CBC under fire for documentary that says first humans to colonize New World sailed from Europe

Critics say it is ‘extremely irresponsible’ of The Nature of Things to promote the Solutrean Hypothesis, a favourite piece of propaganda among white supremacists

CBC’s science show The Nature of Things is set to air a documentary that purports to prove the first humans in the New World came across the ocean from Europe and not, as most scientists think, via a land bridge from Asia.

A geneticist of ancient humans calls it “extremely irresponsible” to promote this theory, not just because it is widely rejected and unsupported by evidence, but also because it is a favourite piece of propaganda among white supremacists, who use it to argue Europeans colonized North America before Native Americans, and therefore have the original claim to the land.

Promotional material for the documentary Ice Bridge calls it an “explosive new theory”: that an ancient race of highly sophisticated Ice Age humans called Solutreans migrated across sea ice from their ancestral homelands in Spain and France 20,000 years ago, bringing with them an advanced tool making technology. The documentary dramatizes that journey as it discusses the theory.

In fact, the idea has been promoted for 20 years by two American researchers, Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford. It has been undermined by recent advances in genetic analysis of ancient human remains in the Americas. With little more than the comparison of stone spearheads to support it (the best known example was dredged off the ocean floor along with a mastodon skull near Chesapeake Bay on America’s east coast), the theory is widely rejected by mainstream paleoanthropologists. Most agree that a range of evidence points to a migration from Asia across a land bridge during the last Ice Age, perhaps 14,000 years ago.

The theories are not mutually exclusive. Both could be true, as the documentary acknowledges. But while one is well supported, the other is widely regarded as conjecture.

There is, for example, no evidence of Solutrean seafaring, and no evidence of their cave art in North America, which would be unusual for a people known for the elaborately painted Cave of Altamira in Spain. There have also been no discoveries in North America of Solutrean human remains. It is just as possible that the American flint blades that look Solutrean were made by ancient Native Americans, and the similarity is just coincidence, or that the blades are not as old as they appear.

Still, the CBC documentary sympathetically casts the two main advocates of this fringe theory as brave resisters against a blinkered scientific orthodoxy. They will “never give up searching for the truth,” says narrator David Suzuki.

 Dennis Stanford shows a stone blade he found in the water at Chesapeake Bay, near a site he believes to be an ancient Solutrean camp. The Nature of Things with David Suzuki/ Handout

“These people were here and they were here in great numbers,” said Stanford, an anthropologist and curator with the Smithsonian Institution. “A young archeologist in the future will be taught a different story based on the work that we’ve been doing, because we’re changing the history of the world.”

The other proponent, Bradley of the University of Exeter, says he likes to answer the question about why would a people cross an ocean during an ice age by asking “Why wouldn’t they?”

As Suzuki puts it, Solutreans were “lured by the neverending bounty of the sea,” hunting great auks and seals, and they reached North America almost by accident.

The documentary is scheduled for online release on Friday, in advance of its airing on CBC on Sunday.

The Solutrean Hypothesis, as it is known, is so toxic, and so discredited among mainstream researchers that documentary director Robin Bicknell said she could barely find anyone willing to go on camera even just to say it was wrong.

“That’s how repellent the term ‘Solutrean Hypothesis’ is,” Bicknell said. The common view was that this theory has already been debunked, she said. The final product includes two academic skeptics.

“Who were the first North Americans?” says Suzuki as the film opens.

That question has a “huge political component” that can overshadow the science, said José Victor Moreno-Mayar of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

 The CBC documentary Ice Bridge purports to prove the Solutrean Hypothesis, which is the most famous of the theories by which modern white supremacists claim Europeans colonized North America first. Handout

One prominent example is the book White Apocalypse by Kyle Bristow, which fictionalizes the theory with a story about the “Solutrean Liberation Front” and their modern-day battles, and argues that ancient Solutreans were exterminated in North America by more recent migrants of Asian background — the ancestors of modern Native Americans.

Paul Fromm, a leading Canadian white supremacist organizer, called the book a “soaring inspirational dramatization of our people taking our continent back from the Third World invaders.”

It is “extremely irresponsible” for the scientists to keep pushing their own lifelong passion in this racist context, Moreno-Mayar said. He mentioned online discussion of the “outdated” Solutrean theory.

“It’s crazy horrible what you see there. You see basically all of these racist ideas that are justifying colonialism, and justifying this super racist way of thinking,” he said. “Most people supporting this are associated with this racist way of thinking, that Native Americans are not really Native Americans.”

The new documentary does not address the issue of racism at all. Bicknell said she was aware of it, but did not address it because she “didn’t want to give it a lick of airspace… It’s just such crap.”

 Director Robin Bicknell (seated, right) in the field with the Ice bridge crew. Handout

Racist propaganda “is not my issue,” said Bradley in an interview. “We can’t stop doing science because somebody might misappropriate something.”

“We’re not saying anything about race in our theory, right? We try to even avoid the term European, because they weren’t European as we now know European,” he said.

The climax of the documentary is the results of a genetic analysis of teeth from ancient remains of Huron-Wendat people, which shows they have a genetic marker associated with eastern Europeans. A British geneticist claims this is proof their ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean. A representative of that First Nation, Louis Lesage, says this proves his people’s oral tradition about their ancestors coming from a “great salt lake” to the east. And Suzuki himself says the genetic analysis is “a window into (Lesage’s) people’s past.”

According to Moreno-Mayar, however, there is another more plausible way to account for the presence of the relevant genetic marker, which was found in three of forty teeth analyzed. This marker, known as haplogroup X, was picked up by the ancestors of Native Americans as they encountered Ancient North Eurasians on their migration northeast towards Siberia, and eventually North America. In other words, the genetic results fit with the accepted theory that Native Americans came from Asia.

 Actors on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario portray the transatlantic journey of the Solutreans in Ice Bridge, premiering on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki on Sunday, January 14 at 8 pm ET. Handout

David Norris, an archeologist at Western University, who studies the peopling of the Americas and migration of people into northwestern Ontario, said science cannot simply ignore intriguing theories because a “rogue” part of society is exploiting it. There is good reason to consider the Solutrean Hypothesis carefully, he said.

“I think we have to keep our minds open about human migration,” he said.

Moreno-Mayar, however, sounds a note of caution: “Scientists are scientists, but scientists also have egos,” he said. “Not everyone is willing to see their work of a lifetime thrown away by evidence.”

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