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440px-Desembarque_de_Pedro_Álvares_Cabral_em_Porto_Seguro_em_1500I pay a subscription to The New York Times because it’s America’s premier middle-brow journal. Its science pages are decent, so my interest was piqued when I saw the the bold headline, Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas. But the article is a total mishmash, alternating between spotlighting paradigm challenging scholars, and crazy. Here’s the crazy:

Having their findings disputed is nothing new for the archaeologists working at Serra da Capivara. Dr. Guidon, the Brazilian archaeologist who pioneered the excavations, asserted more than two decades ago that her team had found evidence in the form of charcoal from hearth fires that humans had lived here about 48,000 years ago.

Dr. Guidon remains defiant about her findings. At her home on the grounds of a museum she founded to focus on the discoveries in Serra da Capivara, she said she believed that humans had reached these plateaus even earlier, around 100,000 years ago, and might have come not overland from Asia but by boat from Africa.

These are changing times in human evolutionary biology. But if humans couldn’t make it by boat to Madagascar until 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, there’s no way they made it to Brazil.

• Category: Science • Tags: Archaeology, Brazil 
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  1. Robert Ford says: • Website

    It’s surprising how often little things like this appear in evo-bio articles and docs. I keep running into the “humans may have originated in Asia” line and I wouldn’t know better had I not informed myself otherwise. Can’t imagine what everyone else thinks as they’re sometimes put in an otherwise legit piece.
    NYT: “All the news that fits our narrative.”! Nah, I kid, it’s a good paper. I sub as well – *someone* has to pay for good journalism.

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  2. Well, actually, it might be easier to go from Africa to Brazil than to Madagascar on a primitive raft. From the right point the trade winds and the sea currents will just take you to Brazil if you somehow manage to survive the time it takes to float there. The trip to Madagascar is short but you’ll have to fight a strong current and the prevailing winds to get there.

    This is presumably the reason why Madagascar has such unique species even though it’s so close to Africa. It’s a hard strait to cross.

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  3. These articles about the ultra early arrival of man to the Americas just keep popping up, sometimes from reputable sources like serious scientists from Texas A &M, but I remain highly skeptical as well. Once a breeding population of humans was established in the Americas it stands to reason that they would have spread very rapidly and left behind stone tools obviously crafted by the hand of man where ever they went, not just a scant few in a rare locations.

    So the New York Times is America’s premier middle brow journal eh? That’s funny…and sad. Thank you serious science blogs that don’t dumb down the complex truth or cater to higher ratings via sensationalistic B.S. What would we do without you.

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  4. “Creditable” or “Credible”? The putative critic’s logic is egregiously flawed–not that the NYT’s “science” is any better or worse than the trash in the “new” SciAm.

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  5. toto says:

    To be fair the article does not endorse Guidon’s claims. The next sentence has her successor basically saying, “bah, humbug” (in an adequately polite manner).

    The 22000 years claim, which seems to be taken seriously, is revolutionary enough. And this is in Brazil, not near the coast, which means that if they came from Asia they had to cross the continent. If that’s true, what happened to these people?

    I was also intrigued by the claim about Polynesian-like sequences in Southern Brazil. Is it just an accident of modern migration, or is there a possibility of something deeper? I suppose that if there were a widespread Polynesian-like (or Australian-like) substrate in Southern America, somebody would have seen it before.

    The crackpot alternative is that, by coincidence, America has followed exactly the same two-wave model as Eurasia, with a first wave of out-of-Africa Aborigines followed by a second wave of highly derived (and lighter-skinned) immigrants. The difference being that in this case the second wave discovered agriculture after they arrived, not before.

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  6. ohwilleke says: • Website

    “The New York Times because it’s America’s premier middle-brow journal.”

    The demographics of New York Times readers and of the audiences of many of its competing publications can be found at: from the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press (2012).

    About 54% of NYT readers have college degrees (near the top), and about 38% have incomes in excess of $75K (also near the top), and in both cases identical to the Wall Street Journal. NPR listeners make more money (43% earn $75K or more), but are slightly less educated (52% have college degrees). The only more high brow news sources are weekly magazines like the New Yorker and the Economist.

    The income and education data are particularly notable because NYT readers are quite young, with 32% under age 30. Only the Colbert Report and the Daily Show have younger audiences in the news market.

    By comparison 24% of the audience of Fox News has college degrees and 23% of their news audience earns $75K or more). 19% of their viewers are under 30.

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  7. ohwilleke, middle-brow is what it is. doesn’t matter if it’s the highest in the land.

    toto, re: polynesia. probably slaves or something that escaped. if you follow the journal reference. also, yes, 22,000 is revolutionary. seems a little on the high side. but journalists get to decide what they put into the piece.

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  8. There was a long discussion of these 2 Polynesian-like mtDNAs in Botocudo sceletal remains at Dienekes’s

    all sorts of hypotheses were tried, escaped Malagay slaves, escaped Easter Islander slaves, Pac Islander consorts of Portuguese sailors, etc.

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  9. Hasn’t the Clovis theory been under attack for decades? I didn’t see anything terrinly new, though I’m not at all in touch.

    The belief in journalism is that if someone goes to journalism school and puts in a year or two on the job, they can write about ANYTHING. That’s not a function of a theory of knowledge or anything, it’s a function of the way newspapers hire. They want jacks of all trades, and only a few of the best have any science journalists at all.

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  10. john, there’s no good replacement yet. i think the article would be OK if they pushed it back to 20,000, though that seems too early it’s not crazy.

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  11. There was a hoax story up about the discovery of the rave of Attila the Hun. It wasn’t blatantly impossible and I was conditionally very happy. I still would be happy with the discovery of any unplundered royal Hun grave.

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  12. Riordan says:


    Regarding your last two sentences, I would say extreme improbability and current lack of evidence, thus requiring great skepticism, does not necessary equal to stating an absolute impossibility of human populations during the Pleistocene that we still know very little of.

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  13. , does not necessary equal to stating an absolute impossibility of human populations during the Pleistocene that we still know very little of.

    yes. crazy!=impossible.

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  14. Bruce says:

    How do we know plains apes were the only smart animals with grasping paws to ever use fire? I’m thinking of North America’s giant Miocene beavers- those corkscrew tunnel dens they dug would be a nice place to keep a home fire burning, by Hestia. But South America had giant marsupials with grasping paws. Without written language they’d be likely to lose the skill every generation or so, and take ten or a hundred generations before some busy beaver recovered it, and lose it again, and sputter along like that, not quite sapient, till the overhunters came down from Berengia.

    Habilis brains weren’t much bigger than theirs.

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  15. Pete says:

    I don’t think you need to invoke Madigascar.

    It has always puzzled me that modern man living sub-Sahara Africa didn’t venture out on boats or rafts and inhabit nearby islands so much sooner in history.

    Wasn’t Zanzibar, just 50 km off the east coast of Africa first settled just 2800 BC? (based on proven artifacts, however there is disputed evidence of 20,000 yrs BC) And this dates to the times when the Sumerians visited the island?

    Off the west side of Africa, some dates:
    Cape Verde islands 570 km off the coast, discovered by the Romans, rediscovered uninhabited, by Europeans 1456.
    Canary Islands just 100 km off the coast, discovered by the ancient Greeks, rediscovered possibly by the Vikings, rediscovered uninhabited by Europeans in the 11th century.
    Bioko Island, just 35 km west of Guinea, was first inhabited by the Bantu about 500 BC.
    Sao Tome and Principe, 250 km west of Gabon, were first discovered uninhabited by the Portugese in 1469.

    I think the lack of archeological evidence that these islands were ever visited or inhabited speaks strongly against a hypothesis that African sailed west from Africa to discover S. America.

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  16. Events don’t happen when they’re supposed to, events happen when they do. Keep in mind that many discoveries happened by accident, and a rare few were planned for.

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  17. @Pete,
    “Canary Islands just 100 km off the coast, discovered by the ancient Greeks, rediscovered possibly by the Vikings, rediscovered uninhabited by Europeans in the 11th century.”

    That’s not correct. The Guanche people who inhabited the Canaries put up a fierce resistance to the Spanish colonizers, and it took years of bloody warfare to subdue and mostly annihilate them. The Gaunche according to contemporary accounts were extremely tall and powerfully built, blonde and with sallow skin. In phenotype they appear to be like European Cro-Magnons, and possibly akin to the La Brana individual from Spain, who had blue eyes, but darker skin than today’s Spaniards, but nevertheless is closer to Baltic/Scandinavian peoples of today.

    I remain skeptical that Madagascar was totally uninhabited when Austronesians arrived. There is some scant evidence that aboriginal hunter-gatherer (fishermen) types may have lived there previously. Maybe they were like the Tasmanians or the San and easily conquered or mostly wiped out by disease. The fact that the Austronesians live mostly in the highlands of the island, should not IMO be taken as proof that they were there earlier than later Bantu and Arab arrivals, but like the British in India, that the highlands suited them better than the lowlands.

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  18. Pete says:

    Thanks! I did not know this before and looked it up. You are correct about the Guanche of the Canaries, who date back possibly to 1000BCE. Their origin was studied in a 2003 genetics research article by Nicole Maca-Meyer et al, and they were found to have a Berber-like lineage.

    The point I made still stands, the other islands off the west Africa coast were all uninhabited when discovered by Europeans, with the exception of Bioko Island, which is very close to the coast and inhabited by the Bantu about 500 BCE.

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  19. This idea of pre-Clovis populating of America has been discussed for about 15-20 years now, with surprisingly little progress toward resolution. I imagine the various laws against doing science with American Indian DNA and remains have been an impediment.

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  20. simplicio says:


    Really? I’m far from an expert, but my impression is that the community has pretty much settled that: 1) there are some American settlements that significantly pre-date the Clovis settlements 2) that there people were related to the later Clovis people 3) the Clovis people are related to all modern Native American populations and 4) all of the above are related to Asian populations, ruling out the possibility of early African or Europeans making sizable New World settlements as the “crazy” person in the post posits. I think the consensus has moved a lot over the last few decades.

    I’m not aware that the legal situation regarding Native Americans has been an impediment here. There’s only one set of Clovis remains, and that has had its DNA studied.

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