time frame in which the movement of people into what's now the Americas would have occurred. [Tongue returned to cheek.] As for the arrow showing movement of people between Sahul and Cape Horn, the best explanation I can come up with is that a small group of Altai emigrants stayed in eastern Russia--perhaps to finish that last roll of quarters--got turned around after too many free drinks, ended up in Australia. and had to hitchhike on  the Kon-Tiki to (finally) reach their destination. It's unclear if they ever met up with those of their group who travelled north to get to America, but it's clear from all those red pyramids on the map that they were from the same cultural background! [At this point in writing this, it was almost necessary to have my tongue surgically removed from my cheek.]
Yay!!! With that as an intro, I get to introduce this week's belated Thursday Touchstone, Knut Fladmark's 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America.' 
     Buckle up! Total change of tone ahead.
American Antiquity 44:55-69 (1979).
I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that the author of this paper was one of the biggest influences on my archaeological thinking. His undergraduate seminar was my introduction to geoarchaeology. He it was who banged into my head the archaeologist's imperative: rule out natural processes before imputing your archaeological discoveries to humans or hominids. I credit him with enabling any empirically defensible geologically related insights that I've ever published. He was, as you might expect, an early supporter of my thinking about Neanderthal burial [and once defended me strenuously at a brown bag lunch I gave on the subject when Brian Hayden tried to discredit my work by--any guesses?--appealing to the authority of the French]. I can't thank Knut enough.
     And archaeologists of North America would do well never to forget his contributions, especially 'Routes.' At the time of its publication there was almost a consensus view that people entered the Americas south of the ice sheets through the so-called ice-free corridor. Knut's paper put the kibosh on that notion, and later received some empirically weighty support with publication of this paper
in which the 'ice-free corridor' was, to my mind, quite forcefully closed, for good.
     'Routes' is what effusive literary critics often refer to as a tour de force. Yet, in Knut's case it's apt. If, and I mean if, people did inhabit the Americas south of the ice sheets prior to deglaciation, they would without doubt have used the ocean route that's plotted for us in 'Routes.' It goes without saying that evidence of the passage is on the continental shelf. Thus, we are left with plausibility arguments such as Fladmark's. I'm willing to live with the ambiguity introduced by the watery limitations on archaeological visibility in this case. How about you?
     Sure, some of the empirical data are out of date by now, and much has been revealed since its publication. [Funny story. Referring to a 1971 book on Quaternary geology that I cited in one of the papers I wrote for him in 1986, he gently chided me by saying that a fifteen-year-old reference 'might as well have been written in the Pleistocene.'] But the scholarship represented in his work, and the sensible nature of its insights, persuaded me to take his proposition on board, and convinced me that it would stand for a good long time. 
     See what you think. If you've never encountered it before, or if you've only encountered it in the form of a citation in a more recent work, give it a good read. Both as an example of a first-class scientific paper, and as a lasting contribution to knowledge of American archaeology, I can't recommend it more highly.
     That's it. I'm out o' here. See you on the flip-flop.


  1. A nice choice for a 'Touchstone Thursday' piece on a Sunday. Whenever I come across a book or other piece of writing on North American prehistory, I first go to what the authors have to say on the intial routes. If it is work designed for a general audience and the author don't give the coastal route primacy, I usually toss it (literally or metaphorically). I read, with interest, the scholarly work of others (such as the Bradley and Stanford idea of a North Atlantic crossing - the Solutrean Connection) but recalling how to evaluate competing hypotheses, I always come back to the coastal route. A problem of course is that many of the very early sites along the coast would now be underwater. Since Fladmark's article, there have been many more c 10,000 yr old sites found along the corridor and more high altitute locations along the coast that show substantial plant and animal life in areas once thought to be glaciated. I won't be surprised if archaeologists soon discover human occupation in some of these high altitute locations within the route dating to the 15,000 yr or more age range.

  2. Good choice. Did you know that there is a paper inpress online by Jim Dixon: E. J. Dixon. in press. Late Pleistocene Colonization of North America from Northeast Asia: New Insights from Large-Scale Paleogeographic Reconstructions. Quaternary International DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2011.02.027.

    It may be of some interest too that the Altai is where Denisova is, and the dog that reached some publicity the other day. I had not made the connection last week, but, of course, one of the interesting things is that the first americans seem to have had dogs with them (and possibly gourds).

    Another thing that I have not yet looked into is that the Altai study seems to suggest that the Altai folk have haplotype Q which is one of the Sunda haplotypes.

  3. @Bob. I wouldn't necessarily be surprised about the 10 kyr old sites, as the deglaciation was occurring apace by then. I must confess (until such time as earlier evidence surfaces) that the 15 ka old sites still seem a little unlikely. It's job security!
    @Iain. I'm intrigued by your dot-connecting with regard to the Altai region and Q. I completely forgot to look more closely at the dog piece after my superficial scan revealed those, shall we say, editorial slip-ups. Must do that. On the other matter, it appears that the Q was widespread in Asia. But that's what you'd expect if you were dealing with a founding population moving into new areas at some point. My jest about them needing a map wasn't entirely facetious. I suppose stranger things have happened...however I have trouble thinking of a group of people in such an inhospitable place in the middle of the continent as being the 'founders' of anything. Isn't it much more likely that they were at the fringe of a broadly distributed population spreading east, and as such they may represent the opposite of a founder population--that of a relict?


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