Overshooting the ice: the role of experimental archaeology in the Solutrean-Clovis Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis

For those of you not familiar with the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis, basically the idea is that during the Last Glacial Maximum (at approx. 26.500-19.000 years ago) glacial ice build up in the north Atlantic allowed European populations to cross over to North America and to colonize this virgin territory. The archaeological “cultures” typically cited in relationship to this hypothesis are Clovis in North America and the Solutrean in Western Europe. In particular, apparent similarities in the manufacture of bifacial tools between these two archaeological entities, and their reported use of overshot flaking (flakes that travel across the face of a tool to remove part of the opposing margin) to thin bifaces, have been frequently used to argue for their being a connection between Western Europe and the first peopling of the Americas. A basic introduction to the debate can be found here 

An example of an experimental overshot flake removal produced by Metin Eren (image from Eren et al. 2013).

An example of an experimental overshot flake removal produced by Metin Eren (image from Eren et al. 2013).

Over the Ice map

In recent years considerable genetic, archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence has accrued suggesting that the first human societies in North America came from Asia, not Europe. Never the less, this debate still continues in the academic arena and 2013/2014 has thus far been a particularly productive period for publications on the topic utilizing experimental research to discuss the merits of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis. Three recent publications are of particular interest for those interested in the role that experimental archaeology can play in major debates such as this. The first of these contains experimental data designed to test the effectiveness of overshot flaking in thinning bifaces:

Eren, M.I., Patten, R.J., O’Brien, M.J., Meltzer, D.J., 2013. Refuting the technological cornerstone of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis. Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 2934-2941.

Eren et al’s results suggest that overshot flakes are by products of a general biface thinning technique and in and of themselves are not very reliable or optimal at thinning bifaces. This conclusion seems to suggest that Solutrean and Clovis bifaces were produced using similar, simple, biface thinning techniques that resulted in occasional, accidental, overshot flakes. The article also contains a discussion of the existing archaeological evidence for overshot flaking in Clovis assemblages, not much, and the lack of comparable data in Solutrean assemblages.

A reply and counter-reply to the Eren et al. (2013) paper make for very interesting reading and highlight the continued vehemence of this debate in archaeology. These two papers can be found at:

Lohse, J.C., Collins, M.B., Bradley, B., 2014. Controlled overshot flaking: a response to Eren, Patten, O’Brien, and Meltzer. Lithic Technology 39, 46-54.

Eren, M.I., Patten, R.J., O’Brien, M.J., Meltzer, D.J., 2014. More on the rumour of “intentional overshot flaking” and the purported Ice-Age Atlantic crossing. Lithic Technology 39, 55-63.

It is unlikely that these papers will mark the end of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis, but they have at least brought the role of stone tools in the debate somewhat closer to scientific scrutiny.