Mexican Footprints


“if an amaz­ing new dis­cov­ery is found I prob­ably will have noth­ing to say about it” I’m used to being proved wrong, but it would be nice to get through 24 hours before it hap­pens. After post­ing this on July 5, I flicked across to the BBC news site and found the item Footprints of ‘first Americans’ which is inter­est­ing in itself. What is more inter­est­ing is that these foot­prints are early.

Very early.

In fact they’re about 30,000 years earlier than the pre­vi­ous earli­est known evid­ence of occu­pa­tion of the Americas.

A foot and an ancient foot­print. Photo from the Mexican Footprints media sec­tion.

The foot­prints are from vol­canic ash lay­ers by a vol­cano in Mexico. This may seem odd. The favoured the­ory is that humans crossed into American via the Bering Straits. However the early occu­pa­tion of the Americas has a habit of appear­ing in awk­ward places.

The earli­est widely accep­ted human hab­it­a­tion site in the Americas isn’t in North America at all. It’s found at Monte Verde in Chile and dates to about 10,500 BC. There is another con­tro­ver­sial site in Brazil whose name I’ve sadly for­got­ten which dates to about 40,000 BC, but that’s been ignored as a poorly excav­ated site. We know it’s poorly excav­ated because it was dated to a freak­ishly early time. The reason assumed for find­ing sites so far south is two fold. The north­ern sites may not have sur­vived the ice age. The main­stream would also say that the spread to what is now Chile shows that early peoples moved very quickly down the coast.

A map of pro­posed routes for American col­on­isa­tion. Taken from the Mexican Footprints media sec­tion.

It still doesn’t explain why the lack of sites in the north well. The strongest reason for push­ing Bering Strait col­on­isa­tion is that the other explan­a­tions seem implaus­ible to most archae­olo­gists and the Bering Strait is the default choice. If these foot­prints prove to be accur­ately dated then it would sug­gest that archae­olo­gists need to exer­cise their brains a bit more.

One pos­sible reason for this impasse may be an unchal­lenged Eurocentric assump­tion about col­on­isa­tion. A lot of early col­on­isa­tion the­ory is based on how Europe came to be col­on­ised, which sug­gests Europe was a goal rather than a back­wa­ter for col­on­ists. No one is sug­gest­ing that Europe was the con­scious tar­get of peoples who had no idea of what the world was like and didn’t even know of Europe. Simply that Europe is the nicest part of the world. It has a pleas­ant cli­mate and nice anim­als and so on, so more people would be attrac­ted north. The Romans and Greeks both had a sim­ilar view of the world. They were in per­fect place because it was neither too cold nor too hot and was per­fect for grow­ing olives or figs. So they must have lived at the centre of the world.

This view of col­on­isa­tion is being chal­lenged. The recent pub­lic­a­tion in Science argues that early col­on­isa­tion went along an east-west axis faster than north-south. Why? East-west would take col­on­isers into broadly sim­ilar eco­lo­gical envir­on­ments. Foods should be sim­ilar to what is already known, so it’s the easier path. There are also mech­an­ical advant­ages. To take a wildly ana­chron­istic example the Polynesians found it much easier to col­on­ise east-west because of cur­rents and winds than north-south. This is why Easter Island which is ter­ribly remote was col­on­ised before New Zealand. Frustratingly I’ve lost the web address of a news page where an Australian stu­dent was happy to be an excav­a­tion in the UK because “they didn’t have a lot of his­tory” in Australia. Modern humans col­on­ised Australia about 50,000 years ago, or about twice as long as they’ve been in the British Isles.

So all ter­ribly excit­ing, but even more so when you see what the dis­cover­ers have done with the inform­a­tion. They’ve put up a pretty com­pre­hens­ive web­site at http://​www​.mex​ic​an​foot​prints​.co​.uk/ which not only has pic­tures, but also explains why this dis­cov­ery is so excit­ing by pla­cing it in the con­text of what we already think about American colonisation.

Now so far I haven’t seen the news pick up on what I thought would be the obvi­ous ques­tion. They may have been humans, but are these the foot­prints of Homo Sapiens? If there are non-Sapiens com­munit­ies in Indonesian from 15,000 years ago should be auto­mat­ic­ally expect the first human col­on­isers of North America to be mod­ern humans?

Who made the foot­prints? Image copy­right Bournemout University. Photo from the Mexican Footprints media sec­tion.

Counter to this is John Hawks’s com­ment from six months ago: “Out of Africa” jumps the shark?. There another take on the story at New Scientist.

Update around midday:

Further blogs dis­cuss­ing this are:

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