Serra da Capivara Cave Art

Last month I read an article from the Raw Story about new Brazilian archaeological finds, and I want to talk about it.  The article describes artifacts found in Brazil that predate the accepted date of human occupation of the Americas, by 18,000 years.

Serra da Capivara Cave Art

The generally accepted date of human habitation of the Americas is 12-15,000 years ago.  But these cave paintings found in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara national park that date to approximately 29,000 years ago.  The article goes on to describe the cave art as including “scenes from the sex lives” of those who painted them.  These paintings describe more than just their sex lives, including hunting, animals, and possibly religious ceremonies.  Written language didn’t exist until approximately 3200 BCE, in Mesopotamia, so archaeology is the only historical evidence for periods before that date.  In the Americas archaeological records are the only documentation of human habitation until approximately 600 BCE when written language developed in what is now Mexico.  As such, archaeological records and material culture are extremely important to anyone studies the early origins of humanity.

There are a lot of theories surrounding human migration into the Americas.  The most widely accepted theory involves humans crossing the Bering Strait via an ice bridge approximately 12-15,000 years ago.  Settlers would have arrived in Alaska, and then migrated south into the modern contiguous United States, and then Mexico, and then South America.  There are plenty of problems with this theory, though.

Serra da Capivara Cave Art

When I took archaeology and human origins classes, we talked about a lot of these problems.  There are archaeological sites in the southeastern United States that date to the earliest parts of that period, which would require humans to have moved from northern Alaska to approximately modern South Carolina in 200 years.  While we can make this journey in a few days today, the earth was a very different place 15,000 years ago.  Between moving by foot, unfamiliar terrain, glacial weather conditions, and rampant ice age wildlife, moving at least one tribe of humans all that way would have taken far longer than 200 years. Keep in mind, as well, that these humans were likely not attempting to migrate, which would also slow their progress.  If they were simply expanding their territory as their population expanded they would likely not have made more than 50 miles of progress in a year or two.

There are also archaeological sites in South America that date reliably to at least 20,000 years ago.  I was taught that there were artifacts that had been dated to 40,000 years ago; however, these items were questionable, and the most reliable date for them was 22,000 years ago.  The problem is that the archaeological academic establishment, to my knowledge, has not yet come up with a better hypothesis for the timeline of human migration into the Americas.

We were also taught a number of other theories, including direct crossing from Polynesia, island hopping across the north Atlantic, and of course, humans evolving in different places at the same time.  This last theory is considered a crackpot theory by many academics, since it essentially states that either humans are multiple species that simply happen to have the same number of chromosomes and share DNA and physical characteristics, or that one species arose at the same time in multiple places, which is extremely close to impossible from an evolutionary standpoint.  But the idea of early humans island hopping along the north Atlantic or making sea journeys from Polynesia to South America are not quite so crazy.  It’s possible to make journeys between the polynesian islands and South America, as proved in 1947 by Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition.  While Heyerdahl’s theory was widely criticized, the fact that he survived and managed to make the 5,000 mile journey across the South Pacific does suggest that it was possible for ancient peoples to make the same journey.

Thor Heyerdahl’s crew on the Kon Tiki expedition

While the archaeology presented in the article is very interesting, I have a few problems with the article itself.  The Raw Story is not an archaeological journal, it’s not a scholarly publication, it’s a news site similar to the Huffington Post but with a much smaller audience.  Judging by the title and the first few sentences the Raw Story only covered this story because it would draw clicks.  In fact, the first sentence begins “It’s no secret humans have been having sex for millenia…”  I mean no disrespect to the actual website, but it annoys me when someone writes about history or anthropology or archaeology only to draw siteviews.  Sex was not mentioned again after the third paragraph.  It also seems that only one actual living human being was contacted (or at least, consented to be interviewed) for this article.  Which is always a problem, because individuals are biased, we know this.  In anthropology and religious studies we use a technique called phenomenology in some of our analyses; phenomenology calls for the unpacking and understanding of all of our own biases before we examine or analyze another culture.  Phenomenology also reminds us that everyone has a bias, even if they don’t seem to have one.

The idea of a direct crossing from Africa, only briefly mentioned in the article, is an interesting one.  It’s a theory I’ve never heard before, and one I will definitely be reading about soon.  I’m not sure what kind of journey that would be now, let alone 30,000 years ago.

There’s nothing truly wrong in this article (though there is a disconcerting section where the author wrote 40 millennia while also stating 30,000 years.  Ten thousand years is a big difference, it’s a different historical epoch.  But that was likely an oversight, I doubt anyone old enough to be writing a news story would make that mistake on purpose.  Overall, it’s an interesting article, presenting an interesting exhibit in Brazil.  But it also serves as a reminder to be skeptical of everything we read, especially from non-scholarly sources.


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