Over the last few days, data on discoveries made in California’s Channel Islands by teams led by archaeologists Jon Erlandson and Torben Rick have been brought to wide circulation among archaeologists, other scientists, and the internet-reading public. These discoveries are fascinating because (1) they are associated with very early cultures, reported to be 11,200-12,200 years old; (2) they occur in places only accessible by boat at the time when the sites were occupied; (3) they provide evidence of the use of a rich maritime resource base; and (4) the sites’ diverse chipped stone artifacts were made with great skill and sophistication. Archaeologists have searched for evidence of cultures with these attributes for a number of years in order to understand how the American continents were first settled, and especially to deal with a difficult issue affecting the so-called Clovis-first theory: How could human populations enter North America from Asia during a time when the North American interior was covered by continental ice sheets?
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A locally-habituated culture is indicated in the Channel Islands. Most of the remarkable chipped stone points and crescents were made from locally occurring chert, while the recovery of a piece of obsidian quarried over 200 miles away on the mainland indicates travel or trade with locations across the channel and well-inland from the California coast. The Channel Islands discoveries– together with others made in South America, and the well-established evidence of the Clovis culture in interior North America– indicate considerable diversity among the New World’s most ancient people in terms of both technology and adaptation to a variety of environments. This diversity probably indicates multiple early migrations to the Americas. Some populations may have arrived significantly earlier than existing archaeological data indicate.
The recent summaries of the Channel Islands information refer to similarities with Stone Age Japanese cultures, as well as to subsistence patterns focused on kelp beds that were distributed along the East Asian, Alaskan, and western North American coasts. The geography of kelp may have led early maritime cultures from Asia to America’s Pacific Coast, including the Channel Islands. This is a very important perspective that will develop further as additional archaeological surveys are made. However, although a quick read of some of the internet posts may suggest that ancient people actually journeyed from Japan to California at this time, this may or may not be true, and in some ways seems doubtful. Nonetheless, it is likely that a much larger and more gradual process was in motion, involving the progressive demographic expansion of Asian populations over a period of time into habitats that were similar to those recently left behind. Coastal sites and habitats were the center of this world, despite the waxing and waning of inland glacial ice sheets. This world included the former coast of the now-submerged parts of the Bering Land Bridge, as well as North America south to the Channel Islands and beyond. At times, in Alaska and adjoining Canada, expanding glaciers cut the North American coast into pieces, leaving refuges where various plants and animals survived to warmer periods. These refuges may also have supported human populations who seemingly, through the use of watercraft, could remain connected to other known refuges, or move on to open coastlines never reached before. This concept has been explored increasingly by archaeologists over the last couple of decades.
People looking for more information on the likelihood of Ice Age migrations along the coast from Asia– as well as an exciting account of archaeological discovery– should look for journalist Tom Koppel’s book, Lost World: Rewriting Prehistory– How New Science is Tracing America’s Ice Age Mariners, published by Atria Books, New York, 2003. Meanwhile, the new information from the Channel Islands, published by Erlandson et al in Science (sub. req.) March 4, 2011, appears to be a truly remarkable latest edition in the story of early maritime cultures on the Pacific coast. This research may considerably change the way archaeologists look at the North American past.