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“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 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: