The lithic technology of southwestern France (c. 22,000-17,000 BP) strangely resembles that of the first paleo-Amerindians (c. 12,000). Some people speculate that early Europeans reached North America by crossing the Atlantic. The truth is even more incredible. Early Europeans spread eastward and became the ancestors not only of the Amerindians but also of East Asians. (source)
The recent study by Beleza et al. (2012) has elicited comment on two findings:
- European skin turned white long after modern humans had entered Europe (c. 40,000 BP). Moreover, it whitened relatively fast—between 19,000 and 11,000 years ago. Such a narrow timeframe implies some form of selection, and not just relaxation of selection for darker skin.
- The new skin-color alleles did not come from the Neanderthals. This point may have broader repercussions because some have argued that the rapidity of evolution among modern humans required “cherry picking” of useful alleles from Neanderthals and other archaic hominins.
But another finding deserves comment. This is the discovery that an earlier (though minor) lightening of skin color had occurred shortly after the entry of modern humans into Europe:
[…] the initial stages of European skin lightening occurred in a proto-Eurasian population, about 30,000 years ago, after the out-of-Africa migration ~60,000-70,000 years ago […] and slightly more recently than the earliest archaeological evidences for the dispersal of anatomically modern humans in Europe, around 40,000 years ago (Beleza et al., 2012).
It’s widely accepted that the ancestors of Europeans and East Asians parted company long after modern humans had begun spreading out of Africa. It’s usually assumed, however, that this splitting took place somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia. If we are to believe Beleza et al (2012), it must have happened after the entry of modern humans into Europe.
So the first Europeans were also the first East Asians. Cro-Magnon Man wasn’t just a proto-European. He was also a proto-Eurasian.
From Africa to East Asia … by way of Europe?
A straight line isn’t always the easiest route from point A to point B. In any case, modern humans weren’t going anywhere in particular when they began spreading out of Africa. They were seeking new lands and following the path of least resistance.
Let’s suppose you’re a band of hunter-gatherers in the Levant circa 50,000 BP. What new territories would tempt you? The Iranian Plateau and, beyond it, the arid steppes of Central Asia? No, that doesn’t seem very tempting.
You would look to lands farther north and west along the Mediterranean. Those lands are similar in climate, vegetation, and wildlife. You can continue using the same life skills, since the means of subsistence are almost the same.
As your descendants grow in numbers and spread farther out, they will eventually bump up against an ecological zone that differs in climate, vegetation, and wildlife. At that point, they’ll have to stop their advance and begin a slow process of adaptation within transitional environments on the edge of this zone. Once they’ve sufficiently adapted, they will break out from this “beachhead.” And begin a new wave of advance.
This is what happened when modern humans spread north from the Mediterranean and into more boreal environments with wider seasonal variations. Finally, they encountered the Eurasian steppe-tundra—a vast open plain of grassland stretching from southwestern France to Manchuria. Living in that environment would require a whole suite of new adaptations. The men would have to become much more mobile in order to hunt the herds of wandering herbivores. The women would have to abandon food gathering and take on new tasks like shelter building and garment making. So where do you think those adaptations were developed?
In southwestern France. This “beachhead” was the most southerly and resource-rich portion of the Eurasian steppe-tundra (Mellars, 1985). Sheltered valleys dissected the steppe and offered trees and other non-arctic vegetation, particularly on south-facing slopes (Blades, 1999b). In this protected environment, hunter-gatherers could live off salmon, local game, wild fruits, grains, and tubers while hunting reindeer herds that passed through in the fall and winter (Blades, 1999a; Blades, 1999b; Mellars, 1985). As the climate improved from 30,000 to 27,000 BP, closed forests became established, the herds moved further afield, and reindeer hunting was all but abandoned at valley sites (Blades, 1999b). The men had to move out of the valleys and onto the surrounding tundra tablelands. They now had to make further adaptations: more efficient use of raw materials (wood for fire and shelter, lithic materials); long-distance travel to procure them; and development of extensive social networks (Goebel, 1999; Hahn, 1987).
Sometime after 28,000 BP, they broke out from the beachhead and colonized the tundra plains in their entirety. This breakout may correspond to a demographic expansion (23,000-21,000 BP) of a genetic lineage that occurs most often among the Basques of northern Spain and southwestern France (Richards et al., 1996; Richards et al., 2000). Relatively few people were involved, as indicated by the very low variability of the northern European gene pool (Reich et al., 2001). Presumably, there were many semi-isolated groups, each one tinkering with its own mix of cultural adaptations until one of them got it right and colonized the Eurasian steppe-tundra.
After the breakout, nothing could stop them from spreading east throughout the Eurasian steppe-tundra … all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and from there to Beringia and North America. They would in time become the ancestors of most people living today, not only Europeans but also East Asians and Amerindians.
For this, we have several lines of evidence:
– a Y-chromosome study has found that all North Eurasian peoples descend from a common ancestral population dated to about 15,000 BP (Stepanov & Puzyrev, 2000; see also Armour et al., 1996; Santos et al., 1999; Zerjal et al., 1997).
– the language families of northern Eurasia, particularly Uralic and Yukaghir and more generally Uralic-Yukaghir, Eskimo-Aleut, Chukotko-Kamchatkan and Altaic, share deep structural affinities that point to a common origin and not simply to word borrowing (Cavalli-Sforza, 1994, pp. 97-99; Fortescue, 1998; Rogers, 1986).
– archeological evidence (characteristic lithic technology, grave goods with red ocher, and sites with small shallow basins) also suggests a common cultural tradition throughout Europe and Siberia 20,000 to 15,000 years ago (Goebel, 1999; Haynes, 1980; Haynes, 1982).
– dental and cranial remains from Mal’ta (23,000-20,000 BP) in southern Siberia indicate strong affinities with Upper Paleolithic Europeans (Alexeyev & Gokhman, 1994; Goebel, 1999).
Finally, the lithic technology of southwestern France (c. 22,000-17,000 BP), referred to as “Solutrean”, strangely resembles that of the first paleo-Amerindians (c. 15,000-12,000). Solutrean and Clovis points share common characteristics. Both are thin and bifacial, and both share the intentional use of the outre passé, or overshot flaking technique, which quickly reduces the thickness of a biface without reducing the width.
This similarity has led to the “Solutrean hypothesis”— the idea that early Europeans reached North America by crossing the Atlantic. Again, the easiest route between two points isn’t always a straight line. For the proto-Eurasians of southwestern France, the road to North America ran east … over the unbroken grasslands of the Eurasian steppe-tundra.
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