Science knows that the Norse (Vikings) colonized Greenland a millennium ago, but the colony didn’t stick when colder temperatures returned following the Medieval Warm Period. Average daily temperatures in Greenland warmed about 3 degrees F before the plunge back into a Little Ice Age (which itself only ended well into the 19th Century) that forced withdrawal of the colony, leaving behind little more than the ruins of a stone church at Hvalsey.
The Norse reached the North American continent and tried, unsuccessfully, to settle there before the cold returned. They established a base on the northern tip of New Foundland at L’anse aux Meadows and tried to establish trade routes (and, perhaps, other settlements) into and beyond the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When the colony in Greenland failed, there was no platform to mount any expedition to return to America by the northern route.
But the presence of the Norse indicates that the northern route could have been viable at times in the past, particularly if North America had been uninhabited at the time. (The Norse were strongly resisted by the early “Canadians” who the Norse called Skraelingar.)
In fact, recently, more and more evidence has been showing up that the northern route across the Atlantic has been open — and used — much farther in the past than anyone thought. By comparison, those peoples who crossed to America from Siberia were young’ns.
As reported last month by the Independent:
“A remarkable series of several dozen European-style stone tools, dating back between 19,000 and 26,000 years, have been discovered at six locations along the US east coast. Three of the sites are on the Delmarva Peninsular in Maryland, discovered by archaeologist Dr Darrin Lowery of the University of Delaware. One is in Pennsylvania and another in Virginia. A sixth was discovered by scallop-dredging fishermen on the seabed 60 miles from the Virginian coast on what, in prehistoric times, would have been dry land. The similarity between other later east coast US and European Stone Age stone tool technologies has been noted before. But all the US European-style tools, unearthed before the discovery or dating of the recently found or dated US east coast sites, were from around 15,000 years ago – long after Stone Age Europeans (the Solutrean cultures of France and Iberia) had ceased making such artifacts. Most archaeologists had therefore rejected any possibility of a connection. But the newly-discovered and recently-dated early Maryland and other US east coast Stone Age tools are from between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago – and are therefore contemporary with the virtually identical western European material.”
As a happy Marylander, I was intrigued enough to follow up by reviewing some things I’d seen previously in a NOVA science documentary:
NARRATOR: Clovis and Solutrean spear points not only look alike, they are made the same unusual way. To Stanford and Bradley, this was a powerful clue that prehistoric explorers had come from Europe and brought with them the technology that transformed Stone Age America: the Clovis Spear Point….Stanford and Bradley needed to find some artifact in the Americas to bridge the time gap. They scoured Clovis sites across the continent, places where other archaeologists had been digging for years. Then, from a site called Cactus Hill, in Virginia, a possibility, a point that resembled the Solutrean style, and it dated far earlier than the Clovis.”
The key issue here is how did the Solutreans make the journey during the peak of the last Ice Age. Well, modern peoples of the North American Arctic have learned to turn their lemon-of-a-climate into lemonade by living off the food bounty that the sea gives them along the edge of the ice pack, and have successfully spread from Alaska to Greenland. The Solutreans could have done the same.
Small boats made of natural materials can easily traverse the sea in hop-and-a-skip voyages between the ice floes that cluster along the edge of the ice sheet, and if the weather turns bad, they can be pulled up onto the ice and used as portable shelters. When the Solutreans run out of room to continue spreading west because they run into a continent, they find themselves — ta dah — on the continental shelf of a Delmarva Peninsula enlarged because of all the ocean water locked up in the continental glaciers.
But if the Solutreans did get to America first, and brought with them the seeds of the technology that would become the dominating hunting weapon of the Clovis point thousands of years later, why did they, rather than the Siberian migrants, not inherit the continent? The DNA of the existing native peoples in America is dominated by four types (denoted A, B, C, and D) that has clear Siberian roots, but does not have similar European sources. Similarly, hunting weapons from Siberia that pre-date Clovis points are made by pressing small flakes of sharpened flint into the sides of spears. (The Clovis point is tied to the end of a spear, making the spear points easy to recover without damage and “reload”.) So the European technology outlived the European gene line, apparently, even though there are isolated pockets of DNA type X in eastern North America:
“… NARRATOR: There was a fifth source of DNA of mysterious origin. They called it X, and unlike A, B, C and D, they couldn’t find it anywhere in Siberia or eastern Asia. But it was similar to an uncommon lineage in European populations today. At first, they thought it must be the result of interracial breeding within the last 500 years, sometime after Columbus.
DOUGLAS WALLACE: We naturally assumed that perhaps there had been European recent mixture with the Ojibwa tribe and that some European women had married into the Ojibwa tribe and contributed their mitochondrial DNAs.
NARRATOR: But that assumption proved wrong. When they looked at the amount of variation in the X lineage, it pointed to an origin long before Columbus, in fact, to at least 15,000 years ago. It appeared to be evidence of Ice Age Europeans in America.
DOUGLAS WALLACE: Well, what it says is that a mitochondrial lineage that is predominantly found in Europe somehow got to the Great Lakes region of the Americas 14,000 to 15,000 years ago.”
What happened to the American Soletreans was truly catastrophic, but it is unclear what triggered the catastrophe. After warming from maximal ice conditions for thousands of years, the climate turned cold — much worse, and much faster than the cold that doomed the Viking colonies.
The onset of this “Younger Dryas” event plunged northern temperatures, as recorded by isotope ratios in the ice on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, by as much as 27 degrees F below today’s temperatures. And the change appears to have occurred in a decade or less. The Delmarva was buried under the debris of dry winds, producing an ancient dust bowl. And the Clovis point cultures throughout much of North America rapidly declined, if not disappeared entirely.
The effects were worst around the North Atlantic — although records of glacial re-advance show that even the Pacific Northwest was affected by the cooling — and so searches for explanations focused on what could have suddenly happened in that region of the world. Initially, changes in the circulation of the North Atlantic waters which might occur as increases in melting glacial ice lowered water salinity were suspected. Too low salinity, and North Atlantic surface waters can not sink as they cool approaching the pole. If they can’t sink, they can’t return to the equator at depth and rewarm. If they can’t rewarm, they can’t re-rise to the surface and return Northward carrying heat through an ancient analogue of the Gulf Stream.
However, the cold deep water takes something on the order of 1000 years to make a complete circuit (those flows are actually ocean-basin wide, unlike the narrow surface currents concentrated at the west side of the basins, and so are much, much slower moving), and so don’t really explain an event with the suddenness of the Younger Dryas. So the case remained open for another suspect.
And if you want to redistribute atmospheric energy, melt a lot of ice to fool with North Atlantic salinity, and maybe burn the foliage of much of North America as well in a period much less than a decade, there isn’t anything that might fit the bill as well as an extraterrestrial impact above, or even into the ice sheet itself.
University of Oregon archaeologist Douglas Kennett proposed such an explanation, which was also the subject of a NOVA documentary, after geologists discovered an organic-rich layer dated to the Younger Dryas called a “black mat” at a number of Northern locations. As Popular Science noted, Kennett’s theory depended on being able to identify large number of shock-compressed microscopic particles (nanodiamonds) in the carbon layer and in the ice sheets from the time of the Younger Dryas. These nanodiamonds would have been raining out in the debris of any impact, even if the impactor shattered in an airburst and never rreached the ground to leave a crater. And Kennett reported finding them at the appropriate age layer in the Greenland ice.
“The theory soon drew a firestorm of criticism, with a concurrent paper dismissing the nanodiamond results as a false positive. The nanodiamond theory was all but ignored by mid-2011 after many groups of scientists could neither corroborate nor replicate the results. Now comes Isabel Israde-Alcántara et al., writing in the same journal that published the nanodiamond refutation.
“This time, the researchers studied a different location — a lake in central Mexico instead of Greenland — and used a different set of techniques to take their measurements. The team studied a 10-centimeter-thick, carbon-rich layer dating to 12,900 years ago, which contained nanodiamonds, carbon spherules and other material. Israde-Alcántara and colleagues at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicólas de Hidalgo in Mexico and the U.S. Geological Survey report their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
This does not resolve the issue, but the difference of the environments, as well as the different — and more clearly extraterrestrial — crystalline structure in some of the nanodiamonds makes it more difficult for opponents to propose an alternative explanation as a false positive.
So what does this tell us about the origin of Americans, particularly from the standpoint of historicity in Book of Mormon interpretations? As I’ve argued here, believers in BofM historicity should just learn to take “yes” for an answer regarding the ancient origin of DNA in the Native American populations. Trying to force-fit a chronology for the Jaredite crossing into a Jewish biblical calendar simply borrows biblical problems for the Book of Mormon. Ether leaves gaps in its record in which many thousands of years of history could be fit, with only the most memorable of oral traditions eventually being written down for permanent preservation.
What we are learning is that boats fitted as an Arctic design are important to the peopling of America, and are feasible thousands of years earlier in pre-history than are boats suitable to cross the vast equatorial Pacific by a Polynesian route. As I also argued here, appreciation of the Arctic origins of Native American culture may help us better understand some of the quirks of the Book of Mormon language.
We are learning that peoples can arrive in America, and vanish, leaving nothing detectable of their DNA; yet the cultural advances and technologies they bring or invent once here still transform the civilizations they leave behind.
And we are learning that the universe itself can rise up and smash them down just when things seem to be going swimmingly. I wonder if there isn’t a Book of Solutrea carved on a rock out there somewhere.