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Most archaeologists think the first Americans arrived by boat (sciencemag.org)
50 points by Thevet 43 days ago | hide | past | web | 54 comments | favorite

I've long thought that arrival of the earliest people by boat made a lot more sense than coming over the land bridge from Asia.

There was a study published in Nature last year [1] that concluded that it took hundreds of years after the ice sheets receded and the route become passable before plants became established, and then later animals, to make it possible to survive off the land during such a trip.

We know that the Clovis culture was established before then, so if they or earlier people came by the land route then they must have brought their supplies with them.

That was before the invention of the wheel, so if they brought all their supplies with them for the journey it wasn't on wagons or carts. They only animals they might have had to help carry things were dogs, because no other animals were domesticated at that point.

So we're looking at carrying everything they need for the trip on their own backs or on crude sleds, possibly with the aid of dogs (and if they are bringing dogs, they have to bring all the food for the dogs, too).

This just seems to me to be too farfetched.

Now compare to coming by boats. With boats it is easy to bring plenty of cargo. Whatever food they bring with them can be supplemented with fish and other seafood they can catch on the way. Maybe they can even live entirely off seafood.

[1] I haven't seen the study itself freely online, but here's an article that goes into detail about it: http://www.history.com/news/new-study-refutes-theory-of-how-...

To be fair: the theory is that the boats were coastal, hugging the edge of beringia. It's still basically the same crossing, and made possible by the same root cause (lower sea levels made the connection a single coastline and not open ocean). The technology is different, and maybe the time frame, but the basic structure of the theory is still the same.

Main difference seems to be that boats would actually allow them to carry supplies with them.

And makes living off the coast much easier, from fishing and shell fishing. Walking along a coast is a fractal enterprise

> a study published in Nature last year

To be clear this refers to the fusion of the Laurentide (Canadian) and Cordilleran (Pacific NW) ice sheets but the caveats are this doesn't preclude travel into parts of Alaska and it's also possible there was some travel before the sheets were fused.

> brought all their supplies with them

Maybe they didn't have a lot of supplies? I mean people migrated all over Siberia and presumably many/most of them did so on foot.

> they have to bring all the food for the dogs

The traditional view was that they were following the food source. And presumably they kept the dogs around in the first place because (among other reasons) they help hunt and are also a food source.

> Whatever food they bring with them can be supplemented with fish and other seafood they can catch on the way. Maybe they can even live entirely off seafood.

This logic works with any food source though.

On a boat you still need a lot of freshwater, which is why the boats probably simply followed the coast and replenished at rivers (or used melted ice)

Boats (capable of crossing seas) were invented before wheels?

I genuinely don't know, but that seems surprising.

I was surprised, too. I found this article[0] which specifically calls out boats as having been invented before the wheel. It puts the wheel's invention in good perspective, I think.

Regarding boats capable of crossing the ocean: Australia was settled 40,000 years ago, presumably by settlers who arrived by boat.

[0] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the...

More like 65,000 years.


The useful, all terrain, load bearing wheel sounds more complicated to me than a watertight bucket with ropes and cloth.

A dugout tree with a paddle is even more simple.

I think that the step from dugout to outrigger canoe is relatively small and comes with massive advantages

While they are obviously the end point of a technological development, Polynesian outrigger sailing canoes are both extremely efficient (some evidence points to them being the first craft to be capable of exceeding hull speed) and scalable. They're also a Stone Age technology

They did not have to cross the sea, but follow the (ice-covered) coastline.

Loosely related topic: the tales of the ancient Polynesians finding and settling on many island groups in the Pacific, based on navigation skills they developed over time, involving the sun, the stars, the wind, the waves, ocean currents, bird flying patterns, etc. National Geographic magazine had an article or a series on it several years ago, and IIRC, they sent a team out to the Pacific area to research this stuff some, and to interview such living Polynesian navigators. I had read the article/series.

The Morris West book "The Navigator" is also interesting in this connection (though there is only a bit of discussion of the navigation topic in the book, it is not the main focus), and the book is a good read apart from that, both entertaining and for topics like human dynamics when on a voyage as well as when stranded on an island for a long period.

Update: Added link to his Wikipedia page:


There was a great film about the discovery/arrival of humans in America and the Polynesian culture was mentioned as a likely candidate to have arrived in South America. As they said in the film (paraphrasing) "They discovered dozens of Islands. How could they not find the largest island, America?

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0F8mUmQvwI

For a fun Wikipedia page which I try to keep up to date with occasional emerging results of scientific studies, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Columbian_trans-oceanic_co...

Checking it out, looks interesting ...

Interesting, will check out that video. And good question. I've always wondered why smaller islands (and some big ones like Greenland or Iceland) are called islands, but even large ones such as the continents are not. After all, they are all surrounded by water.

Checked and found a few more links about ancient Polynesian navigation methods:



A lot of material available is too heavily weighted towards Hawaii for obvious reasons (US / research funding), but in fact the range of vessels and navigation techniques in the region is large and the best / most detailed information on a surviving navigation tradition emerged from Micronesia (as documented in The Navigator mentioned by the parent). Recently me and one other guy created the featured page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wa_(watercraft) which is the traditional watercraft of that area. Much of the information came from http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/. I tried to visit the Spanish National Library in Madrid to search for other early sources but the uncultured swine wouldn't let me in without a tertiary institution affiliation!

Cool about the Wa.

I got a ride on a catamaran once, in South India, when our final year class (high school) was there at a beach on a picnic. Asked the fishermen to let me hop on, and they did. I was sitting in the front, astride the log, with my legs in the water almost up to waist level. We went out to sea for a kilometer or two at least, then came back after a while. Good fun.

It was something like this, but narrower in the front:


Interesting. The multihull technique is essentially ascribed to the Austronesians but was first recorded in historic times by westerners visiting Tamil areas, possibly Sri Lanka. Check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borobudur_ship too. There is some theory that certain early Roman ships were actually catamarans. This early patent from the 1870s describes a multihull: https://www.google.com/patents/US189459

Cool. I saw this in the article:


where it says that a British sailor created a reconstruction of that type of ship and sailed in it from Indonesia via Madagascar, and then around the Cape of Good Hope to Ghana. Reminded me of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki voyage :), which I had read about in a National Geographic article about the voyage some years ago.

The really interesting question is : why did "experts" ever think the opposite?

> The really interesting question is : why did "experts" ever think the opposite?

No evidence.

In all fairness, such evidence would be hard to find because at the time sea-level was 400 feet lower than it is today. It is likely that the best archaeological sites are now underwater. The article of course mentions this. In fact, the article mentions one location in British Columbia (Quadra island) where post-glacial rebound was so great that near-sea-level sites during the last ice-age are still above sea-level today. But that investigation is relatively recent.

In theory, that could be a good thing, as the sites could be better preserved, not trammeled on by later generations of humans.

Although in practice, actually finding them is hard. Note there are sites like this in Europe, too.

One could suggest that the US has a nationalist creation myth that is not well served by admission of being late to the party. It could also be suggested that it is slightly charged in terms of the conservative US Christian belief. While these would be no doubt controversial, like most unpopular perspectives they are not without some hint of reality.

Ocean crossings in boats without GPS are hard.

So they invented boats that can travel across the ocean, but after more than ten thousand years they never invented the wheel?

And we have consensus on this?

Inventing the wheel is no longer considered significant in the way you seem to imply - see e.g. https://uncoveredhistory.com/mesoamerica/wheeled-toys/ :

> Archaeology has now revealed that the wheel wasn’t invented until the 4th millennium BC – which puts it thousands of years after the first cities were built and after the invention of metallurgy, and its importance in determining the intelligence of a race is no longer rational.

Boats solve a more basic problem. No-one needs wheels - there are other means of transportation available.

Also, the above article points out that Mesoamericans seem to have independently invented the wheel, and even made wheeled toys.

You could say something similar about the Polynesians, although they came later

Wheels also are not very useful without roads.

Rollers for moving heavy items, pulleys for ...er ... moving heavy items; or are they not classed as wheels? Wheels are good for farming too, laying furrows, say. And making clay pots. And grinding corn. And crushing fruit.

Ah, this might turn in to a "What has the wheel ever done for us" sketch after the style of Monty Python.

I suppose it hinges on what is the simplest and most useful thing a wheel could be used for in a primitive society? Building a wheel with an axle and framework is not a trivial undertaking, and someone would need an immediate use for it to justify the effort.

(Try making a decent sized wheel out of a plank - it'll shatter along the grain. Getting a snug 90 degree hole for the axle isn't trivial, either, and without that the wheel will wobble so badly it'll be largely useless.)

Wheelbarrows relatively simple, you don't need a long axle and, of course, only one wheel. And they are pretty good on poor roads.


Making a spoked wheel is not simple. (Remember, all you have to work with is wood and a stone axe.)

A solid one is easier to make, but will be very heavy and have severe durability problems.

You also have never seen a machine in your life. You have nothing at all to guide or inspire you.

Wheels might have been invented and then abandoned and forgotten multiple times, because they were too hard to make and not that useful.

I imagine the model would come from moving things on rollers, out perhaps from turning food on a spit.

From a piece of wood hanging on notched or Y shaped branches on which to hang meat for smoking/cooking to a spit to a pulley doesn't seem to far?

A simple barrow is a couple of sticks with a pulley. Though the utility over a simple dragged carrier is not much.

They're talking about coastal migration over centuries. Also there's excavations of boats that are dated earlier than estimates for the wheel so I'm not sure what your point is.

To add some concrete details:

"Circumstantial evidence, such as the early settlement of Australia over 40,000 years ago, findings in Crete dated 130,000 years ago,[4] and findings in Flores dated to 900,000 years ago,[5] suggest that boats have been used since prehistoric times. ... The oldest recovered boat in the world is the Pesse canoe, a dugout made from the hollowed tree trunk of a Pinus sylvestris and constructed somewhere between 8200 and 7600 BC" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boat

"The invention of the wheel falls into the late Neolithic, ... 4500–3300 BCE: Chalcolithic, invention of the potter's wheel; earliest wooden wheels (disks with a hole for the axle); earliest wheeled vehicles, domestication of the horse" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel

Well, just like the wheeled toys (i.e. wheel "invented" but not used for transportation/vehicles) the dugout from a trunk is a sign that sort of canoes existed.

Inventing a canoe or a raft is of course much easier than inventing the wheel, you just go on the shore of a river or at the seaside and you will find trunks or wooden pieces floating.

From that to have a boat capable of crossing an ocean there is a long way.

Also, the numbers would be important.

I would presume that leaving from a shore in search of another one (and knowing nothing on where that could be) would have been an extremely dangerous attempt, most probably taken by a handful of young males (hunters/gatherers, etc.) in the hypothesis that society was a male dominated one, possibly in very small/basic boats.

Then they would need to go back home, and then return bringing with them their spouses and presumably children.

Think of a future archaelogist in - say - 5,000 years time (after humanity and civilization collapsed) finding ONLY a hut with a few (perfectly conserved) surf tables and windsurfs.

From that finding to believe that windsurfs could be used for cross-sea or cross-ocean migrations there is somehow a large gap.

My comment was to support the parent comment asking why the grandparent comment expressed surprised that a boat was invented before the wheel.

I don't understand what the point of your comment is.

The first humans in the Americas didn't need to cross an ocean. They needed to follow the shoreline. Even now the Bering Straight is only 90 km across. As the article points out, during the Ice Age, when the sea was lower, it was all land, known as Beringia. There was no "cross-sea or cross-ocean migration".

We know humans 60,000+ years ago could cross the Weber Line, which was also at least some 90 km wide, to get from Sunda to Sahul (which includes modern Australia). This migration to the Americas would have been easier than that.

Regarding male dominated society, hunter-gatherer cultures tend to be egalitarian. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunter-gatherer#Social_and_eco... . One hypothesis is that male dominated culture is a result of agriculture, and specifically the horse and plow. http://voxeu.org/article/modern-gender-roles-and-ancient-far... . However, I this is a topic I know little about. I bring it up as an example of why I am confused about the point of your comment and where you're coming from.

>I don't understand what the point of your comment is.

I was actually supporting the idea that inventing the boat is (should be) easier than inventing the wheel BUT that between inventing the boat and actually being able of building big enough boats AND boats being able to cross large stretches of water AND actually using them to "migrate" a population there are some leaps.

The grandparent comment was not about "boats", was about "boats that can travel across the ocean" and the article was about the hypothesis of a migration by boat.

One of the indigenous boats of the region, the umiak, can be 30 feet long or so and can carry 20 people (or a fair amount of cargo).

They're easily big enough to cross the Bering Strait (in fact, before the Cold War, they did it routinely) and can be constructed completely from local materials (sea mammal hide covering, whale bones and driftwood for ribs -- modern umiaks often use metal fasteners, but traditional ones didn't).

Alaska Natives still prefer them for some tasks (e.g., whale hunting).

While what you say is true, to quote the second-level comment: "They're talking about coastal migration over centuries"

That requires neither a big boat nor one which can cross large stretches of water. That's why I didn't understand where your comment fit into the topic.

We don't need to resort to archaeology. The indigenous people of the Bering Strait region could, and did, routinely cross it in boats made from local materials (animal hides, mostly) for centuries, and were still doing so at the time of European contact.

I mean, there are photographs from that era.

Maybe they put people on a raft and sent them out to sea as a form of punishment or sacrifice, and some of them made it across. If it was a common enough practice, it wouldn't take long for survivors to start meeting and multiplying.

> I would presume that leaving from a shore in search of another one (and knowing nothing on where that could be) would have been an extremely dangerous attempt

Yet it was how the Polynesians settled the Pacific.

They would have been the first _proto Canadians_ to arrive in the lower 48, arrived by boat since if they were not native to here they could not very well be (proto) Americans (of the lower 48) --their descendants yes, but the people who landed here were by the nature of things, not from the lower 48.

Or they could simply have claimed, most archeologists believe the first ancient people to arrive in the lower 48, arrived by boat.

I can't parse what you're saying. Are you splitting hairs over the word "American"? Context matters, and the context is obvious here.

Well, you wouldn't say the first Italians (or the first Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, or the first Koreans) arrived from (some place) in xxxx BCE.

"Americans" can also mean "people living in the Americas".

True, but if you read the article it is referring to the first people to arrive south of the 49th parallel. People were already inhabiting what is now Canada.

The context is they theoretically traveled along the littoral in boats vs some inland pathway on foot.

I read the article, thanks. There is mention of Clovis culture in what is now the United States, but it clearly uses "Americans" in the broader sense. For example, here, where Monte Verde is a site in modern day Chile:

Early Americans apparently knew how to take full advantage of its abundant resources. At Monte Verde, once 90 kilometers from the coast, archaeologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in Nashville found nine species of edible and medicinal seaweed dated to about 14,000 years ago.

If you're going to get that picky about it, they would have arrived in Alaska first. Not Canada.

I probably would when talking about the first people in those specific places. Or the first Europeans in Europe, Africans in Africa, Asians in Asia, Americans in the Americas, etc.

"American" also describes the citizens of that one state with the word "America" in the name, which sometimes leads to ambiguity, but not here.

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