Wisconsin Dig Points To Europe
As Origin Of First Americans

By John Fauber
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff

A contentious theory that the first Americans came here from Europe - not Asia - is challenging a century-old consensus among archaeologists, and a dig in Kenosha County is part of the evidence.

The two leading proponents of the Europe theory admit that many scientists reject their contention, instead holding fast to the long-established belief that the first Americans arrived from Siberia via a now-submerged land bridge across the Bering Sea to Alaska.

The first of the Europe-to-North America treks probably took place at the height of the last Ice Age more than 18,000 years ago, said Dennis Stanford, curator of archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and Milwaukee native Bruce Bradley, an independent archaeological consultant and research associate of the Carnegie Museum.

Stanford and Bradley contend that if the original migration came from Europe, it would be logical to find more older sites in the eastern United States, as has been the case in recent years.

The Kenosha County digs show that woolly mammoths were butchered by humans here more than 13,000 years ago - at least 2,000 years older than what was once thought to be the oldest site in the U.S.

Stanford and Bradley also point to recent DNA analysis involving a particular genetic marker known as haplogroup X. The marker is found in a minority of American Indians, including some in the Great Lakes region, and Europeans, but is not found in Asians, suggesting an ancestral link between Europe and North America.

The two plan to publish a book laying out their findings in about a year, they said. They believe evidence in the book will win converts to their theory.

"There are several competing theories," said Milwaukee archaeologist David Overstreet. "All I know is people were here (in southeastern Wisconsin) several thousands of years earlier than previously thought."

Overstreet, director of the Marquette University-affiliated Center for Archaeological Research, has analyzed several southeastern Wisconsin sites where piles of bones of mammoths that had been butchered by people date back as far as 13,500 years ago.

The Kenosha County sites are among several eastern U.S. Ice Age sites that have fueled the growing controversy over whether North America's first people came from the Iberian Peninsula of Europe or from Asia.

"Whatever their source, Paleoindians appear to have reached the mid- continent by 13,500 (years ago) and successfully exploited the Pleistocene biomass (animals and plants) there for at least a millennium," Overstreet writes in a paper soon to be published in the international journal Geoarchaeology.

It was a time when the inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere lived in an icy environment of vast glaciers, boreal forests, mastodons, saber-toothed tigers and 1,000-pound cave bears.

In the more-accepted Asia theory, people migrated across a land bridge over the Bering Sea and down an ice-free corridor to the American Southwest, where they established a culture known as Clovis.

However, while artifacts unearthed near Clovis, N.M., date to more than 11,000 years ago, several sites in the eastern U.S., including the Kenosha County sites, date to between 13,000 and 19,000 years, long before Clovis.

"In the last half-dozen years, all this stuff is popping up in the eastern U.S.," Overstreet said. "There is no question that somebody was in this area (southeastern Wisconsin) mucking around with mammoths 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. The question is, where did they come from?"

Prehistoric travelers

In separate interviews, Stanford and Bradley offered some of the strongest arguments:

With much of the world's water having been evaporated and converted to ice, sea levels during the last Ice Age were as much as 400 feet below today's levels.

An expanded coastal region probably extended from the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern France and northern Spain to the southern tip of Ireland. In addition, the Grand Banks, a series of submerged plateaus extending several hundred miles off the coast of Newfoundland, probably were above water.

The geological conditions meant the prehistoric travelers would have needed to pull off only a 1,500-mile Atlantic Ocean crossing along sheltered ice sheets teeming with easily hunted marine mammals and fish, Bradley and Stanford said.

Stanford noted that 50,000 years ago or more, humans had become skilled enough at open sea travel that they were able to arrive on the continent of Australia. They most likely used small, animal-skin boats, taking advantage of favorable sea currents.

"There would have been huge reserves of food," Bradley said.

The food, which probably included fish, seals, walruses and the now- extinct great auk, actually may have been the motivation for their wanderlust.

Overstreet added that the European glacier may have been cutting off hunting areas, forcing those inhabitants to find new food sources.

"They certainly were on the move," he said. "These people were capable of making that trip if they needed to."

'Completely crazy'

While Overstreet said he still has not completely accepted the new theory, others flatly reject it.

"It is a highly improbable theory," said James Stoltman, a professor emeritus of North American archaeology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. Stoltman said he did not think Stanford and Bradley presented credible evidence to support their hypothesis.

Stanford and Bradley also point to the similarity between the bifaced stone spear points found in the U.S. and the Solutrean area off the north coast of Spain and dating to between 16,500 and 22,000 years ago.

However, while Solutrean and Clovis points are both bifaced, there are major differences, said Thomas Pleger, who teaches Great Lakes archaeo- logy at UW-Fox Valley.

Pleger said there just is no credible evidence to support a theory of an Ice Age migration from Europe.

"It is a completely crazy and unsupported hypothesis," said Lawrence Guy Straus, a professor in the anthropology department at the University of New Mexico and an expert on the Upper Paleolithic period in Western Europe. He also serves as editor of the Journal of Anthropological Research.

Straus said there are major differences between bone and stone technology used by Solutrean people and the Clovis culture of North America.

In addition, he said most of the British Isles, the supposed jumping-off point for the migration, was covered with ice between 13,000 and 27,000 years ago.

There also is no evidence that the Solutrean people had acquired skills, such as navigation, deep-sea fishing and marine mammal hunting, that would have been needed to pull off such a migration, he said.

Ancestry in question

Straus also said the Stanford/Bradley theory has angered some American Indian groups whose ancestry has been tied to Asia, not Europe.

"It is basically saying they weren't here first," Straus said.

However, at the same time traditional religious beliefs of many American Indians fail to acknowledge any migration from another part of the world, said John Norder, an assistant professor of anthropology who specializes in American Indian matters.

Norder, who also is a member of the Dakota Sioux, said a common religious belief among many American Indians is that their ancestors' land was either created for them or that they came to it from an underworld.

Recently, some American Indians have incorporated the idea of their ancestors crossing a Bering Sea land bridge, he said.

In the meantime, the theory of Stone Age Europeans discovering America dominates the debate.

"People discuss it as being crazy and wish it would go away," said Straus. "I'm amazed at the amount of attention."

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 4, 2002. Journal Sentinel Inc. is a subsidiary of Journal Communications, an employee-owned company.