Sprinkling Some Grains of Salt on Ice Bridge

Pic: Still from the documentary

On January 14th, 2018, the popular CBC program “The Nature of Things” aired an hour-long documentary titled, Ice Bridge. This documentary sought out to explore in detail the Solutrean Hypothesis, the brain-child of archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley. Well, in fairness the hypothesis came about in the 1930’s but quickly died out. Stanford and Bradley have since resurrected it. This hypothesis states that the first people to settle in the Americas were the Solutreans, a culture from France and Spain defined in large part by their artwork and stone tools. A small subset of their toolkit was comprised of very thin leaf-shaped bifaces (a fancy word for a tool that has cultural modification on both sides of it) made by a style of flint-knapping (the process of making stone tools) referred to as “overshot flaking” (see my previous post on flakes).

Some early stone tools in North America, commonly known as Clovis tools (circa 14,000 years ago) were manufactured by a similar overshot flaking technique. The Solutrean Hypothesis claims, based on these tool similarities, that the Solutreans came to the Americas by boat and an ice bridge across the Atlantic Ocean around 20,000 years ago. The problem with CBC’s documentary supporting that idea is that the Solutrean Hypothesis is a theory almost universally rejected by the archaeological community because it has no evidence. It’s also a theory loved by white nationalist groups. That’s why I included the Solutrean Hypothesis in my recent discussion on pseudoarchaeology. In fact, when I was looking for good images to illustrate overshot flake scars I accidentally ended up on a few white nationalist websites discussing the theory.

I was disappointed, like many others, in CBC’s decision to air a documentary about such a pseduoarchaeological theory. Disappointment rang loud enough before airing the documentary for the director herself, Robin Bicknell, to be questioned about the controversy. Her responses were just as disappointing and demonstrated a lack of awareness of the damage airing a documentary loved by white nationalists can cause.

CBC interview 1
Excerpt from the interview with Bicknell (her comments non-bold text)

The first thing I noticed was her use of language. When questioned about Bradley and Stanford, Bicknell referred to them as ‘scientists’ and used the phrase, ‘top of their game’. Later, when questioned about scientists who have criticized the theory, Bicknell refers to them as ‘people’ and not scientists, demoting their expertise. The racist uses of the theory also aren’t taken as seriously as what they should be, with the nonchalant mention, “it’s not really part of the hypothesis.” Yes, we know that’s not part of the hypothesis, or even its intention. But perception is reality. How words or actions are perceived is just as important as what is actually being said or done. In this case, the problem is that regardless of intent the Solutrean Hypothesis is being used to support racist ideas and airing a documentary saying, “let’s hear this theory out because they might be on to something” is in turn lending support to those racist ideas.

Ice Bridge was admittedly well-produced and convincing to those watching uncritically. It also nearly completely ignored the criticisms and evidence rejecting the theory. Yes, archaeologists who disagree with the hypothesis were given a chance to state that they disagree with it. But that was it. None of the archaeological research that rejects the hypothesis was mentioned. The documentary was very, very one-sided. Not only regarding archaeological evidence, but also Indigenous voices. For a hypothesis entirely related to the history of North American Indigenous peoples, there was only one Huron-Wendat man included for a very short period of time.

Finding myself entirely annoyed with the one-sidedness of Ice Bridge, I decided to draw out some of the arguments made in the documentary and provide additional information to keep in mind should you decide to watch it. I’ve listed them below, in no particular order. So, should you decide to watch the documentary, do so with the grains of salt I’ve sprinkled here. Bold print indicates what was argued in the documentary. Everything below are my own comments.

  1. Lithic tools with overshot flaking were found in Spain and France 24,000 years ago and nearly identical tools have been found in North America from sites around 14,000 years old (give or take). Yes, the similarities between known Solutrean bifaces and the bifaces presented in Ice Bridge are pretty striking. But
    Clovis
    Clovis points demonstrating overshot flake scars

    that’s it. The only physical evidence for the Solutrean Hypothesis are a small handful of lithics that happen to look like other lithics. They’ve been the subject of debate between Bradley and Stanford and other archaeologists. It’s also important to note that the bifaces presented in Ice Bridge weren’t found in any specific context. They weren’t found next to a hearth feature or with butchered bones or anything human-produced that could be used to properly date them. These lithics were found sticking out of a crumbling wall with nothing else around them. Let’s also consider dates for a moment here, and the several thousands of years between Solutrean and Clovis tools. Did Solutrean people really come to North America, stop making their tools for 7000 years, and then suddenly start making them again?

  2. The Solutreans traveled by boat, like many other groups of people in the past. Yes, there are many examples of travel by boat in the past. People all around the world used boats. The Solutreans weren’t one of them. There is no evidence for sea-faring of any sort by Solutrean peoples. Sure, as the documentary points out boats were typically made of organic materials that wouldn’t preserve in the archaeological record. But you need tools to make boats, and if the Solutreans used seal-skin boats than they would need two types of tools – some for processing wood for the frame and others for processing the seal skins. These tools are no where to be found in Solutrean sites. In addition, given that the Solutreans are also well-known for their intricate rock art, there are no artistic depictions anywhere of watercraft. Bradley and Stanford’s argument for the use of boats comes from humans arriving in Australia 60.000 years ago, likely by boat, and from cave art depicting fish and seals. They believe fish (specifically halibut) and seals could only be hunted and fished by boat. If you give seal hunting and halibut fishing a Google search, you’ll find out both can easily be caught on shore. No boats necessary.

    Solutrean marine
    Solutrean depictions of seals and fish (from Bradley and Stanford’s 2012 book)
  3. A carving of a fish (specifically a salmon) in a cave in France means the Solutreans must have been fishing from the ocean. Let’s start with a gentle reminder that fish don’t only live in the ocean. They can be found in lakes, rivers, and streams as well. Finding a carving of a fish in a cave doesn’t automatically mean people were fishing at the ocean. And even though salmon can be found in both the ocean and non-ocean water sources, there is nothing about the carving of the fish in Isturitz Cave that specifically identifies it as a salmon.

    CBC Doc 1
    The cave in France where the fish carving was observed (still from the documentary)
  4. Finding a drawing of an auk in a cave in France means Solutreans must have been hunting auks by the ocean. Sure, this makes sense. The great auk was a large-sized bird ocean bird with a plentiful population. They didn’t go extinct until over-hunting in the 16th century.  But hunting a bird by the ocean doesn’t mean that people began to build boats and travel across the Atlantic. If the great auk population was plentiful in France and Spain, what reason would the Solutreans have to leave that? And speaking for a moment about art itself, there is no Solutrean art anywhere in North America.
  5. 3 of the 40 teeth tested came back with genetic marker X2a from France and Spain. They did. But X2a is not as conclusive as Oppenheimer makes it out to be. I am admittedly completely oversimplifying genetics here. Genetic haplogroup X2a is unique to North America and is a descendant of X2, a widespread haplogroup found in low numbers around the world. But where exactly X2a evolved from remains entirely unknown. Oppenheimer has argued that X2a must have come to North America with the Solutreans because its grandparent, X2, is found in higher frequency in Scotland and X2a’s ancestors have not been found in Siberia. Geneticist Jennifer Raff, who was interviewed in the documentary, has pointed out that the X2 haplogroup in Scotland is not related to North American X2a so it can’t be used for Oppenheimer’s argument. Furthermore, the oldest example of X2a in North America comes from The Ancient One, who lived on the west coast, not the east coast. And recent genetic evidence continues to strongly point to a western entry into North America, not an eastern entry.
  6. Charcoal Samples from the site in Maryland were dated to 22,000 years old! They were indeed dated to 22,000 years old. But they’re only pieces of charcoal. There was nothing human-produced around them. No tools. No hearth. No butchered animal bones. They were literally just a few pieces of charcoal in the ground with absolutely nothing suggesting they were human-produced.

So there you have it. A longer post than normal, but there was a lot to be said. It was completely irresponsible for CBC to air a documentary that supports a theory loved by white nationalists, and the “not my issue” attitudes of the archaeologists and director of this documentary are unacceptable. Bicknell stated, “If white supremacists want to view this theory through their lens and place on their version of history on people of the past, then there’s nothing I can do about it.” Yes, there is. Being seemingly aware of what they believe, you can choose not to develop a documentary that lends support to their racist ideas. Instead of turning a blind eye because you don’t “…want to give a lick of credence to a ludicrous notion” you can speak out against them. That’s what you can do about it.

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5 thoughts on “Sprinkling Some Grains of Salt on Ice Bridge

  1. I have a few counterpoints to your grains of salt.

    First off, I object to your attempt to skew other archaeologists theories as pseudo-archaeology. For many years we know it was impossible for human flight. It’s a good thing, or people would eventually be flying everywhere. Just because a theory is in the minority, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Luckily we don’t execute or threaten to execute scientists for presenting minority theories, like Gallileos ideas and Copernicus’ ideas anymore. You harm the entire field by attacking others.

    Secondly, while fishing from shore is certainly possible and common, fishing for deep water fish is not commonly done from shore. It may have been feasible in the Solutrean period. Also, while nets could certainly be used from land, it is hardly common practice using fishing nets from land to capture seals. Again plausible, but not the most likely. Why use a net on the land instead of a spear or a club? Seems to be about the hardest and least likely idea to be successful in a land hunt.

    Third your point 5 seems fairly conclusive there must be some connection between the Solutreans and Native Americans. The fact the X2a was found is quite convincing evidence the two peoples are connected, irregardless of which route may be suspected. The question that needs to be answered there is are there any modern Native American people downstream of the X2a lineages found in France and Spain. Finding whether that is in fact the case or not will neither confirm, nor disprove an Atlantic crossing.

    Personally, I don’t understand the big concern with the theory of a possible Atlantic crossing. It’s certainly a very plausible idea that ancient people followed along the shores of a glacial Atlantic. Not just a few years ago it was a discredited idea that homo sapiens and neanderthals crossbred. It wasn’t possible, they were too different, so on and so forth. Yet it was always a very plausible idea, and in fact intuitively obvious idea. So, I find the whole idea of a group of ancient people traveling along a frozen coastline in small boats from Europe to the Americas highly plausible and intuitively obvious. Humans are very adventurous. Whether such a group survived and flourished for any length of time, and whether there are any modern day descendants is another matter. It doesn’t mean it’s an unworthy topic of research. One can have any theory they want, so long as theories don’t twist the evidence to fit the theory, or argument, and not the theory fitting the evidence. You’ve been as guilty as the production of ignoring some of the evidence to fit your argument. Every archaeological/historical made for TV show I’ve ever watched has been also the same way. Ignoring or playing down evidence and facts that were uncomfortable for the plot of the show. One can’t watch or read pretty much anything anymore without keeping a supply of salt on hand.

    Lastly, simply because a bunch of idiots who have no concept of reality, history, or science latch onto a theory that doesn’t even support what they think it does is irrelevant as to whether it is good or bad science.

    It seems to me, the best thing to do, if you fear white nationalists, or whatever you want to call them, support a minority theory is to show the theory cannot be true, or is in fact true. But that means compiling a lot of evidence we currently don’t have. Whether it can be either proven or disproven remains to be seen. The evidence may or may not survive. Clearly, it would be good to know the lineage of Ancient one with the X2a found in North America, and develop as complete an X2a haplotree as possible.

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  2. Hi Brian,
    It’s very difficult to prove a negative. You’d have to archaeologically dig every square inch of the continent, and still there would be doubters. The evidence presented by the documentary – the tool similarities and the genetic evidence, has been comprehensively examined and found wanting. This isn’t enough for some, but as things stand it is the view of most archaeologists. Additionally, all archaeology is political and CBC cannot duck responsibility for their reckless promotion of a discredited hypothesis beloved of white supremacists.

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  3. Thank you for this. The frequent opening argument of those who support the Solutrean conjecture is to equate it with revolutionaries like Copernicus, Einstein, the Wright brothers, etc etc. False equivalency is the lazy version of science journalism. The Solutrean conjecture is what it is… a conjecture. The Beringia theory is not a conjecture. It is amassing new evidence all the time. Being open minded is crucial for science. But so is having the capacity for self-doubt and skepticism. Skepticism is the natural stance of science.

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