Where Did the New World's First Settlers Come From?

Photo Illustration: Benjamin Ritter; Source: Getty Images; Corbis

Columbus may not have been the first transatlantic voyager. A collection of Ice Age stone tools has sparked a debate over the origins of the New World’s first inhabitants, changing the way we think about human migration, innovation, and history.

For more than four centuries we’ve believed that America’s native peoples came from Asia: biological traits link them to those in Mongolia and China. The obvious route was from easternmost Siberia across the Bering Strait some 25,000 to 10,000 years ago into Alaska and then south. But a new book, Across Atlantic Ice, suggests that America’s first explorers came not from Asia but from Europe. The authors, Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, point out that spearheads and knives made from pressure-flaked flint found throughout the U.S. have no correlation with those found in Siberia, or even Alaska. Yet they do resemble tools made by the Solutreans, who lived 24,000 years ago in France and Spain. Across Atlantic Ice hypothesizes that this stone-tool technology crossed the Atlantic, probably by a succession of short voyages from Spain, past Ireland, Iceland, and Greenland along the edges of the glacial ice pack.

The Journal of Field Archaeology has opened up the discussion. “We can no longer assume that we know the timing of early human migrations to the New World, any more than their frequency, their points of origin, or their modes of traversing land and sea,” says the publication. “We must now look at the archaeological record without prejudice.”