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New Evidence that Ancient Humans Crossed Significant Sea Barrier

New Evidence that Ancient Humans Crossed Significant Sea Barrier

Three years ago the genetic analysis of a little finger bone from Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia led to a complete genome sequence of a new line of the human family tree - the Denisovans. Now scientists believe that the Denisovans, who lived about 41,000 years ago, somehow managed to cross one of the world’s most prominent marine barriers in Indonesia and later bred with modern humans on their way to Australia and New Guinea.

Wallace’s Line is a significant sea barrier formed by a powerful marine current along the east coast of Borneo and marks the division between European and Asian mammals to the west from marsupial-dominated Australasia to the east. The fauna on either side of the barrier are so different from one another because the marine straight is very hard to cross.

“On one side you have all your tigers and rhinos and monkeys and on the other you have all your marsupials, giant lizards and Australia," said Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia. "This is the probably one of the world's most famous biogeographic lines."

Until now it was thought that ancient humans were unable to cross Wallace’s Line, however research conducted by Professor Cooper and Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in the UK suggests that genetic patterns can only be explained if the Denisovans succeeded in crossing the barrier.

The researchers found that Denisovan DNA is virtually absent in current populations on mainland Asia, even though this is where the original fossil was found, but was present in indigenous populations in Australia, New Guinea and surrounding areas.

"In mainland Asia, neither ancient human specimens, nor geographically isolated modern Indigenous populations have Denisovan DNA of any note, indicating that there has never been a genetic signal of Denisovan interbreeding in the area," said Professor Cooper. "The only place where such a genetic signal exists appears to be in areas east of Wallace's Line and that is where we think interbreeding took place -- even though it means that the Denisovans must have somehow made that marine crossing."

The findings have implications for our understanding of the technological ability of Denisovans.

"Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread."

Now that researchers have found what the Denisovans achieved, the next logical question should be how?

    Mysterious ancient human crossed Wallace's Line

    Scientists have proposed that the most recently discovered ancient human relatives -- the Denisovans -- somehow managed to cross one of the world's most prominent marine barriers in Indonesia, and later interbred with modern humans moving through the area on the way to Australia and New Guinea.

    Three years ago the genetic analysis of a little finger bone from Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains in northern Asia led to a complete genome sequence of a new line of the human family tree -- the Denisovans. Since then, genetic evidence pointing to their hybridisation with modern human populations has been detected, but only in Indigenous populations in Australia, New Guinea and surrounding areas. In contrast, Denisovan DNA appears to be absent or at very low levels in current populations on mainland Asia, even though this is where the fossil was found.

    Published today in a Science opinion article, scientists Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia and Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in the UK say that this pattern can be explained if the Denisovans had succeeded in crossing the famous Wallace's Line, one of the world's biggest biogeographic barriers which is formed by a powerful marine current along the east coast of Borneo. Wallace's Line marks the division between European and Asian mammals to the west from marsupial-dominated Australasia to the east.

    "In mainland Asia, neither ancient human specimens, nor geographically isolated modern Indigenous populations have Denisovan DNA of any note, indicating that there has never been a genetic signal of Denisovan interbreeding in the area," says Professor Cooper, Director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. "The only place where such a genetic signal exists appears to be in areas east of Wallace's Line and that is where we think interbreeding took place -- even though it means that the Denisovans must have somehow made that marine crossing."

    "The recent discovery of another enigmatic ancient human species Homo floresiensis, the so-called Hobbits, in Flores, Indonesia, confirms that the diversity of archaic human relatives in this area was much higher than we'd thought," says Professor Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins, Natural History Museum, in London. "The morphology of the Hobbits shows they are different from the Denisovans, meaning we now have at least two, and potentially more, unexpected groups in the area.

    "The conclusions we've drawn are very important for our knowledge of early human evolution and culture. Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread."

    "The key questions now are where and when the ancestors of current humans, who were on their way to colonise New Guinea and Australia around 50,000 years ago, met and interacted with the Denisovans," says Professor Cooper.

    "Intriguingly, the genetic data suggest that male Denisovans interbred with modern human females, indicating the potential nature of the interactions as small numbers of modern humans first crossed Wallace's Line and entered Denisovan territory."

    Ancient DNA Reveals Complex Story of Human Migration Between Siberia and North America

    There is plenty of evidence to suggest that humans migrated to the North American continent via Beringia, a land mass that once bridged the sea between what is now Siberia and Alaska. But exactly who crossed, or recrossed, and who survived as ancestors of today’s Native Americans has been a matter of long debate.

    Two new DNA studies sourced from rare fossils on both sides of the Bering Strait help write new chapters in the stories of these prehistoric peoples.

    The first study delves into the genetics of North American peoples, the Paleo-Eskimos (some of the earliest people to populate the Arctic) and their descendants. “[The research] focuses on the populations living in the past and today in northern North America, and it shows interesting links between Na-Dene speakers with both the first peoples to migrate into the Americas and Paleo-Eskimo peoples,” Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University who assessed both studies for Nature, says via email.

    Beringia had formed by about 34,000 years ago, and the first mammoth-hunting humans crossed it more than 15,000 years ago and perhaps far earlier. A later, major migration some 5,000 years ago by people known as Paleo-Eskimos spread out across many regions of the American Arctic and Greenland. But whether they are direct ancestors of today’s Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene speaking peoples, or if they were displaced by a later migration of the Neo-Eskimos, or Thule people, about 800 years ago, has remained something of a mystery.

    Map of what was once the Beringia connection between present-day Siberia and Alaska. (National Park Service)

    An international team studied the remains of 48 ancient humans from the region, as well as 93 living Alaskan Iñupiat and West Siberian peoples. Their work not only added to the relatively small number of ancient genomes from the region, but it also attempted to fit all the data together into a single population model.

    The findings reveal that both ancient and modern peoples in the American Arctic and Siberia inherited many of their genes from Paleo-Eskimos. Descendants of this ancient population include the Yup’ik, Inuit, Aleuts and Na-Dene language speakers from Alaska and Northern Canada all the way to the Southwest United States. The findings stand in contrast to other genetic studies that had suggested the Paleo-Eskimos were an isolated people who vanished after some 4,000 years.

    "For the last seven years, there has been a debate about whether Paleo-Eskimos contributed genetically to people living in North America today our study resolves this debate and furthermore supports the theory that Paleo-Eskimos spread Na-Dene languages," co-author David Reich of Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute says in a press release.

    The second study focused on Asian lineages, Stone notes. “The study is exciting because it gives us insight into the population dynamics, over 30-plus thousand years, that have occurred in northeastern Siberia. And these insights, of course, also provide information about the people who migrated to the Americas.”

    Researchers retrieved genetic samples for 34 individuals’ remains in Siberia, dating from 600 to 31,600 years old. The latter are the oldest human remains known in the region, and they revealed a previously unknown group of Siberians. The DNA of one Siberian individual, about 10,000 years old, shows more genetic resemblance to Native Americans than any other remains found outside of the Americas.

    Fifteen years ago scientists unearthed a 31,000-year-old site along Russia’s Yana River, well north of the Arctic Circle, with ancient animal bones, ivory and stone tools. But two tiny, children’s milk teeth are the only human remains recovered from the Ice Age site—and they yielded the only human genome yet known from people who lived in northeastern Siberia during the period before the Last Glacial Maximum. They represent a previously unrecognized population that the study’s international team of authors have dubbed “Ancient North Siberians.”

    The two 31,000-year-old milk teeth found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia which led to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians. (Russian Academy of Sciences)

    The authors suggest that during the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500 to 19,000 years ago) some of these 500 or so Siberians sought more habitable climes in southern Beringia. Stone says the migration illustrates the ways that shifting climate impacted ancient population dynamics. “I do think that the refugia during the Last Glacial Maximum were important,” she says. “As populations moved to refugia, likely following the animals they hunted and to take advantage of the plants they gathered as those distributions shifted south, this resulted in population interactions and changes. These populations then expanded out of the refugia as the climate warmed and these climate dynamics likely affected population around the world.”

    In this case, the Ancient North Siberians arrived in Beringia and likely mixed with migrating peoples from East Asia. Their population eventually gave rise to both the First Peoples of North America and other lineages that dispersed through Siberia.

    David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University and coauthor of the new study, says when the Yana River site was discovered, the artifacts were said to look like the distinctive stone tools (specifically projectile “points”) of the Clovis culture—an early Native American population that lived in present-day New Mexico about 13,000 years ago. But the observation was greeted with skepticism because Yana was separated from America’s Clovis sites by 18,000 years, many hundreds of miles, and even the glaciers of the last Ice Age.

    It seemed more likely that different populations simply made similar stone points in different places and times. “The odd thing is, now as it turns out, they were related,” Meltzer says. “It’s kind of cool. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s no direct historical descent in terms of the artifacts, but it does tell us that there was this population floating around in far northern Russia 31,000 years ago whose descendants contributed a bit of DNA to Native Americans.”

    The finding isn’t particularly surprising given that at least some Native American ancestors have long been thought to hail from the Siberian region. But details that seemed unknowable are now coming to light after thousands of years. For example, the Ancient North Siberian peoples also appear to be ancestral to the Mal’ta individual (dated to 24,000 years ago) from the Lake Baikal region of southern Russia, a population that showed a slice of European roots—and from whom Native Americans, in turn, derived some 40 percent of their ancestry.

    Alla Mashezerskaya maps the artifacts in the area where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. (Elena Pavlova)

    “It’s making its way to Native Americans,” Meltzer says of the ancient Yana genome, “but it’s doing so through various other populations that come and go on the Siberian landscape over the course of the Ice Age. Every genome that we get right now is telling us a lot of things that we didn’t know because ancient genomes in America and in Siberia from the Ice Age are rare.”

    A more modern genome from 10,000-year-old remains found near Siberia’s Kolyma River evidences a DNA mix of East Asian and Ancient North Siberian lineages similar to that seen in Native American populations—a much closer match than any others found outside of North America. This finding, and others from both studies, serve as reminders that the tale of human admixture and migration in the Arctic wasn’t a one-way street.

    “There’s absolutely nothing about the Bering land bridge that says you can’t go both ways,” Meltzer says. “It was open, relatively flat, no glaciers—it wasn’t like you wander through and the door closes behind you and you’re trapped in America. So there’s no reason to doubt that the Bering land bridge was trafficking humans in both directions during the Pleistocene. The idea of going back to Asia is a big deal for us, but they had no clue. They didn’t think they were going between continents. They were just moving around a large land mass.”

    First Americans Lived on Bering Land Bridge for Thousands of Years

    The theory that the Americas were populated by humans crossing from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge was first proposed as far back as 1590, and has been generally accepted since the 1930s.

    But genetic evidence shows there is no direct ancestral link between the people of ancient East Asia and modern Native Americans. A comparison of DNA from 600 modern Native Americans with ancient DNA recovered from a late Stone Age human skeleton from Mal'ta near Lake Baikal in southern Siberia shows that Native Americans diverged genetically from their Asian ancestors around 25,000 years ago, just as the last ice age was reaching its peak.

    Based on archaeological evidence, humans did not survive the last ice age&rsquos peak in northeastern Siberia, and yet there is no evidence they had reached Alaska or the rest of the New World either. While there is evidence to suggest northeast Siberia was inhabited during a warm period about 30,000 years ago before the last ice age peaked, after this the archaeological record goes silent, and only returns 15,000 years ago, after the last ice age ended.

    So where did the ancestors of the Native Americans go for 15,000 years, after they split from the rest of their Asian relatives?

    Surviving in Beringia
    As John Hoffecker, Dennis O'Rourke and I argue in an article for Science, the answer seems to be that they lived on the Bering Land Bridge, the region between Siberia and Alaska that was dry land when sea levels were lower, as much of the world&rsquos freshwater was locked up in ice, but which now lies underneath the waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. This theory has become increasingly supported by genetic evidence.

    The Bering Land Bridge, also known as central part of Beringia, is thought to have been up to 600 miles wide. Based on evidence from sediment cores drilled into the now submerged landscape, it seems that here and in some adjacent regions of Alaska and Siberia the landscape at the height of the last glaciation 21,000 years ago was shrub tundra &ndash as found in Arctic Alaska today.

    This is dominated by dwarf shrubs such as willow and birch, only a few centimeters tall. There is evidence that there may have been some stands of spruce trees in these regions too in some protected microhabitats, where temperatures were milder than the regions around. The presence of a particular group of beetle species that live in shrub tundra habitats today in Alaska, and are associated with a specific range of temperatures, also supports the idea that the area was a refuge for both flora and fauna.

    This kind of vegetation would not have supported the large, grazing animals &ndash woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, Pleistocene horses, camels, and bison. These animals lived on the vegetation of the steppe-tundra which dominated the interior of Alaska and the Yukon, as well as interior regions of northeast Siberia. This shrub tundra would have supported elk, perhaps some bighorn sheep, and small mammals. But it had the one resource people needed most to keep warm: wood.

    The wood and bark of dwarf shrubs would have been used to start fires that burned large mammal bones. The fats inside these bones won&rsquot ignite unless they are heated to high temperatures, and for that you need a woody fire. And there is evidence from archaeological sites that people burned bones as fuel &ndash the charred remains of leg bones have been found in many ancient hearths. It is the heat from these fires that kept these intrepid hunter-gatherers alive through the bitter cold of Arctic winter nights.

    Escape to America
    The last ice age ended and the land bridge began to disappear beneath the sea, some 13,000 years ago. Global sea levels rose as the vast continental ice sheets melted, liberating billions of gallons of fresh water. As the land bridge flooded, the entire Beringian region grew more warm and moist, and the shrub tundra vegetation spread rapidly, out-competing the steppe-tundra plants that had dominated the interior lowlands of Beringia.

    While this spelled the end of the woolly mammoths and other large grazing animals, it probably also provided the impetus for human migration. As retreating glaciers opened new routes into the continent, humans travelled first into the Alaskan interior and the Yukon, and ultimately south out of the Arctic region and toward the temperate regions of the Americas. The first definitive archaeological evidence we have for the presence of people beyond Beringia and interior Alaska comes from this time, about 13,000 years ago.

    These people are called Paleoindians by archaeologists. The genetic evidence records mutations in mitochondrial DNA passed from mother to offspring that are present in today&rsquos Native Americans but not in the Mal'ta remains. This indicates a population isolated from the Siberian mainland for thousands of years, who are the direct ancestors of nearly all of the Native American tribes in both North and South America &ndash the original &ldquofirst peoples&rdquo.

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Humans dated ancient Denisovan relatives beyond the Wallace Line

    Denisovan date Ancient humans known as Denisovans only interbred with modern humans after they both crossed a severe marine barrier in Indonesia, say researchers.

    This may explain why DNA from these ancient humans is only found in people from some parts of Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea and in Australian Aborigines, argue Professor Alan Cooper, from the University of South Australia, and Professor Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London.

    Evidence of the now-extinct human relative was first found in a Siberian cave three years ago. Since then, genetic studies have revealed they interbred with modern humans.

    But while traces of Denisovan DNA have been found in Southeast Asia, they have not been found in mainland Asian populations, which is closer to where the original fossils were found.

    "It has been a bit a mystery," says Cooper.

    While some have argued this can be explained by the 'swamping' of the Denisovan genetic signature by DNA from modern humans that followed Denisovans into mainland Asia, Cooper argues against this.

    First, he says, surveys of indigenous negrito hunter gatherers in Asia, show no evidence of Denisovan DNA. This is despite some of these people having had no contact with other groups that could have 'swamped' the Denisovan genetic signature.

    Second, says Cooper, ancient human remains found in China last year also contained no Denisovan DNA.

    "In mainland Asia, neither ancient human specimens, nor geographically isolated modern Indigenous populations have Denisovan DNA of any note, indicating that there has never been a genetic signal of Denisovan interbreeding in the area," he says.

    East of the Wallace Line

    The only place where a Denisovan genetic signal exists appears to be east of the Wallace Line -- which runs between Bali and Lombok and up the east coast of Borneo -- the researchers argue in the journal Science.

    This marine strait has never been bridged by land and is hard to cross, which is why the fauna on one side is so different to that on the other.

    "On one side you have all your tigers and rhinos and monkeys and on the other you have all your marsupials, giant lizards and Australia," says Cooper. "This is the probably one of the world's most famous biogeographic lines."

    "We think Denisovans crossed it and that the humans interbred with them after crossing it themelves," he says.

    Cooper says only a relatively small number of humans would have been able to cross the Wallace Line.

    He says they would have then met a larger population of Denisovans who had been established there beforehand.

    Cooper says small populations tend to outbreed - just as the relatively small group of modern humans coming out of Africa interbred just once with the Neanderthals they met.

    In addition, he says, in a small population, any genetic signal carried forward to future generations would be quite strong, because there is little else to swamp the signal.

    All this explains why Denisovan DNA is only picked up in humans east of the Wallace line, says Cooper.

    Denisovan capabilities

    The findings have implications for our understanding of the technological ability of Denisovans.

    "Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread," says Cooper.

    Interestingly, he adds, analysis of gene flow shows that it occurred as a result of male Denisovans breeding with modern human females.

    The findings also mean that the diversity of archaic human relatives in the area was much higher than previously thought - with Denisovans joining hobbits as another unexpected relative living east of the Wallace Line at the same time as modern humans.

    Who were the Denisovans?*In 2010, scientists discovered a finger bone found in a cave in Siberia belonged to a new group of ancient humans they called Denisovan (after the cave in which it was discovered).
    *Although they are related to Neanderthals, Denisovans are genetically distinct from both Neanderthals and modern humans.
    *The fossil was from a young girl who lived around 41,000 years ago.
    *Recent genetic studies show Denisovans had dark skin, brown hair and brown eyes.
    *A large population ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia.
    *They interbred with modern humans, but traces of Denisovan DNA are only found in Indigenous people in some parts of Southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea and in Australian Aborigines.

    Use these social-bookmarking links to share Humans dated ancient Denisovan relatives beyond the Wallace Line.

    On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners

    Early humans, possibly even prehuman ancestors, appear to have been going to sea much longer than anyone had ever suspected.

    That is the startling implication of discoveries made the last two summers on the Greek island of Crete. Stone tools found there, archaeologists say, are at least 130,000 years old, which is considered strong evidence for the earliest known seafaring in the Mediterranean and cause for rethinking the maritime capabilities of prehuman cultures.

    Crete has been an island for more than five million years, meaning that the toolmakers must have arrived by boat. So this seems to push the history of Mediterranean voyaging back more than 100,000 years, specialists in Stone Age archaeology say. Previous artifact discoveries had shown people reaching Cyprus, a few other Greek islands and possibly Sardinia no earlier than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

    The oldest established early marine travel anywhere was the sea-crossing migration of anatomically modern Homo sapiens to Australia, beginning about 60,000 years ago. There is also a suggestive trickle of evidence, notably the skeletons and artifacts on the Indonesian island of Flores, of more ancient hominids making their way by water to new habitats.

    Even more intriguing, the archaeologists who found the tools on Crete noted that the style of the hand axes suggested that they could be up to 700,000 years old. That may be a stretch, they conceded, but the tools resemble artifacts from the stone technology known as Acheulean, which originated with prehuman populations in Africa.

    More than 2,000 stone artifacts, including the hand axes, were collected on the southwestern shore of Crete, near the town of Plakias, by a team led by Thomas F. Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou. She is with the Greek Ministry of Culture and he is an associate professor of art history at Providence College in Rhode Island. They were assisted by Greek and American geologists and archaeologists, including Curtis Runnels of Boston University.

    Dr. Strasser described the discovery last month at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. A formal report has been accepted for publication in Hesparia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a supporter of the fieldwork.

    The Plakias survey team went in looking for material remains of more recent artisans, nothing older than 11,000 years. Such artifacts would have been blades, spear points and arrowheads typical of Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

    “We found those, then we found the hand axes,” Dr. Strasser said last week in an interview, and that sent the team into deeper time.

    “We were flummoxed,” Dr. Runnels said in an interview. “These things were just not supposed to be there.”

    Word of the find is circulating among the ranks of Stone Age scholars. The few who have seen the data and some pictures — most of the tools reside in Athens — said they were excited and cautiously impressed. The research, if confirmed by further study, scrambles timetables of technological development and textbook accounts of human and prehuman mobility.

    Ofer Bar-Yosef, an authority on Stone Age archaeology at Harvard, said the significance of the find would depend on the dating of the site. “Once the investigators provide the dates,” he said in an e-mail message, “we will have a better understanding of the importance of the discovery.”

    Dr. Bar-Yosef said he had seen only a few photographs of the Cretan tools. The forms can only indicate a possible age, he said, but “handling the artifacts may provide a different impression.” And dating, he said, would tell the tale.

    Dr. Runnels, who has 30 years’ experience in Stone Age research, said that an analysis by him and three geologists “left not much doubt of the age of the site, and the tools must be even older.”

    The cliffs and caves above the shore, the researchers said, have been uplifted by tectonic forces where the African plate goes under and pushes up the European plate. The exposed uplifted layers represent the sequence of geologic periods that have been well studied and dated, in some cases correlated to established dates of glacial and interglacial periods of the most recent ice age. In addition, the team analyzed the layer bearing the tools and determined that the soil had been on the surface 130,000 to 190,000 years ago.

    Dr. Runnels said he considered this a minimum age for the tools themselves. They include not only quartz hand axes, but also cleavers and scrapers, all of which are in the Acheulean style. The tools could have been made millenniums before they became, as it were, frozen in time in the Cretan cliffs, the archaeologists said.

    Dr. Runnels suggested that the tools could be at least twice as old as the geologic layers. Dr. Strasser said they could be as much as 700,000 years old. Further explorations are planned this summer.

    The 130,000-year date would put the discovery in a time when Homo sapiens had already evolved in Africa, sometime after 200,000 years ago. Their presence in Europe did not become apparent until about 50,000 years ago.

    Archaeologists can only speculate about who the toolmakers were. One hundred and thirty thousand years ago, modern humans shared the world with other hominids, like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. The Acheulean culture is thought to have started with Homo erectus.

    The standard hypothesis had been that Acheulean toolmakers reached Europe and Asia via the Middle East, passing mainly through what is now Turkey into the Balkans. The new finds suggest that their dispersals were not confined to land routes. They may lend credibility to proposals of migrations from Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Crete’s southern shore where the tools were found is 200 miles from North Africa.

    “We can’t say the toolmakers came 200 miles from Libya,” Dr. Strasser said. “If you’re on a raft, that’s a long voyage, but they might have come from the European mainland by way of shorter crossings through Greek islands.”

    But archaeologists and experts on early nautical history said the discovery appeared to show that these surprisingly ancient mariners had craft sturdier and more reliable than rafts. They also must have had the cognitive ability to conceive and carry out repeated water crossing over great distances in order to establish sustainable populations producing an abundance of stone artifacts.


    Norse colonization of the Americas Edit

    Norse journeys to Greenland and Canada prior to Columbus' voyages are supported by historical and archaeological evidence. A Norse colony was established in Greenland in the late 10th century and lasted until the mid-15th century, with court and parliament assemblies (þing) taking place at Brattahlíð and a bishop being posted at Garðar. [7] The remains of a Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in what is now Newfoundland, a large island on the Atlantic coast of Canada, were discovered in 1960 and have been radiocarbon-dated to between 990 and 1050 CE. [3] This remains the only site widely accepted as evidence of post-prehistory, pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact with the Americas. L'Anse aux Meadows was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1978. [8] It is also possibly connected with the attempted colony of Vinland established by Leif Erikson around the same period or, more broadly, with Norse exploration of the Americas. [9]

    Though L'Anse aux Meadows establishes that Norse colonists traveled to and built permanent structures in North America, few sources describing contact between indigenous peoples and Norse people exist. Contact between the Thule people (ancestors of the modern Inuit) and Norse in the 12th or 13th centuries is known. The Norse Greenlanders called these incoming settlers "skrælingar". Conflict between the Greenlanders and the "skrælings" is recorded in the Icelandic Annals. The term skrælings is also used in the Vínland sagas, which relate to events during the 10th century, when describing trade and conflict with native peoples. [10]

    Polynesian, Melanesian, and Austronesian contact Edit

    Genetic studies Edit

    Between 2007 and 2009, geneticist Erik Thorsby and colleagues published two studies in Tissue Antigens that evidence an Amerindian genetic contribution to human populations on Easter Island, determining that it was probably introduced before European discovery of the island. [11] [12] In 2014, geneticist Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas of The Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen published a study in Current Biology that found human genetic evidence of contact between the populations of Easter Island and South America, dating to approximately 600 years ago (i.e. 1400 CE ± 100 years). [13]

    Some members of the now-extinct Botocudo people, who lived in the interior of Brazil, were found in research published in 2013 to have been members of mtDNA haplogroup B4a1a1, which is normally found only among Polynesians and other subgroups of Austronesians. This was based on an analysis of fourteen skulls. Two belonged to B4a1a1 (while twelve belonged to subclades of mtDNA haplogroup C1, common among Native Americans). The research team examined various scenarios, none of which they could say for certain were correct. They dismissed a scenario of direct contact in prehistory between Polynesia and Brazil as "too unlikely to be seriously entertained." While B4a1a1 is also found among the Malagasy people of Madagascar (which experienced significant Austronesian settlement in prehistory), the authors described as "fanciful" suggestions that B4a1a1 among the Botocudo resulted from the African slave trade (which included Madagascar). [14]

    A genetic study published in Nature in July 2015 stated that "some Amazonian Native Americans descend partly from a . founding population that carried ancestry more closely related to indigenous Australians, New Guineans and Andaman Islanders than to any present-day Eurasians or Native Americans." [15] [16] The authors, who included David Reich, added: "This signature is not present to the same extent, or at all, in present-day Northern and Central Americans or in a

    12,600-year-old Clovis-associated genome, suggesting a more diverse set of founding populations of the Americas than previously accepted." This appears to conflict with an article published roughly simultaneously in Science which adopts the previous consensus perspective, i.e. that the ancestors of all Native Americans entered the Americas in a single wave of migration from Siberia no earlier than

    23 ka, separated from the Inuit, and diversified into "northern" and "southern" Native American branches

    13 ka. There is evidence of post-divergence gene flow between some Native Americans and groups related to East Asians/Inuit and Australo-Melanesians. [17] This is evidence of contact by pre-Polynesian groups of Oceania, e.g. Melanesians or other Austronesians.

    In 2020 another study in Nature found that populations in the Mangareva, Marquesas, and Palliser islands and Easter Island had genetic admixture from indigenous populations of South America, with the DNA of contemporary populations of Zenú people from the Pacific coast of Colombia being the closest match. The authors suggest that the genetic signatures were probably the result of a single ancient contact. They proposed that an initial admixture event between indigenous South Americans and Polynesians occurred in eastern Polynesia between 1150 and 1230 CE, with later admixture in Easter Island around 1380 CE, [4] but suggested other possible contact scenarios—for example, Polynesian voyages to South America followed by Polynesian people's returning to Polynesia with South American people, or carrying South American genetic heritage. [18] Several scholars uninvolved in the study suggested that a contact event in South America was more likely. [19] [20] [21]

    Other claims of Polynesian and/or Melanesian contact Edit

    Sweet potato Edit

    The sweet potato, a food crop native to the Americas, was widespread in Polynesia by the time European explorers first reached the Pacific. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 CE, [ contradictory ] and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia c. 700 CE and spread across Polynesia from there. [22] It has been suggested that it was brought by Polynesians who had traveled across the Pacific to South America and back, or that South Americans brought it to Polynesia. [23] It is also possible that the plant floated across the ocean after being discarded from the cargo of a boat. [24] Phylogenetic analysis supports the hypothesis of at least two separate introductions of sweet potatoes from South America into Polynesia, including one before and one after European contact. [25]

    Dutch linguists and specialists in Amerindian languages Willem Adelaar and Pieter Muysken have suggested that the word for sweet potato is shared by Polynesian languages and languages of South America. Proto-Polynesian *kumala [26] (compare Easter Island kumara, Hawaiian ʻuala, Māori kūmara apparent cognates outside Eastern Polynesian may be borrowed from Eastern Polynesian languages, calling Proto-Polynesian status and age into question) may be connected with Quechua and Aymara k'umar

    Adelaar and Muysken assert that the similarity in the word for sweet potato "constitutes near proof of incidental contact between inhabitants of the Andean region and the South Pacific." The authors argue that the presence of the word for sweet potato suggests sporadic contact between Polynesia and South America, but not necessarily migrations. [27]

    California canoes Edit

    Researchers including Kathryn Klar and Terry Jones have proposed a theory of contact between Hawaiians and the Chumash people of Southern California between 400 and 800 CE. The sewn-plank canoes crafted by the Chumash and neighboring Tongva are unique among the indigenous peoples of North America, but similar in design to larger canoes used by Polynesians and Melanesians for deep-sea voyages. Tomolo'o, the Chumash word for such a craft, may derive from tumula'au/kumula'au, the Hawaiian term for the logs from which shipwrights carve planks to be sewn into canoes. [28] [29] The analogous Tongva term, tii'at, is unrelated. If it occurred, this contact left no genetic legacy in California or Hawaii. This theory has attracted limited media attention within California, but most archaeologists of the Tongva and Chumash cultures reject it on the grounds that the independent development of the sewn-plank canoe over several centuries is well-represented in the material record. [30] [31] [32]

    Chickens Edit

    In 2007, evidence emerged which suggested the possibility of pre-Columbian contact between the Mapuche people (Araucanians) of south-central Chile and Polynesians. Bones of Araucana chickens found at El Arenal site in the Arauco Peninsula, an area inhabited by Mapuche, support a pre-Columbian introduction of landraces from the South Pacific islands to South America. [33] The bones found in Chile were radiocarbon-dated to between 1304 and 1424, before the arrival of the Spanish. Chicken DNA sequences were matched to those of chickens in American Samoa and Tonga, and found to be dissimilar to those of European chickens. [34] [35]

    However, this finding was challenged by a 2008 study which questioned its methodology and concluded that its conclusion is flawed, although the theory it posits may still be possible. [36] Another study in 2014 reinforced that dismissal, and posited the crucial flaw in the initial research: "The analysis of ancient and modern specimens reveals a unique Polynesian genetic signature" and that "a previously reported connection between pre-European South America and Polynesian chickens most likely resulted from contamination with modern DNA, and that this issue is likely to confound ancient DNA studies involving haplogroup E chicken sequences." [37]

    Ageratum conyzoides Edit

    Ageratum conyzoides, also known as billygoat-weed, chick weed, goatweed, or whiteweed, is native to the tropical Americas, and was found in Hawaii by William Hillebrand in 1888 who considered it to have grown there before Captain Cook's arrival in 1778. A legitimate native name (meie parari or mei rore) and established native medicinal usage and use as a scent and in leis have been offered as support for the pre-Cookian age. [38] [39]

    Turmeric Edit

    Turmeric (Curcuma longa) originated in Asia, and there is linguistic and circumstantial evidence of the spread and use of turmeric by the Austronesian peoples into Oceania and Madagascar. Günter Tessmann in 1930 (300 years after European contact) reported that a species of Curcuma was grown by the Amahuaca tribe to the east of the Upper Ucayali River in Peru and was a dye-plant used for the painting of the body, with the nearby Witoto people using it as face paint in their ceremonial dances. [40] [41] David Sopher noted in 1950 that "the evidence for a pre-European, transpacific introduction of the plant by man seems very strong indeed". [42]

    Linguistics of Stone Axe Edit

    The word for "stone axe" on Easter Island is toki, among the New Zealand Maori toki ("adze"), Mapuche toki in Chile and Argentina, and further afield, Yurumanguí totoki ("axe") from Colombia. [27] The Mapuche word toqui may also mean "chief" and thus be linked to the Quechua word toqe ("militia chief") and the Aymara toqueni ("person of great judgement"). [43] In the view of Moulian et al. (2015) the possible South American links complicates the matters regarding the view of the word toki as suggestive of Polynesian contact. [43]

    Similarity of features Edit

    In December 2007, several human skulls were found in a museum in Concepción, Chile. These skulls originated from Mocha Island, an island just off the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean, formerly inhabited by the Mapuche. Craniometric analysis of the skulls, according to Lisa Matisoo-Smith of the University of Otago and José Miguel Ramírez Aliaga of the Universidad de Valparaíso, suggests that the skulls have "Polynesian features" – such as a pentagonal shape when viewed from behind, and rocker jaws. [44]

    Claims of contact with Ecuador Edit

    A 2013 genetic study suggests the possibility of contact between Ecuador and East Asia. The study suggests that the contact could have been trans-oceanic or a late-stage coastal migration that did not leave genetic imprints in North America. [45]

    Claims of Chinese contact Edit

    Other researchers have argued that the Olmec civilization came into existence with the help of Chinese refugees, particularly at the end of the Shang dynasty. [47] In 1975, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution argued that the Olmec civilization originated around 1200 BCE due to Shang Chinese influences. [48] In a 1996 book, Mike Xu, with the aid of Chen Hanping, claimed that celts from La Venta bear Chinese characters. [49] [50] These claims are unsupported by mainstream Mesoamerican researchers. [51]

    Other claims have been made for early Chinese contact with North America. In 1882 approximately 30 brass coins, perhaps strung together, were reportedly found in the area of the Cassiar Gold Rush, apparently near Dease Creek, an area which was dominated by Chinese gold miners. A contemporary account states: [52]

    In the summer of 1882 a miner found on De Foe (Deorse?) creek, Cassiar district, Br. Columbia, thirty Chinese coins in the auriferous sand, twenty-five feet below the surface. They appeared to have been strung, but on taking them up the miner let them drop apart. The earth above and around them was as compact as any in the neighborhood. One of these coins I examined at the store of Chu Chong in Victoria. Neither in metal nor markings did it resemble the modern coins, but in its figures looked more like an Aztec calendar. So far as I can make out the markings, this is a Chinese chronological cycle of sixty years, invented by Emperor Huungti, 2637 BCE, and circulated in this form to make his people remember it.

    Grant Keddie, Curator of Archeology at the Royal B.C. Museum identified these as good luck temple tokens minted in the 19th century. He believed that claims that these were very old made them notorious and that "The temple coins were shown to many people and different versions of stories pertaining to their discovery and age spread around the province to be put into print and changed frequently by many authors in the last 100 years." [53]

    A group of Chinese Buddhist missionaries led by Hui Shen before 500 CE claimed to have visited a location called Fusang. Although Chinese mapmakers placed this territory on the Asian coast, others have suggested as early as the 1800s [54] that Fusang might have been in North America, due to perceived similarities between portions of the California coast and Fusang as depicted by Asian sources. [55]

    In his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, British author Gavin Menzies made the groundless claim that the treasure fleets of Ming admiral Zheng He arrived in America in 1421. [56] Professional historians contend that Zheng He reached the eastern coast of Africa, and dismiss Menzies' hypothesis as entirely without proof. [57] [58] [59] [60]

    In 1973 and 1975, doughnut-shaped stones which resembled stone anchors which were used by Chinese fishermen were discovered off the coast of California. These stones (sometimes called the Palos Verdes stones) were initially thought to be up to 1,500 years old and therefore proof of pre-Columbian contact by Chinese sailors. Later geological investigations showed them to be made of a local rock which is known as Monterey shale, and they are thought to have been used by Chinese settlers who fished off the coast during the 19th century. [61]

    Claims of Japanese contact Edit

    Archaeologist Emilio Estrada and co-workers wrote that pottery which was associated with the Valdivia culture of coastal Ecuador and dated to 3000–1500 BCE exhibited similarities to pottery which was produced during the Jōmon period in Japan, arguing that contact between the two cultures might explain the similarities. [62] [63] Chronological and other problems have led most archaeologists to dismiss this idea as implausible. [64] [65] The suggestion has been made that the resemblances (which are not complete) are simply due to the limited number of designs possible when incising clay.

    Alaskan anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis claims that the Zuni people of New Mexico exhibit linguistic and cultural similarities to the Japanese. [66] The Zuni language is a linguistic isolate, and Davis contends that the culture appears to differ from that of the surrounding natives in terms of blood type, endemic disease, and religion. Davis speculates that Buddhist priests or restless peasants from Japan may have crossed the Pacific in the 13th century, traveled to the American Southwest, and influenced Zuni society. [66]

    In the 1890s, lawyer and politician James Wickersham [67] argued that pre-Columbian contact between Japanese sailors and Native Americans was highly probable, given that from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century several dozen Japanese ships are known to have been carried from Asia to North America along the powerful Kuroshio Currents. Japanese ships landed at places between the Aleutian Islands in the north and Mexico in the south, carrying a total of 293 people in the 23 cases where head-counts were given in historical records. In most cases, the Japanese sailors gradually made their way home on merchant vessels. In 1834, a dismasted, rudderless Japanese ship was wrecked near Cape Flattery in the Pacific Northwest. Three survivors of the ship were enslaved by Makahs for a period before being rescued by members of the Hudson's Bay Company. They were never able to return to their homeland due to Japan's isolationist policy at the time. [68] [69] Another Japanese ship went ashore in about 1850 near the mouth of the Columbia River, Wickersham writes, and the sailors were assimilated into the local Native American population. While admitting there is no definitive proof of pre-Columbian contact between Japanese and North Americans, Wickersham thought it implausible that such contacts as outlined above would have started only after Europeans arrived in North America and began documenting them.

    In 1879, Alexander Cunningham wrote a description of the carvings on the Stupa of Bharhut in central India, dating from c. 200 BCE, among which he noted what appeared to be a depiction of a custard-apple (Annona squamosa). [70] Cunningham was not initially aware that this plant, indigenous to the New World tropics, was introduced to India after Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route in 1498, and the problem was pointed out to him. A 2009 study claimed to have found carbonized remains that date to 2000 BCE and appear to be those of custard-apple seeds. [71]

    Grafton Elliot Smith claimed that certain motifs present in the carvings on the Mayan stelae at Copán represented the Asian elephant, and wrote a book on the topic entitled Elephants and Ethnologists in 1924. Contemporary archaeologists suggested that the depictions were almost certainly based on the (indigenous) tapir, with the result that Smith's suggestions have generally been dismissed by subsequent research. [72]

    Some objects depicted in carvings from Karnataka, dating from the 12th century, that resemble ears of maize (Zea mays—a crop native to the New World), were interpreted by Carl Johannessen in 1989 as evidence of pre-Columbian contact. [73] These suggestions were dismissed by multiple Indian researchers based on several lines of evidence. The object has been claimed by some to instead represent a "Muktaphala", an imaginary fruit bedecked with pearls. [74] [75]

    There are a few linguistic anomalies that occur in the Central America region, specifically in the region of Chiapas, Mexico and the Caribbean islands that might suggest Indian/South-East Asian sailors had made their way to the Americas prior to Columbus. To start with, the Arawakan-Taino word (once spoken in the Caribbean) "kanawa" from which the word "canoe" derives, is both semantically and morphologically similar to the Sanskrit word for boat "nawka". There are also two Tzotzil words (spoken in the Chiapas region) that have such similar qualities. The first is the Tzotzil word "achon" which means "enter", which may derive from the Sanskrit/Bengali word "ashon/ashen" which means "come". The Sanskrit root "ash" generally means "come" or "enter". The second is the Tzotzil word "sjol", which means "hair" and it is interestingly similar to the Bengali word for hair, "chul". It is worth nothing that the equatorial counter provides a direct wind route from South East Asia to the region where these anomalies occur. [ citation needed ]

    Claims involving African contact Edit

    Proposed claims for an African presence in Mesoamerica stem from attributes of the Olmec culture, the claimed transfer of African plants to the Americas, [76] and interpretations of European and Arabic historical accounts.

    The Olmec culture existed from roughly 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. The idea that the Olmecs are related to Africans was suggested by José Melgar, who discovered the first colossal head at Hueyapan (now Tres Zapotes) in 1862. [77] More recently, Ivan Van Sertima speculated an African influence on Mesoamerican culture in his book They Came Before Columbus (1976). His claims included the attribution of Mesoamerican pyramids, calendar technology, mummification, and mythology to the arrival of Africans by boat on currents running from Western Africa to the Americas. Heavily inspired by Leo Wiener (below), Van Sertima suggests that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl represented an African visitor. His conclusions have been severely criticized by mainstream academics and considered pseudoarchaeology. [78]

    Leo Wiener's Africa and the Discovery of America suggests similarities between Mandinka and native Mesoamerican religious symbols such as the winged serpent and the sun disk, or Quetzalcoatl, and words that have Mande roots and share similar meanings across both cultures, such as "kore", "gadwal", and "qubila" (in Arabic) or "kofila" (in Mandinka). [79] [80]

    North African sources describe what some consider to be visits to the New World by a fleet from the Mali Empire in 1311, led by Abu Bakr II. [81] According to the abstract of Columbus' log made by Bartolomé de las Casas, the purpose of Columbus' third voyage was to test both the claims of King John II of Portugal that "canoes had been found which set out from the coast of Guinea [West Africa] and sailed to the west with merchandise" as well as the claims of the native inhabitants of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that "from the south and the southeast had come black people whose spears were made of a metal called guanín. from which it was found that of 32 parts: 18 were gold, 6 were silver, and 8 copper." [82] [83] [84]

    Brazilian researcher Niede Guidon, who led the Pedra Furada sites excavations ". said she believed that humans . might have come not overland from Asia but by boat from Africa", with the journey taking place 100,000 years ago, well before the accepted dates for the earliest human migrations that led to the prehistoric settlement of the Americas. Michael R. Waters, a geoarchaeologist at Texas A&M University, noted the absence of genetic evidence in modern populations to support Guidon's claim. [85]

    Claims involving Arab contact Edit

    Early Chinese accounts of Muslim expeditions state that Muslim sailors reached a region called Mulan Pi ("magnolia skin") (Chinese: 木蘭皮 pinyin: Mùlán Pí Wade–Giles: Mu-lan-p'i ). Mulan Pi is mentioned in Lingwai Daida (1178) by Zhou Qufei and Zhufan Zhi (1225) by Chao Jukua, together referred to as the "Sung Document". Mulan Pi is normally identified as Spain and Morocco of the Almoravid dynasty (Al-Murabitun), [86] though some fringe theories hold that it is instead some part of the Americas. [87] [88]

    One supporter of the interpretation of Mulan Pi as part of the Americas was historian Hui-lin Li in 1961, [87] [88] and while Joseph Needham was also open to the possibility, he doubted that Arab ships at the time would have been able to withstand a return journey over such a long distance across the Atlantic Ocean, pointing out that a return journey would have been impossible without knowledge of prevailing winds and currents. [89]

    According to Muslim historian Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi (871–957), Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad sailed over the Atlantic Ocean and discovered a previously unknown land (Arḍ Majhūlah, Arabic: أرض مجهولة ‎) in 889 and returned with a shipload of valuable treasures. [90] [91] The passage has been alternatively interpreted to imply that Ali al-Masudi regarded the story of Khashkhash to be a fanciful tale. [92]

    Claims involving ancient Phoenician contact Edit

    In 1996, Mark McMenamin proposed that Phoenician sailors discovered the New World c. 350 BC. [93] The Phoenician state of Carthage minted gold staters in 350 BC bearing a pattern in the reverse exergue of the coins, which McMenamin interpreted as a map of the Mediterranean with the Americas shown to the west across the Atlantic. [93] [94] McMenamin later demonstrated that these coins found in America were modern forgeries. [95]

    Claims involving ancient Judaic contact Edit

    The Bat Creek inscription and Los Lunas Decalogue Stone have led some to suggest the possibility that Jewish seafarers may have traveled to America after fleeing the Roman Empire at the time of the Jewish–Roman Wars in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. [96]

    However, American archaeologists Robert C. Mainfort Jr. and Mary L. Kwas argued in American Antiquity (2004) that the Bat Creek inscription was copied from an illustration in an 1870 Masonic reference book and introduced by the Smithsonian field assistant who found it during excavation activities. [97] [98]

    As for the Decalogue Stone, there are mistakes that suggest it was carved by one or more novices who overlooked or misunderstood some details on a source Decalogue from which they copied it. Since there is no other evidence or archeological context in the vicinity, it is most likely that the legend at the nearby university is true—that the stone was carved by two anthropology students whose signatures can be seen inscribed in the rock below the Decalogue, "Eva and Hobe 3-13-30." [99]

    Scholar Cyrus H. Gordon believed that Phoenicians and other Semitic groups had crossed the Atlantic in antiquity, ultimately arriving in both North and South America. [100] This opinion was based on his own work on the Bat Creek inscription. [101] Similar ideas were also held by John Philip Cohane Cohane even claimed that many geographical placenames in the United States have a Semitic origin. [102] [103]

    Solutrean hypothesis Edit

    The Solutrean hypothesis argues that Europeans migrated to the New World during the Paleolithic era, circa 16,000 to 13,000 BCE. This hypothesis proposes contact partly on the basis of perceived similarities between the flint tools of the Solutrean culture in modern-day France, Spain and Portugal (which thrived circa 20,000 to 15,000 BCE), and the Clovis culture of North America, which developed circa 9000 BCE. [104] [105] The Solutrean hypothesis was proposed in the mid-1990s. [106] It has little support amongst the scientific community, and genetic markers are inconsistent with the idea. [107] [108]

    Claims involving ancient Roman contact Edit

    Evidence of contacts with the civilizations of Classical Antiquity—primarily with the Roman Empire, but sometimes also with other cultures of the age—have been based on isolated archaeological finds in American sites that originated in the Old World. The Bay of Jars in Brazil has been yielding ancient clay storage jars that resemble Roman amphorae [109] for over 150 years. It has been proposed that the origin of these jars is a Roman wreck, although it has been suggested that they could be 15th or 16th century Spanish olive oil jars.

    Archaeologist Romeo Hristov argues that a Roman ship, or the drifting of such a shipwreck to the American shores, is a possible explanation of archaeological finds (like the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca bearded head) from ancient Rome in America. Hristov claims that the possibility of such an event has been made more likely by the discovery of evidence of travels by Romans to Tenerife and Lanzarote in the Canaries, and of a Roman settlement (from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE) on Lanzarote. [110]

    In 1950, an Italian botanist, Domenico Casella, suggested that a depiction of a pineapple was represented among wall paintings of Mediterranean fruits at Pompeii. According to Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski, this interpretation has been challenged by other botanists, who identify it as a pine cone from the umbrella pine tree, which is native to the Mediterranean area. [111]

    Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head Edit

    A small terracotta head sculpture, with a beard and European-like features, was found in 1933 (in the Toluca Valley, 72 kilometres southwest of Mexico City) in a burial offering under three intact floors of a pre-colonial building dated to between 1476 and 1510. The artifact has been studied by Roman art authority Bernard Andreae, director emeritus of the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome, Italy, and Austrian anthropologist Robert von Heine-Geldern, both of whom stated that the style of the artifact was compatible with small Roman sculptures of the 2nd century. If genuine and if not placed there after 1492 (the pottery found with it dates to between 1476 and 1510) [112] the find provides evidence for at least a one-time contact between the Old and New Worlds. [113]

    According to ASU's Michael E. Smith, John Paddock, a leading Mesoamerican scholar, used to tell his classes in the years before he died that the artifact was planted as a joke by Hugo Moedano, a student who originally worked on the site. Despite speaking with individuals who knew the original discoverer (García Payón), and Moedano, Smith says he has been unable to confirm or reject this claim. Though he remains skeptical, Smith concedes he cannot rule out the possibility that the head was a genuinely buried post-Classic offering at Calixtlahuaca. [114]

    14th- and 15th-century European contact Edit

    Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney and feudal baron of Roslin (c. 1345 – c. 1400), was a Scottish nobleman. He is best known today from a modern legend that claims he took part in explorations of Greenland and North America almost 100 years before Christopher Columbus. [115] In 1784, he was identified by Johann Reinhold Forster [116] as possibly being the Prince Zichmni described in letters allegedly written around 1400 by the Zeno brothers of Venice, in which they describe a voyage throughout the North Atlantic under the command of Zichmni. [117]

    Henry was the grandfather of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland. The authors Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight believe some carvings in the chapel to be ears of New World corn or maize. [118] This crop was unknown in Europe at the time of the chapel's construction, and was not cultivated there until several hundred years later. Knight and Lomas view these carvings as evidence supporting the idea that Henry Sinclair traveled to the Americas well before Columbus. In their book they discuss meeting with the wife of the botanist Adrian Dyer and explain that Dyer's wife told them that Dyer agreed that the image thought to be maize was accurate. [118] In fact Dyer found only one identifiable plant among the botanical carvings and instead suggested that the "maize" and "aloe" were stylized wooden patterns, only coincidentally looking like real plants. [119] Specialists in medieval architecture interpret the carvings as stylised depictions of wheat, strawberries, or lilies. [120] [121]

    Some have conjectured that Columbus was able to persuade the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon to support his planned voyage only because they were aware of some recent earlier voyage across the Atlantic. Some suggest that Columbus himself visited Canada or Greenland before 1492, because according to Bartolomé de las Casas he wrote he had sailed 100 leagues past an island he called Thule in 1477. Whether Columbus actually did this and what island he visited, if any, is uncertain. Columbus is thought to have visited Bristol in 1476. [122] Bristol was also the port from which John Cabot sailed in 1497, crewed mostly by Bristol sailors. In a letter of late 1497 or early 1498, the English merchant John Day wrote to Columbus about Cabot's discoveries, saying that land found by Cabot was "discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil' as your lordship knows". [123] There may be records of expeditions from Bristol to find the "isle of Brazil" in 1480 and 1481. [124] Trade between Bristol and Iceland is well documented from the mid-15th century.

    Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés records several such legends in his Historia general de las Indias of 1526, which includes biographical information on Columbus. He discusses the then-current story of a Spanish caravel that was swept off its course while on its way to England, and wound up in a foreign land populated by naked tribesmen. The crew gathered supplies and made its way back to Europe, but the trip took several months and the captain and most of the men died before reaching land. The caravel's ship pilot, a man called Alonso Sánchez, and a few others made it to Portugal, but all were very ill. Columbus was a good friend of the pilot, and took him to be treated in his own house, and the pilot described the land they had seen and marked it on a map before dying. People in Oviedo's time knew this story in several versions, though Oviedo himself regarded it as a myth. [125]

    In 1925, Soren Larsen wrote a book claiming that a joint Danish-Portuguese expedition landed in Newfoundland or Labrador in 1473 and again in 1476. Larsen claimed that Didrik Pining and Hans Pothorst served as captains, while João Vaz Corte-Real and the possibly mythical John Scolvus served as navigators, accompanied by Álvaro Martins. [126] Nothing beyond circumstantial evidence has been found to support Larsen's claims. [127]

    The historical record shows that Basque fishermen were present in Newfoundland and Labrador from at least 1517 onward (therefore predating all recorded European settlements in the region except those of the Norse). The Basques' fishing expeditions led to significant trade and cultural exchanges with Native Americans. A fringe theory suggests that Basque sailors first arrived in North America prior to Columbus' voyages to the New World (some sources suggest the late 14th century as a tentative date) but kept the destination a secret in order to avoid competition over the fishing resources of the North American coasts. There is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this claim. [128]

    Irish and Welsh legends Edit

    The legend of Saint Brendan, an Irish monk from what is now County Kerry, involves a fantastical journey into the Atlantic Ocean in search of Paradise in the 6th century. Since the discovery of the New World, various authors have tried to link the Brendan legend with an early discovery of America. In 1977, the voyage was successfully recreated by Tim Severin using a replica of an ancient Irish currach. [129]

    According to a British myth, Madoc was a prince from Wales who explored the Americas as early as 1170. While most scholars consider this legend to be untrue, it was used to bolster British claims in the Americas vis-à-vis those of Spain. [130] [131]

    Biologist and controversial amateur epigrapher Barry Fell claims that Irish Ogham writing has been found carved into stones in the Virginias. [132] Linguist David H. Kelley has criticized some of Fell's work but nonetheless argued that genuine Celtic Ogham inscriptions have in fact been discovered in America. [133] However, others have raised serious doubts about these claims. [134]

    Claims of Egyptian coca and tobacco Edit

    Traces of coca and nicotine which are found in some Egyptian mummies have led to speculation that Ancient Egyptians may have had contact with the New World. The initial discovery was made by a German toxicologist, Svetlana Balabanova, after examining the mummy of a priestess who was named Henut Taui. Follow-up tests on the hair shaft, which were performed in order to rule out the possibility of contamination, revealed the same results. [135]

    A television show reported that examinations of numerous Sudanese mummies which were also undertaken by Balabanova mirrored what was found in the mummy of Henut Taui. [136] Balabanova suggested that the tobacco may be accounted for since it may have also been known in China and Europe, as indicated by analysis run on human remains from those respective regions. Balabanova proposed that such plants native to the general area may have developed independently, but have since gone extinct. [136] Other explanations include fraud, though curator Alfred Grimm of the Egyptian Museum in Munich disputes this. [136] Skeptical of Balabanova's findings, Rosalie David, Keeper of Egyptology at the Manchester Museum, had similar tests performed on samples which were taken from the Manchester mummy collection and she reported that two of the tissue samples and one hair sample tested positive for the presence of nicotine. [136] Sources of nicotine other than tobacco and sources of cocaine in the Old World are discussed by the British biologist Duncan Edlin. [137]

    Mainstream scholars remain skeptical, and they do not see the results of these tests as proof of ancient contact between Africa and the Americas, especially because there may be possible Old World sources of cocaine and nicotine. [138] [139] Two attempts to replicate Balabanova's findings of cocaine failed, suggesting "that either Balabanova and her associates are misinterpreting their results or that the samples of mummies tested by them have been mysteriously exposed to cocaine." [140]

    A re-examination of the mummy of Ramesses II in the 1970s revealed the presence of fragments of tobacco leaves in its abdomen. This finding became a popular topic in fringe literature and the media and it was seen as proof of contact between Ancient Egypt and the New World. The investigator, Maurice Bucaille, noted that when the mummy was unwrapped in 1886 the abdomen was left open and "it was no longer possible to attach any importance to the presence inside the abdominal cavity of whatever material was found there, since the material could have come from the surrounding environment." [141] Following the renewed discussion of tobacco sparked by Balabanova's research and its mention in a 2000 publication by Rosalie David, a study in the journal Antiquity suggested that reports of both tobacco and cocaine in mummies "ignored their post-excavation histories" and pointed out that the mummy of Ramesses II had been moved five times between 1883 and 1975. [139]

    Icelander DNA finding Edit

    In 2010 Sigríður Sunna Ebenesersdóttir published a genetic study showing that over 350 living Icelanders carried mitochondrial DNA of a new type, C1e, belonging to the C1 clade which was until then known only from Native American and East Asian populations. Using the deCODE genetics database, Sigríður Sunna determined that the DNA entered the Icelandic population not later than 1700, and likely several centuries earlier. However Sigríður Sunna also states that "while a Native American origin seems most likely for [this new haplogroup], an Asian or European origin cannot be ruled out". [142]

    In 2014, a study discovered a new mtDNA subclade C1f from the remains of three people found in north-western Russia and dated to 7,500 years ago. It has not been detected in modern populations. The study proposed the hypothesis that the sister C1e and C1f subclades had split early from the most recent common ancestor of the C1 clade and had evolved independently, and that subclade C1e had a northern European origin. Iceland was settled by the Vikings 1,130 years ago and they had raided heavily into western Russia, where the sister subclade C1f is now known to have resided. They proposed that both subclades were brought to Iceland through the Vikings, and that C1e went extinct on mainland northern Europe due to population turnover and its small representation, and subclade C1f went extinct completely. [143]

    Norse legends and sagas Edit

    In 1009, legends report that Norse explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni abducted two children from Markland, an area on the North American mainland where Norse explorers visited but did not settle. The two children were then taken to Greenland, where they were baptized and taught to speak Norse. [144]

    In 1420, Danish geographer Claudius Clavus Swart wrote that he personally had seen "pygmies" from Greenland who were caught by Norsemen in a small skin boat. Their boat was hung in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim along with another, longer boat also taken from "pygmies". Clavus Swart's description fits the Inuit and two of their types of boats, the kayak and the umiak. [145] [146] Similarly, the Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus wrote in 1505 that he saw in Oslo Cathedral two leather boats taken decades earlier. According to Olaus, the boats were captured from Greenland pirates by one of the Haakons, which would place the event in the 14th century. [145]

    In Ferdinand Columbus's biography of his father Christopher, he says that in 1477 his father saw in Galway, Ireland, two dead bodies which had washed ashore in their boat. The bodies and boat were of exotic appearance, and have been suggested to have been Inuit who had drifted off course. [147]

    Inuit Edit

    It has been suggested that the Norse took other indigenous peoples to Europe as slaves over the following centuries, because they are known to have taken Scottish and Irish slaves. [145] [146]

    There is also evidence of Inuit coming to Europe under their own power or as captives after 1492. A substantial body of Greenland Inuit folklore first collected in the 19th century told of journeys by boat to Akilineq, here depicted as a rich country across the ocean. [148]

    Pre-Columbian contact between Alaska and Kamchatka via the subarctic Aleutian Islands would have been conceivable, but the two settlement waves on this archipelago started on the American side and its western continuation, the Commander Islands, remained uninhabited until after Russian explorers encountered the Aleut people in 1741. There is no genetic or linguistic evidence for earlier contact along this route. [149]

    Claims of pre-Columbian contact with Christian missionaries Edit

    During the period of Spanish colonization of the Americas, several indigenous myths and works of art led a number of Spanish chroniclers and authors to suggest that Christian preachers may have visited Mesoamerica well before the Age of Discovery. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, for example, was intrigued by the presence of cross symbols in Mayan hieroglyphs, which according to him suggested that other Christians may have arrived in ancient Mexico before the Spanish conquistadors. Fray Diego Durán, for his part, linked the legend of the Pre-Columbian god Quetzalcoatl (whom he describes as being chaste, penitent, and a miracle-worker) to the Biblical accounts of Christian apostles. Bartolomé de las Casas describes Quetzalcoatl as being fair-skinned, tall, and bearded (therefore suggesting an Old World origin), while Fray Juan de Torquemada credits him with bringing agriculture to the Americas. Modern scholarship has cast serious doubts on several of these claims, since agriculture was practiced in the Americas well before the emergence of Christianity in the Old World, and Mayan crosses have been found to have a very different symbolism from that present in Christian religious traditions. [150]

    According to Pre-Columbian myth, Quetzalcoatl departed Mexico in ancient times by travelling east across the ocean, promising he would return. Some scholars have argued that Aztec emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin believed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (who arrived in what today is Mexico from the east) to be Quetzalcoatl, and his arrival to be a fulfilling of the myth's prophecy, though others have disputed this claim. [151] Fringe theories suggest that Quetzalcoatl may have been a Christian preacher from the Old World who lived among indigenous peoples of ancient Mexico, and eventually attempted to return home by sailing eastwards. Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora, for example, speculated that the Quetzalcoatl myth might have originated from a visit to the Americas by Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century CE. Later on, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier argued that the cloak with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which the Catholic Church claims was worn by Juan Diego, was instead brought to the Americas much earlier by Thomas, who used it as an instrument for evangelization. [150]

    Mexican historian Manuel Orozco y Berra conjectured that both the cross hieroglyphs and the Quetzalcoatl myth might have originated on a visit to Mesoamerica by a Catholic Norse missionary in medieval times. However, there is no archaeological or historical evidence to suggest that the Norse explorations ever made it as far as ancient Mexico or Central America. [150] Other proposed identities for Quetzalcoatl – which have been attributed to their proponents pursuing religious agendas – include St. Brendan or even Jesus Christ. [152]

    According to at least one historian, a fleet of Knights Templar departed from La Rochelle in 1307, fleeing persecution from king Philip IV of France. [153] What destination, if any, was reached by this fleet is uncertain. A fringe theory suggests the fleet may have made its way to the Americas, where the Knights Templar interacted with the aboriginal population. It is speculated this hypothetical visit may have influenced the cross symbols made by Mesoamerican peoples, as well as their legends about a fair-skinned deity. [153] Helen Nicholson of Cardiff University has cast doubt on the existence of this voyage, arguing that the Knights Templar did not have ships capable of navigating the Atlantic Ocean. [154]

    Claims of ancient Jewish migration to the Americas Edit

    Since the first centuries of European colonization of the Americas and up until the 19th century, several European intellectuals and theologians tried to account for the presence of the Amerindian aboriginal peoples by connecting them to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who according to Biblical tradition, were deported following the conquest of the Israeli kingdom by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. In the past as well as in the present, these efforts were and still are being used to further the interests of religious groups, both Jewish and Christian, and they have also been used to justify European settlement of the Americas. [155]

    One of the first people to claim that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were descendants of the Lost Tribes was the Portuguese rabbi and writer Menasseh Ben Israel, who in his book The Hope of Israel argued that the discovery of the alleged long-lost Jews heralded the imminent coming of the Biblical Messiah. [155] In 1650, a Norfolk preacher, Thomas Thorowgood, published Jewes in America or Probabilities that the Americans are of that Race, [156] for the New England missionary society. Tudor Parfitt writes:

    The society was active in trying to convert the Indians but suspected that they might be Jews and realized they better be prepared for an arduous task. Thorowgood's tract argued that the native population of North America were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. [157]

    In 1652 Sir Hamon L'Estrange, an English author writing on history and theology, published Americans no Jews, or improbabilities that the Americans are of that Race in response to the tract by Thorowgood. In response to L'Estrange, Thorowgood published a second edition of his book in 1660 with a revised title and included a foreword written by John Eliot, a Puritan missionary who had translated the Bible into an Indian language. [158]

    Latter Day Saints teachings Edit

    The Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement, which its founder and leader, Joseph Smith Jr, published in 1830 when he was 24 years old, states that some ancient inhabitants of the New World are descendants of Semitic peoples who sailed from the Old World. Mormon groups such as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies attempt to study and expand on these ideas.

    The National Geographic Society, in a 1998 letter to the Institute for Religious Research, stated "Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere's past and the society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon." [159]

    Some LDS scholars hold the view that archaeological study of Book of Mormon claims are not meant to vindicate the literary narrative. For example, Terryl Givens, professor of English at the University of Richmond, points out that there is a lack of historical accuracy in the Book of Mormon in relation to modern archaeological knowledge. [160]

    In the 1950s, Professor M. Wells Jakeman popularized a belief that the Izapa Stela 5 represents the Book of Mormon prophets Lehi and Nephi's tree of life vision, and was a validation of the historicity of the claims of pre-Columbian settlement in the Americas. [161] His interpretations of the carving and its connection to pre-Columbian contact have been disputed. [162] Since that time, scholarship on the Book of Mormon has concentrated on cultural parallels rather than "smoking gun" sources. [163] [164] [165]

    New Evidence that Ancient Humans Crossed Significant Sea Barrier - History

    This article was first published in the Winter 2006 issue of Bible and Spade.


    It may come as a surprise to many students of the Bible that in the original Hebrew text the body of water the Israelites crossed when leaving Egypt is called yam suph, “Sea of Reeds,” not Red Sea (Ex 15:4, 22 Dt 11:4 Jos 2:10 4:23 24:6 Neh 9:9 Ps 106:7, 9, 33 136:13, 15). Unfortunately, yam suph has been rendered “Red Sea” in nearly all of our translations, the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jewish Publication Society Hebrew Bible being notable exceptions.

    The “Red Sea” phrase came into the account with the third century BC translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Called the Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX), its translators made yam suph (“Sea of Reeds”) into eruthrá thálassē (“Red Sea”). The Latin Vulgate followed their lead with mari Rubro (“Red Sea”) and most English versions continued that tradition.

    Unfortunately, “Red Sea” was not a translation at all, and the LXX translators understood that. While we do not know their reasoning, they gave yam suph a historicized interpretation, based on their understanding of the region at the time (Kitchen 2003: 262 Hoffmeier 1996: 206 2005: 81). When the Bible indicated the Israelites crossed a significant body of water on Egypt’s eastern border, the LXX translators connected it with the body of water they knew as the Red Sea. Instead of translating the Hebrew phrase literally, they offered this historical identification as their interpretation of the text.

    I suggest this is an unfortunate translation that has confused the issue for centuries and has kept us from appreciating the real historical accuracy of the Exodus and sea crossing accounts. In the late 20th century, scholars began to reestablish the meaning of the Hebrew text to its Egyptian context in a fresh way and then connect it with recent archaeological evidence (see Hoffmeier 2005: 81–85).

    The Red Sea

    But, you ask, what about the Red Sea? The Red Sea includes two fingers of Indian Ocean salt water that extend northward into the Biblical world and help separate the two continents of Africa and Asia. The Red Sea’s eastern branch is known as the Gulf of Aqaba (Arabic) or Gulf of Elat (Hebrew), and the western branch is known as the Gulf of Suez (Arabic, and the origin of the name of the Suez Canal which connects this western branch to the Mediterranean Sea).

    In classical Greek, the name Red Sea was used for both gulfs as well as the main body of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean (Kitchen 2003: 262–63 Hoffmeier 1997: 200). Unfortunately, today we do not know why these bodies of water were originally called “Red Sea” (Hoffmeier 1997: 206).

    One interesting suggestion has a Biblical basis. Maybe the Red Sea received its name from the Edomites, perennial Old Testament enemies of the Israelites. The Edomites, whose name means “red” in Hebrew, controlled the Gulf of Aqaba during much of the Old Testament period. It has been suggested that later Israelites had difficulty referring to this sea by the name of their enemy (that is, the Edomite Sea), so they used the meaning of Edom (“red,” Greek eruthrá) instead to identify it (Hoffmeier 1997: 206).

    Another possibility is that the Gulf of Suez was already known as the Red Sea (for a presently unknown reason), and its application to the Gulf of Aqaba was a natural extension (Hoffmeier 1997: 206). Whatever the origin of the term, it was not the name of the body of water the Bible says the Israelites crossed in the Exodus.

    To complicate matters more, the New Testament follows the LXX in referring to the location of the Exodus sea crossing as the “Red Sea.” While a full treatment of the New Testament references is beyond the scope of this article, I will suggest that our understanding of ancient Egypt’s eastern frontier and the terminologies describing it are still incomplete and that the present state of our research is like working a puzzle with a number of key pieces still missing.

    der Suezkanal, by Albert Ungard edler von Öthalom, taf. IV (Vienna: A. Hartleben’s, 1905) Route of the Suez Canal. The famous Canal is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times, providing a major shipping route between Europe and Asia. The pilot study estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth would have to be moved, including 600 million on land, and another 2,013 million dredged from water. The total original cost estimate was two hundred million francs. The canal stretches over 100 mi (160 km) from Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea to Suez on the Red Sea. The first efforts to build a modern canal came from the Egypt Expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hoped the project would give France a trade adavantage over England. Though it was begun in 1799 by Charles Le Pere, a miscalculation estimated that there was a 33 ft (10 m) difference in level between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea and work was suspended. When it was later determined that there was no difference between the two seas, the French consul to Egypt, Ferdinand de Lesseps, had the vision and perseverance to bring the project to completion. Work began in 1859 and, after a number of setbacks and delays, was completed a decade later, thus physically severing Africa from Asia. The Suez Canal emerged on the political scene in 1956, during the Suez crisis brought about when Egyptian president Nasser announced the nationalization of the Canal. His decision was in response to the British, French and American refusal for a loan to build the Aswan high dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the High Dam project. The announcement triggered a swift reaction by England, France and Israel, who all invaded Egypt. Their action was condemned by the International community and the canal was turned over to Egypt. In 1967, the Canal was closed as a result of the Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula. The canal was reopened in 1975 following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Canal has been widened twice since the reopening. Called the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, approximately 50 ships cross the canal daily, taking from 11 to 16 hours to make the journey. A little known fact about New York’s Statue of Liberty is that it was originally to have stood at the entrance to the Suez Canal in Port Said. Inspired by the colossal statues of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi came up with the idea of a huge statue of a woman bearing a torch. She was to represent progress—“Egypt carrying the light of Asia,” according to Bartholdi. However, Egypt’s leader, khedive Ismail, decided the project was too expensive and replaced it with a more modest statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps. Bartholdi took his plans to the US and promoted the concept of a colossal female statue dedicated to “Liberty Enlightening the World” in New York harbor. He was commissioned to undertake the work and funds were raised on both sides of the Atlantic. In the end, the statue became a gift of international friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States. And so, “Canal Lady” became “Lady Liberty.”

    Sea of Reeds

    There is general agreement among scholars today, both liberal and conservative, that yam suph means “Reed Sea.” The Hebrew suph definitely referred to a water plant of some sort (Kitchen 2003: 262), as indicated in Exodus 2:3–5 and Isaiah 19:6–7, where reeds in the Nile River are mentioned (Hoffmeier 2005: 81). In fact, it is probable that the Hebrew suph (“reed”) is an Egyptian loan word—from the hieroglyph for water plants (twf) (Huddlestun 1992: 636 Hoffmeier 1997: 204 2005: 81–83).

    Unfortunately, a more precise identification to a specific water plant for suph is not presently possible. Still, the Bible is clear that the sea the Israelites crossed was the “Reed Sea.” This suggests a large body of water on Egypt’s eastern border that is identified with reeds. But where was it located? In the Bible, the name yam suph is used in reference to the Gulf of Aqaba (Ex 23:31 Nm 21:4 Dt 1:40, 2:1 1 Kgs 9:26) and apparently the Gulf of Suez (Nm 33:10–11). That makes both legitimate candidates for the sea crossing location.

    While few scholars have posited the Reed Sea crossing point to be on the eastern Gulf of Aqaba, Robert Cornuke and Larry Williams have recently popularized that idea (Blum 1998). However, that location appears to be too far east of Goshen to fit the literal understanding of the Exodus itinerary (Hoffmeier 2005: 130–40 Franz 2000 Wood 2000).

    On the other hand, the popular view among conservative scholars has been to locate the Exodus crossing somewhere along the northern tip of the western Gulf of Suez. Unfortunately, the place names in the Exodus account do not fit that region very well. Neither has modern archaeological research added any support to this location for the Exodus sea crossing.

    Whether one chooses either gulf, the important issue is that the location was the yam suph. If the Gulf of Suez is chosen as the Exodus crossing site, the location must be based on Biblical and extra-Biblical data. The Gulf of Suez must not be chosen because it is called the Red Sea today, or even in antiquity. I propose that a literal and careful understanding of the Biblical text, in conjunction with the most recent research from the eastern Nile delta, suggests a location other than the Gulf of Suez.

    Reeds in the vicinity of Tell Defenneh. While creation of the Suez Canal in the 19th century permanently changed the Isthmus of Suez, reeds still grow in some of the region’s marshy areas. This photo was taken in the area of the ancient Ballah Lake system, just a few miles west of the Suez Canal. The author suggests it was in this lake area that recent geological and archaeological research best demonstrates the place names mentioned in the Exodus sea crossing.

    Suez Isthmus

    The land area north of the Gulf of Suez, all the way to the Mediterranean coast, is known today as the Isthmus of Suez. It includes the eastern Nile delta (where Goshen was located, east of the Nile’s Pelusiac branch see Kitchen 2003: 254, 261), the marshy lakes to the east, and the desert beyond. In antiquity there were five lakes in this narrow strip of land: Ballah Lake, Lake Timsah, Great Bitter Lake and Little Bitter Lake.

    This entire area, from the northern limit of the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean coastline, is not at all as it was in antiquity. Evidence suggests that the Gulf of Suez extended further north in antiquity than it does today, although we do not presently know how far north (Hoffmeier 1997: 209). Also, the Mediterranean coastline during the second millennium BC was much further south than it is today (Scolnic 2004: 96–97 Hoffmeier 2005: 41–42), so the isthmus between the two was much narrower than today. What has remained consistent about the region throughout history is the fact that it has always been known for marshy freshwater lakes. Consequently, it should be of no surprise that the Suez Canal was cut directly through here in 1869.

    Egyptian texts use the hieroglyph for “reed” (twf) in reference to this region, suggesting they were prominent there (Huddlestun 1992: 636–37) and that the name was associated with that area (Hoffmeier 2005: 81–83). In fact, Hoffmeier, in agreement with Manfred Bietak, excavator of Rameses (see Wood 2004), has concluded that the hieroglyphic term p3 twfy (p3 being the definite article “the”) referred specifically to a particular reedy lake on Egypt’s eastern border—Ballah Lake (2005: 88).

    Noting Bietak’s important paleoenvironmental study of the region, Hoffmeier added that Tell Abu Sefeh, at modern Qantara East on the west side of the present Ballah Lake area, probably reflects the ancient Egyptian name for that lake (p3 twfy) and its Hebrew counterpart (yam suph) (2005: 88–89). Hoffmeier also points out that excavations at Tell Abu Sefeh have uncovered remains of an impressive harbor with quays that once handled multiple trading vessels (2005: 88). While archaeological evidence has identified remains later than the Exodus period, it is obvious that the Ballah Lake was once a substantial body of water on Egypt’s eastern border.

    Kitchen suggested that the Reed Sea terminology might have been used by the ancients for all the bodies of water in the series of reedy lakes that ran the full north-south length of the isthmus (2003:262). By extension, it was also applied to the last of these bodies of water—the Gulf of Suez. This would also explain Numbers 33:10, where the Israelites again passed yam suph (so-called “yam suph II” [Kitchen 2003: 271]) later in the Exodus narrative, after the miraculous yam suph crossing earlier. Maybe at that time, or even later, the same term also came to be used for still another “connected” body of water—the Gulf of Aqaba.

    Geological studies indicate that natural factors have produced great changes in both the Nile delta and Isthmus of Suez through the millennia. More recent human activity has changed the region most of all. Completion of both the old (1902) and new (1970) Nile River dams at Aswan have dramatically affected the river’s flow and greatly reduced its flooding. With the Nile flooding non-existent, the perennial flood safety valve—the Wadi Tumilat, running from the Nile to the Isthmus of Suez lakes—no longer served that need (Hoffmeier 1997: 207). An even greater impact on the isthmus lakes came from construction of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869. It drained much of the marshy area of the Ballah Lake (Hoffmeier 1997: 211 2005: 43).

    Beyond the combined impact on the isthmus of these modern construction projects, the water level of the Gulf of Suez is presently lower than in antiquity. Apparently due to natural causes unrelated to either the Nile River dam or the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez is lower today and does not extend as far north into the isthmus as it once did (Hoffmeier 1997: 207–208).

    View of the Suez Canal looking south from Qantara. The Suez Canal extends 105 mi (170 km) from Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea to Suez City at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez. From here, ships have direct access to the Pacific Ocean. The Canal, originally 26 ft (8 m) deep, 177 ft (54 m) wide across the top and 72 ft (22 m) wide at the bottom, is much deeper and wider today to accommodate modern ships. Completion of the Canal in 1869 permanently altered the ancient lake region north of the Gulf of Suez. Amazingly, canals cut in the same region by ancient Egyptians were of similar dimensions as the original Suez Canal. The area seen in the photo is where the northern end of the ancient Ballah Lake was formerly located. This is the most likely local for the sea crossing according to recent research.

    Eastern Frontier Canal

    For millennia man has desired to impact the Suez Isthmus region, but with minimal success. Ancient Egyptian texts and modern geological surveys have identified ancient canal lines cut between the marshy lakes in antiquity, called the Eastern Frontier Canal by their discoverers (Hoffmeier 2005: 42). Long before the Suez Canal, both native and foreign rulers cut canals through the Isthmus for a variety of reasons. Ancient documents mention canal construction by Pharaohs Sesostris I or III (12th Dynasty), Necho II (610–595 BC) and the Persian king Darius (522–486 BC), as well as Ptolemy II (282–246 BC) (Hoffmeier 1997: 165, 169).

    Thus it was not surprising that geologists found evidence of a man-made canal joining the lakes in the northern sector of the isthmus. Probably cut for defensive purposes as well as for irrigation and navigation, it created a formidable eastern border barrier. Known portions of this canal are consistently 230 ft (70 m) wide at the top, an estimated 66 ft (20 m) wide at the bottom and 6.5 to 10 ft (2–3 m) deep. This ancient canal was wider than the orgional Suez Canal, 177 ft (54 m) across the top and 72 ft (22 m) at the bottom.

    While no one is suggesting that the Israelites crossed a canal, it was apparently an important feature in Egypt’s eastern border defense designed to make travel difficult. The adjacent embankments created by digging this canal would have added to the formidability of this border defensive system (Hoffmeier 1997: 170–71 Kitchen 2003: 260).

    Thus, crossing the sea in this region represented a true departure from Egypt. West of the lake-and-canal border was the cultivated land of the delta, with Goshen located on the eastern side, but still very much part of Egypt. East of the lakes was the desert where the Israelites would no longer be within Egypt proper (Hoffmeier 2005: 37, 43). Anyone who has visited Egypt can’t help but be struck by the stark contrast of green, cultivated Nile delta and the brown barren desert, in places just yards apart.

    Contrast between the desert and the sown. The cultivated Nile River valley (550 mi [900 km] from the southern border of Egypt to the delta) and the cultivated delta (stretching up to 150 mi [240 km] east to west along the Mediterranean coast) with the arid desert on both the east and west is striking. Throughout history Egyptians lived almost exclusively along the cultivated river valley and delta. Yet, anywhere irrigation is practiced in the desert, the soil is fertile. This photo was taken from the Middle Kingdom tombs at Bene Hasan, about 165 mi (265 km) south of Cairo.

    Wadi Tumilat

    During prehistoric times (before 3200 BC), the Nile’s easternmost branch once passed through the Wadi Tumilat. Stretching 31 mi (52 km) from just west of modern Zagazig (ancient Bubastis) to Ismailiya (on Lake Timsah), it created a portion of the eastern edge of the Nile delta. While the course of this delta branch disappeared in historic times, and the present eastern branch is significantly further to the west, both historical and archaeological evidence indicate that ancient canals were cut from the Nile River eastward through the Wadi Tumilat (Hoffmeier 1997: 165 2005: 41).

    This ancient watercourse apparently continued to flood periodically throughout history with the overflow of the Nile’s annual flooding (Hoffmeier 1997: 165 2005: 43). Thus, the Wadi Tumilat may have been one of the reasons that the Isthmus of Suez became known for its marshy fresh water lakes and associated “reeds” (twf). The Wadi Tumilat was no doubt part of the Biblical Land of Goshen. It is within this very area of the Isthmus of Suez that topographical and archaeological research locates the initial sites mentioned in the Exodus itinerary.

    The valley’s very name today even hints at its place in the Exodus. The Arabic term “Tumilat” actually preserves the name of the Egyptian god Atum (Hoffmeier 2005: 62, 64, 69), and it would appear he was well respected in this region during the time of the Exodus. The store city of Pithom (Ex 1:11) is the Hebrew name for a site that would have been known in Egypt as pr-itm (“house [or temple] of Atum”) and it was probably located in the ancient Wadi Tumilat (Hoffmeier 2005: 58–59). In addition, the Exodus itinerary site of Etham was no doubt named after the same Egyptian deity (Hoffmeier 2005: 69).

    The region’s geography and the Exodus account fit together. The Israelites departed from Rameses to the north of Wadi Tumilat and headed south after the last plague (see Ex 13:17–14:3). They came to Succoth in the Wadi Tumilat then headed east to Etham in the vicinity of Lake Timsah. Turning north, they were overtaken by the pursuing Egyptians at Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea and before Baal Zephon (Ex 14:2).

    This was all still the green, cultivated area of the Nile delta—still Egypt proper. The Israelites were facing an impregnable border between them and freedom in the Sinai—the freshwater lakes with their interconnecting canals and a series of strategically located forts. It appeared to them and to Pharaoh that they had no place to go (Ex 14:3, 11–12).

    Agricultural fields in the eastern delta in the area of Qantir, ancient Rameses. The Nile delta has been created by the continuous flow over the millennium of the Nile River from Lake Victoria in the south to the Mediterranean Sea. Every few centuries the flows of various Nile delta branches migrate and create new paths to the sea, as well as additional cultivatable delta land at the edge of the Mediterranean. It was in the eastern delta where the Israelites lived in Goshen.

    There were three ancient main roads that left the Nile delta going east. One was a mining road from the southern delta near Memphis to the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. A second exited from the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat toward the Negev and the third was the international coastal highway (Shea 1990: 103–107 Kitchen 2003: 266–268 Hoffmeier 1996:181, 187–188 see Scolnic 2004: 95, fig.1).

    The Bible is very clear that the Israelites lived in Rameses from the beginning of the Sojourn (Gn 47:11) to the Exodus (Ex 12:37). It was also the starting point for Egypt’s direct road to Canaan, a northern route running along the ancient Mediterranean coastline. Also Egypt’s military highway to the east, there were 23 fortresses garrisoned with Egyptians troops at intervals along the way. The westernmost segment of the international highway, it was called the Horus Way by the Egyptians and “the road through the Philistine country” in the Bible (Ex 13:17). While the international highway is commonly known as the Via Maris (Latin, “Way of the Sea”), recent research has demonstrated this is a modern name, not an ancient one (Beitzel 1991).

    der Suezkanal, by Albert Ungard edler von Öthalom, taf. I (Vienna: A. Hartleben’s, 1905) Ancient canals in the eastern delta. From early antiquity there has been interest in a link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Most of the early efforts were directed towards a link from the Nile to the Red Sea. Strabo and Pliny record that the earliest effort was directed by Sesostris I or III (12th Dynasty). Under Necho II (610-595 BC) a canal was built between the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and the northern end of the Bitter Lakes at a reported cost of 100,000 lives. Over many years, the canal fell into disrepair, only to be extended, abandoned, and rebuilt again. After having been neglected, it was rebuilt by the Persian ruler Darius I (522–486 BC), whose canal can still be seen along the Wadi Tumilat. It was extended to the Red Sea by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282–246 BC), abandoned during the early Roman rule, but rebuilt again by Trajan (AD 98–117). Over the next several centuries, it once again was abandoned and sometimes dredged by various rulers for various, but limited, purposes. Amr Ibn el-As rebuilt the canal after the Islamic takeover of Egypt creating a new supply line from Cairo, but in AD 767 the Abbasid caliph El-Mansur closed the canal a final time to cut off supplies to insurgents located in the delta.

    The Horus Way is pictured in relief by Pharaoh Seti I at the Karnak Temple of Amun, with eleven forts and even a waterway. With the waterway depicted vertically through the relief and Pharaoh Seti moving horizontally along the Horus Way, it can be assumed that the waterway is running north-south as the international highway heads east to Canaan. The waterway is labeled ta-denit, which means “the dividing waters.” While that name does not clarify if it is a canal or marshy lake, the very title and its north-south orientation suggest it is the border between the Nile delta (Egypt proper) and the desert to the east. Depicted as lined with reeds, it appears to at least be associated with a marshy lake (Hoffmeier 1996: 166–167).

    Sitting along the Horus Road and adjacent to the waterway is a site identified as Tjaru, a large town and important fortress on Egypt’s eastern border. While structures appear on both sides of the waterway, the name is on the desert side, an appropriate location to secure Egypt’s border. From Seti’s Karnak relief and the Egyptian text Papyrus Anastasi I, Gardiner identified 23 fortifications along the Horus Road, beginning with the border fort at Tjaru and ending with a fortress at Raphia in southern Canaan (Hoffmeier 1996: 183 2004: 61 2005: 41). In recent years geological and archaeological research in the North Sinai region have begun to identify many of these sites, even aligning the correct ancient names to their corresponding archaeological sites (Hoffmeier 2004: 64–65 2005: 41).

    The key site along the Horus Way to identify is Tjaru, the road’s starting point on the Egyptian border. While Tjaru does not appear in the Exodus narrative, in at least one Egyptian source it is identified with the Exodus sea crossing location. A geographical listing of sites in The Onomasticon of Amenemope records the last two sites in Egypt’s northern frontier as Tjaru and p3 twfy (the Egyptian equivalent of the Hebrew yam suph). This association suggests that at least part of the yam suph was located nearby (Hoffmeier 2004: 65–66). Such identification can also be seen in Seti’s relief at Karnak, where Tjaru is located along the reedlined waterway.

    Relief depicting the Horus Way at Tjaru. Egypt’s eastern border is depicted in a relief of Pharaoh Seti I (1291–1279 BC) on the exterior of the Hypostyle Hall’s north wall in the Karnak Temple of Amun in Luxor. Two registers of reliefs contain the only known ancient depiction of the westernmost segment of the famed international coastal highway between Egypt and Gaza. It was called the Horus Way in Egypt and “the road through the Philistine country” in the Bible (Ex 13:17). Pharaoh Seti I is depicted traveling horizontally across the relief in his war chariot. In three scenes the Pharaoh is receiving tribute from dignitaries at Raphia (the final stop on the Horus Way in Canaan), defeating the nomadic Shasu with his bow and finally triumphantly returning from Canaan surrounded by Asiatic captives. Eleven of the 23 known forts on the Horus Way between Egypt and Canaan are depicted in the scenes. The major features along the Horus Way through the desert toward Canaan are forts and accompanying water sources. In the right-hand register seen here, the highway meets a waterway running vertically through the relief. Between monumental structures on the left of the waterway is the name “Tjaru.” This was a large town and important fortress on Egypt’s eastern border, and the staging point for Egyptian military campaigns into Asia. At Tjaru a bridge crosses the waterway and there are additional buildings to the right of the bridge. The vertical waterway is labeled “the dividing waters.” It indicates the Egyptian border as well as the dividing of the green cultivated Nile delta on the east from the brown barren desert to the west. Groups of loyal Egyptian subjects waiting on the other side of the waterway indicate this is Egypt. This suggests the relief should be understood with the Egyptian border running vertically with the waterway, Egypt on the right and the Sinai desert on the left. Treating it like a map, that would put north at the bottom and east to the left. The waterway is depicted with two major features: reeds lining both banks and the water full of crocodiles. At the bottom of the waterway (north) is depicted another larger body of water with fish only (a feature seen by earlier investigators but not visible today). While neither body of water has been identified with any certainty thus far, it does illustrate the reeds of the marshy lake region that gave the sea of the Exodus narrative its name.

    Understanding the Horus Way in New Kingdom Egypt offers a tangible explanation for the Biblical statement that the Israelites did not take “the road through Philistine country” (the Horus Way) directly to Gaza on the coast. In taking Egypt’s military road and facing the Egyptian-garrisoned forts along the way, together with the Egyptian army pursuing from behind, it would have been very difficult to not “change their minds and return to Egypt” (Ex 13:17). But this was not God’s plan. Instead, after leaving Pi Hahiroth and crossing the “sea” (the Egyptian border), God told the Israelites to go “by the desert road” (Ex 13:18) toward yam Suph II (Gulf of Suez) rather than into Canaan (Hoffmeier 1996: 181, 187–188). East of the border, the Israelites entered the “Desert of Shur” (Ex 15:22 1 Sa 15:7 27:8). Meaning “wall” in Hebrew, “Shur” may have referred to the eastern frontier canal and its accompanying embankments, in conjunction with the line of forts along the border (Scolnic 2004: 102 Hoffmeier 1996: 188). Thus, this desert was immediately on the other side of Egypt’s bordering “wall” of canals, embankments and forts. As this was the desert the Israelites entered immediately after crossing the sea (Ex 15:22), clearly the “desert of Shur” was in the northern Sinai east of the isthmus.

    Recent excavations have clearly identified Tjaru, the hieroglyphic name for the important city and military installation on Egypt’s eastern border. From this fort, the Pharaohs of the 18th and 19th Dynasties launched their military campaigns into Asia. Excavations have identified the 18th Dynasty (15th–13th century BC) remains of ancient Tjaru at modern Hebua I, just a few miles northeast of the Ballah Lake (Hoffmeier 1996: 186–187 2004: 63 2005: 91–104 Kitchen 2003: 260 Scolnic 2004: 112). This identification has helped scholars begin to place all the other sites prior to the sea crossing in the Exodus itinerary.


    Beitzel, Barry J. 1991 The Via Maris in Literary and Cartographic Sources. Biblical Archaeologist 54: 65–75.

    Blum, Howard 1998 The Gold of Exodus. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Franz, Gordon 2000 Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia? Bible and Spade 13: 101–13.

    Gardiner, Alan 1920 The Ancient Military Road Between Egypt and Palestine. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 6: 99–116

    Hoffmeier, James K. 1997 Israel in Egypt. New York: Oxford University.

    Hoffmeier, James K. 2004 The North Sinai Archaeological Project’s Excavations at Tell el-Borg (Sinai): An Example of the “New” Biblical Archaeology? Pp. 53–66 in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

    Hoffmeier, James K. 2005 Ancient Israel in Sinai. New York: Oxford University.

    Huddlestun, John R. 1992 Red Sea, Old Testament. Pp. 633–42 in the Anchor Bible Dictionary 5, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

    Kitchen, Kenneth A. 2003 On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

    Scolnic, Benjamin E. 2004 A New Working Hypothesis for the Identification of Migdol. Pp. 91–120 in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

    Shea, William H. 1990 Leaving Egypt. Archaeology and Biblical Research 3: 98–111.

    Wood, Bryant G. 2000 Beneath the Surface: An Editorial Comment. Bible and Spade 13: 98–99.

    Wood, Bryant G. 2004 The Royal Precinct at Rameses. Bible and Spade 17: 45–51.

    Mysterious ancient human crossed Wallace's Line

    Scientists have proposed that the most recently discovered ancient human relatives - the Denisovans - somehow managed to cross one of the world's most prominent marine barriers in Indonesia, and later interbred with modern humans moving through the area on the way to Australia and New Guinea.

    Three years ago the genetic analysis of a little finger bone from Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains in northern Asia led to a complete genome sequence of a new line of the human family tree - the Denisovans. Since then, genetic evidence pointing to their hybridisation with modern human populations has been detected, but only in Indigenous populations in Australia, New Guinea and surrounding areas. In contrast, Denisovan DNA appears to be absent or at very low levels in current populations on mainland Asia, even though this is where the fossil was found.

    Published today in a Science opinion article, scientists Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia and Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in the UK say that this pattern can be explained if the Denisovans had succeeded in crossing the famous Wallace's Line, one of the world's biggest biogeographic barriers which is formed by a powerful marine current along the east coast of Borneo. Wallace's Line marks the division between European and Asian mammals to the west from marsupial-dominated Australasia to the east.

    "In mainland Asia, neither ancient human specimens, nor geographically isolated modern Indigenous populations have Denisovan DNA of any note, indicating that there has never been a genetic signal of Denisovan interbreeding in the area," says Professor Cooper, Director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. "The only place where such a genetic signal exists appears to be in areas east of Wallace's Line and that is where we think interbreeding took place - even though it means that the Denisovans must have somehow made that marine crossing."

    "The recent discovery of another enigmatic ancient human species Homo floresiensis, the so-called Hobbits, in Flores, Indonesia, confirms that the diversity of archaic human relatives in this area was much higher than we'd thought," says Professor Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins, Natural History Museum, in London. "The morphology of the Hobbits shows they are different from the Denisovans, meaning we now have at least two, and potentially more, unexpected groups in the area.

    "The conclusions we've drawn are very important for our knowledge of early human evolution and culture. Knowing that the Denisovans spread beyond this significant sea barrier opens up all sorts of questions about the behaviours and capabilities of this group, and how far they could have spread."

    "The key questions now are where and when the ancestors of current humans, who were on their way to colonise New Guinea and Australia around 50,000 years ago, met and interacted with the Denisovans," says Professor Cooper.

    "Intriguingly, the genetic data suggest that male Denisovans interbred with modern human females, indicating the potential nature of the interactions as small numbers of modern humans first crossed Wallace's Line and entered Denisovan territory."

    New Evidence Suggests Humans Arrived In The Americas Far Earlier Than Thought

    (Left) A close-up view of a spirally fractured mastodon femur. (Right) A boulder discovered at the Cerutti Mastodon site in San Diego County thought to have been used by early humans as a hammerstone. Tom Démeré/San Diego Natural History Museum hide caption

    (Left) A close-up view of a spirally fractured mastodon femur. (Right) A boulder discovered at the Cerutti Mastodon site in San Diego County thought to have been used by early humans as a hammerstone.

    Tom Démeré/San Diego Natural History Museum

    Researchers in Southern California say they've uncovered evidence that humans lived there 130,000 years ago.

    If it's true, it would be the oldest sign of humans in the Americas ever — predating the best evidence up to now by about 115,000 years. And the claim has scientists wondering whether to believe it.

    In 1992, archaeologists working a highway construction site in San Diego County found the partial skeleton of a mastodon, an elephant-like animal now extinct. Mastodon skeletons aren't so unusual, but there was other strange stuff with it.

    "The remains were in association with a number of sharply broken rocks and broken bones," says Tom Deméré, a paleontologist at the San Diego Natural History Museum. He says the rocks showed clear marks of having been used as hammers and an anvil. And some of the mastodon bones as well as a tooth showed fractures characteristic of being whacked, apparently with those stones.

    It looked like the work of humans. Yet there were no cut marks on the bones showing that the animal was butchered for meat. Deméré thinks these people were after something else. "The suggestion is that this site is strictly for breaking bone," Deméré says, "to produce blank material, raw material to make bone tools or to extract marrow." Marrow is a rich source of fatty calories.

    Don Swanson, a paleontologist with the San Diego Natural History Museum, points at a rock fragment near a large horizontal mastodon tusk fragment. San Diego Natural History Museum/Nature hide caption

    Don Swanson, a paleontologist with the San Diego Natural History Museum, points at a rock fragment near a large horizontal mastodon tusk fragment.

    San Diego Natural History Museum/Nature

    The scientists knew they'd uncovered something rare. But they didn't realize just how rare for years, until they got a reliable date on how old the bones were by using a uranium-thorium dating technology that didn't exist in the 1990s.

    The bones were 130,000 years old. That's a jaw-dropping date, as other evidence shows that the earliest humans got to the Americas about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

    "That is an order of magnitude difference. Wow," says John Shea, an archaeologist at New York's Stony Brook University who specializes in studying ancient toolmaking. "If it's correct, then there's an extraordinarily ancient dispersal to the New World that has a very different archaeological signature from anything left behind by recent humans."

    Shea says it's different because Stone Age toolmakers usually leave behind stone flakes — sharp pieces broken or "knapped" from certain kinds of rock that serve as cutting implements. There were none at the California site. Another odd thing: no signs that the mastodon was butchered for the meat.

    "This is weird," Shea says. "It's an outlier in terms of what archaeological sites from that time range look like everywhere else on the planet." He suggests these bones might have been broken up by natural causes — by a mudflow, perhaps, or by the trampling of animals sometime after the mastodon died.

    Another skeptic is John McNabb, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in England. His question: How did those people get to California?

    Twenty thousand years ago, archaeologists agree, people did cross over to Alaska from Siberia, perhaps more than once. Sea levels were lower then and there was a land bridge connecting the continents. In an interview with the journal Nature, which published the California research, McNabb says that land bridge wasn't there 130,000 years ago. "The sea lane in between the two continents [was] wider [then]," he says, "so that's one problem with this: How do we get humans across?"

    McNabb says what's needed to really prove that this is truly an archaeological site are bones from the people who got there.

    The California team counters that it has spent over 20 years examining the evidence. "I know people will be skeptical with this because it is so surprising," says team member and archaeologist Steve Holen, "and I was skeptical when I first looked at the material myself. But it's definitely an archaeological site."

    Holen, with the Center for American Paleolithic Research, says these early people could have come across in boats. As for the broken bones, he says the type of fracture isn't accidental. And the way the hammerstones and bones were distributed in the ground doesn't look natural.

    One question the team can't answer is who these people were. A genetic technique that uses mutations in a population's genome as a sort of "clock" says the first common ancestor of Native Americans lived about 20,000 years ago. So if there were indeed earlier settlers, it could be they made an arduous migration from Siberia, only to die out without leaving any descendants.