Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

March 5, 2012

Extraordinary claims require a lot of evidence

Several people have emailed me about the Solutrean hypothesis. The trigger is the publication of Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. To my surprise this has received a lot of media attention. The Washington Post, io9, and The New Scientist. Granted, the coverage has been appropriately skeptical. But it still gets to the truth of it that all publicity is good publicity, and here I am talking about a model which I believe is pretty much bunk.

My own current estimation is that there is a 99.5 percent probability that the basic outlines of the Solutrean hypothesis are false (that Paleolithic Western Europeans traversed the North Atlantic ice, that the Solutrean culture substantively contributed to the Clovis culture). I don’t say 100 percent because the past few years have indicated that certainty is something you shouldn’t adhere to with much ardor in the area of human prehistory. The post over at io9 alludes to the relative weakness of any genetic connection. The papers linked are actually that dispositive, but the overall claim is correct: there is no strong genetic evidence connecting modern Native American populations to the Solutreans. Or is there? One presupposition is that for there to be evidence of Solutreans Amerindians need to exhibit some relationship to modern Europeans, the putative descendants of the Solutreans. This assumption has made the Solutrean hypothesis very charged and political, because the lack of Solutrean genes implies replacement of the Paleolithic Europeans by the ancestors of the Amerindians (to the credit of the authors they don’t appeal at all to such political motives from what I can gather).

But the crux of the matter is that we may have to be careful in assuming that modern Europeans are an appropriate proxy for the Solutreans. The Solutrean culture flourished ~20,000 years ago. It may be that they were replaced by successive waves of other peoples, and that modern Europeans have little genetic connection to them! The most recent work on Southern and Eastern Eurasia, and further on toward Oceania, indicates massive changes over the past 20,000 years in the genetic character of the populations. Why would one presume the West European fringe was any different?

This does not mean that I think that the Solutrean hypothesis is correct. Only that many of the questions and answers we propose may not even be wrong. The ultimate answer may be that real prehistory was more complex and strange than heterodox models proposed by “bold” archaeologists.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

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