Genetic Study Kills Off Solutrean Hypothesis

I’ve blogged before about the woebegone Solutrean hypothesis, and I’m happy to say that it is now dead.

The oldest well-characterised archaeological culture in America is the Clovis culture. Its main diagnostic type is a large knapped stone spearhead with a fluted base. The Solutrean hypothesis starts from a comparison with spearheads from the Solutrean culture in south-west Europe, noting that certain Solutrean points have an outline that is similar to that of Clovis points. Is the Clovis point a typological descendant on the Solutrean point? No, say most Palaeolithic scholars, because never mind the outline shape:

1. The dates are wrong.
2. The size is wrong.
3. The knapping technique is wrong.
4. There’s no fluted base in the Solutrean material.

This is at heart not a debate about lithic tech, but about from what direction the Americas were first settled. From the north-west via Beringia, as the scholarly majority holds, or from the east via an ice-shelf, as a Solutrean minority holds.

Genetics have long since shown that today’s Native Americans descend from people in north-east Asia. But is is possible that the Clovis culture consisted of people with some other genetic make-up who died out because of a climate dip. To check this, we need genetic evidence from members of the Clovis culture, and this is sadly not a culture that practices much identifiable formal burial.

Now though, thanks to work by Morten Rasmussen and many co-authors published in Nature, we have the full genome of a Clovis person who lived c. 10,600 cal BC in Montana, the north-west US. The diagram above shows this individual’s genetic affinities. The important dots to look for are the black and grey ones. They show that the part of the world where people are farthest genetically from the Clovis culture are southern Europe and the Near East. This happens to include the area of the Solutrean culture. Case closed.

Thanks to much-loved Aard regular John Massey for the tip-off.

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