That DNA Clovis Story? It Doesn’t Mean What They Say It Means

This kind of lead in to a scientific article really upsets me:

DNA harvested from the remains of an infant buried 13,000 years ago confirms that the earliest widespread culture in North America was descended from humans who crossed over to the New World from Asia, scientists say.”

Why am I upset? Because the DNA Clovis in question confirms no such thing.

 The Anzick Child

Last week the journal Nature published “The Genome of a Late Pleistocene Human from a Clovis Burial Site in Western Montana”.

The sequenced human genome that is the subject of the study came from one single child.

“The skeleton of the Clovis child—which experts determined belonged to a young boy about one to one-and-a-half years old—was discovered in 1968 in the Anzick burial site in western Montana. Dozens of ochre-covered stone tools found at the site were consistent with Clovis technology, and radiocarbon dating revealed that the skeleton was approximately 12,600 years old.”

I Don’t Really Care – Except When The Claims Exceed the Findings

To be clear,  I don’t advocate one hypothesis or another about the peopling of the Americas.  I don’t care where the initial population(s) came from. I advocate for multiple possibilities and that each one needs to be confirmed by solid scientific evidence.

While generally good science, the researchers unfortunately took that good science and made some extraordinary claims about the results that far exceeds the actual findings. Sadly, the main-stream media took those outlandish claims and ran wild.

This is a debate I follow closely.  I find it fascinating.  I don’t write on it much but I felt the reporting of this study over the past week was so far out of bounds that I had to get my $0.02 in.

These Are Not the Findings You Are Looking For

 “The new findings strongly refute that idea, known as the Solutrean hypothesis,” said study co-author Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University.

“This shows very clearly that the ancestry of the very first Americans can be traced back to Asia,” Waters said.

The new findings refute nothing however. Nor do they show that the ancestry of the  first Americans can be traced back to Asia. All it says is this one individual and his ancestors had some Asian connection, which could have come via Siberia-Alaska or from a Siberia-Europe migration.

I am not disputing a  migration from Asia in any way.  I’m disputing that this single study (from a single individual) says what they claim it says.  This is a case where MUCH more data  is warranted.

(one unsurprising part of this study that deserves mention is that the DNA of this child shows clear relationship to many Native American people alive today. I don’t think there is any dispute that Native Americans have been here a very, very long time)

Clovis

“Clovis” is a label of material culture. A technology. Clovis was a technological innovation and expansion that lasted about 300-500 years. “Clovis” is not a name defining the genetic makeup of a people. Clovis is so important because for so long researchers have falsely assumed that the “Clovis people” were the first people in the Americas, arriving about 13,000 years ago.

Clovis Rummells Maske 1024x439 That DNA Clovis Story?  It Doesn’t Mean What They Say It Means

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Clovis_Rummells_Maske.jpg

However, powerful evidence in South America (and increasingly in other places) makes it clear that the Clovis Culture was not the first in the Americas.  There were people here LONG before the Clovis.

For example, a recent study published in the PLOS Genetics Journal found evidence of several migrations to the Americas. Looking at Y chromosome markers in 1,011 individuals from 50 different South American tribes researchers identified a  group of genes that were inherited together from a single parent (haplotype) that is common in South America, Korea, Japan and Melanesia but not in North and Central America.  The same study also identified a haplotype common in Peru and Polynesia but nowhere else.  All this suggests either a cross-Pacific migration or possibly a coastal route.

That is just ONE example among hundreds that are now out there. One of the most controversial of the “pre-Clovis” hypothesis has been the Solutrean idea that I’ll talk about in more  detail below.

Who Was That Kid?

I’ve got two major issues with the claims being made in the study published in Nature.

First, to study ONE single individual who was found near Clovis tools, sequence the DNA and extrapolate from that this negates the possibility of multiple waves of migration from various parts of the globe is utterly insane.

Just think about it. You have a collection of material culture from the United States of America from the 1990s time period. You’ve got cans, plates, electronic equipment, tools, cars and so on. Then you take ONE individual from say Garden City, Kansas, sequence their DNA and then say that well, its clear that all Americans from that material cultural at that time must have come from Northern European stock in one wave of migration….

Never mind that Chinese Americans in California and African-Americans in Texas and Native Americans in Montana and so on were using the exact same material culture at the exact same time!

The other problem is this.

While the relationship of the burial to the Clovis tools is fairly solid as far as I can tell there nonetheless remains a possibility that the skeletal material found with the Clovis tools did not belong (genetically) to that group and that it could have been a war trophy or that the individual could have been an adoptive or captured addition to the group (a practice documented widely ethnographically in historic and proto-historic in many Native American cultures). The nature of the Anzick burial, the circumstances of recovery and the associated artifacts itself, should give pause to drawing broad  over reaching conclusions based on this singular occurrence.

Unfortunately, untrained finders, not archaeologists, processed the find and there remain many questions as to the exact relationship of the materials and the nature of the deposit. It is generally assumed that during these early periods, infant mortality rates were fairly high (at least as compared to what we except as “normal”) and to find such a large amount what certainly would have been valuable tools and materials seems rather unusual and not typical of what we assume would have been and what other archaeology has suggested would be normal practices for early hunter gather populations.

Solutrean and Other Hypothesis NOT Touched by This Study

Therefore, this study does nothing to refute the possibility of a Solutrean migration or other migrations from elsewhere in Asia or elsewhere in the world.  The Solutrean argument has been that the Clovis culture evolved as a bi-face lithic technology that was perhaps initiated on the East Coast by (or inspired by) a migrant population from what is now Europe.

 According to the Solutrean hypothesis, people of the Solutrean culture (or a related group) in Ice Age Europe migrated to North America along the northern ice margins, bringing their technologies with them and providing the basis for the later Clovis methods that spread throughout North America. The hypothesis is based on proposed similarities between European Solutrean and Early American Clovis lithic technology.

Haplogroup X mtDNA That DNA Clovis Story?  It Doesn’t Mean What They Say It Means

Haplogroup_X_(mtDNA)

Further, there is no evidence of a similar ancestral technology to Clovis among cultures of Siberia during this time period. The presence of mtDNA Haplogroup X2A in Native American populations has also been used to bolster the hypothesis although that is still in hot debate.

That a technology could develop in one place and then be used by other people elsewhere is hardly out of the realm of possibility.  People in India use airplanes invented in the United States for goodness sake.  A technology can spread without the people who invented the technology being present.

That is why it is stunning when people like geneticist Jennifer Raff of the University of Texas make the astoundingly ridiculous claim that the study:

 “is the final shovelful of dirt” on the European hypothesis…

Don’t be silly. That hypothesis never contended that there was a mass migration or that Solutrean populations ever came close to matching the populations that came across the Bering land bridge.  The idea is that there were very few of them and they probably interbred and were absorbed by a much larger Asiatic population.  Heck, their genetic line may have even died off.  That does not mean that Clovis technology did not derive from Solutrean.

Nor does it mean that it did.

Like I said, I have no dog in this fight other than I want to see good science and responsible claims. And so I agree with the take of Dennis Stanford:

 “We definitely have some stuff here in the east of the United States that is older than anything they have in the west,” said anthropologist Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution, a proponent of the out-of-Europe model. “They’ve been reliably dated to 20,000 years ago,” too early for migrants from Beringia to have made the trek, he said, and strongly resemble Solutrean artifacts.

Again, I don’t care where the first Americans came from but the “last shovelful of dirt” has hardly been scooped…let alone thrown:

One variant of mitochondrial DNA, (inherited only from the mother),  is found in many Native Americans, has been traced to western Eurasia, but is absent from east Eurasia, where Beringia was before the sea covered it, Oppenheimer explained. For the variant, called X2a, to have such a high frequency in Native Americans “it must have got across the Atlantic somehow,” he said. The new study “completely ignored this evidence, and only the Solutrean hypothesis explains it.”

The Book

Archaeology is somewhat different from the rest of the congenital hard sciences. Yes, archaeologists use the scientific method and quantitative analysis of data, archaeology even employs other disciplines, sciences (and scientists) i.e. geology, botany, biology, genetics, physics, etc. in the goal of trying to understand and create a history book of the human species based on a small amount of surviving evidence.  A book for which most of the pages are completely missing. In reality more often than not,  we have the equivalent of a bunch of individual letters, words and sentences (many incomplete) for which we often know which chapter they go in, but have no idea which page, context, or in what order. But at some point we have to try and tell a coherent story.  When taking a “sentence” (data finding) and combining those that others have found,  to create and extrapolate an entire chapter requires a lot of filling in the blanks, for which no evidence exists. It also leads to misinformation, when facts and conclusions are confused with conjecture and hypothesis. And hence we find ourselves in the midst of just such a circumstance.

To claim that this ONE individual’s DNA Clovis represents the entirety or source of the Clovis Culture (technology)  is certainly a reckless over-reach.  I encourage the researchers quoted in the media – including the authors of the study – to rethink such outlandish claims and exercise some caution.

There will have to be other words and pages found  confirm or refute this study. Again, this is ONE individual and while the DNA results are pretty much as expected, it is hardly the completion of “the book”.

I’d love to hear your opinions or criticisms of what I wrote and I welcome all respectful debate.

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(special thanks to my good friend John Colby Bartlett for helping to edit this post – all mistakes, as usual, are my own however)

 

 

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21 Responses to That DNA Clovis Story? It Doesn’t Mean What They Say It Means

  1. Flo Riddock February 19, 2014 at 1:49 am #

    Whew!!! I read the whole blog and it is so informative. I too am interested in getting it right when it comes to science. Thank you for posting. I will definitely read it again. It is quite a bit to absorb.

  2. Flo Riddock February 19, 2014 at 1:49 am #

    Whew!!! I read the whole blog and it is so informative. I too am interested in getting it right when it comes to science. Thank you for posting. I will definitely read it again. It is quite a bit to absorb.

  3. Jim O'Donnell February 21, 2014 at 12:46 am #

    Thanks Flo! Please feel free to spread it around!

  4. Henry | @fotoeins February 20, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    It also happens sometimes in my former realm of research astronomy. Though many recognize the inherent dangers, sometimes finding that one thing, that could be a “rosetta stone” (or hoping that it is), and trying to extrapolate results onto a possible population from a sample of one. Fortunately, the community does go up in arms over going “too far”, although they’ll also commend the work done to find “the special one”. Well, a special one today, until someone finds another tomorrow …

    • Jim O'Donnell February 25, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

      I agree Henry. At first I was thinking that this kind of politics is unique to anthropology but the more I think about it, no..no its not. I think you put it very well. Even scientists are seeking that “Rosetta Stone” that will solve all the mysteries in one fell swooop. Well, too bad, the world isnt like that.

  5. Mark Henderson February 21, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    [Reposted from Taos Archaeological Facebook Site ] Jim- Thanks for posting your excellent critical assessment of the “press” on the Anzick DNA assessment. More troubling to me than the press coverage are the quotes from some of the archeologists promoting a certain “just so story.” It is easy to blame the press, but some of the quotes, even if taken out of context verge on “malpractice.” You make several comments on the nature of “hard science” results in interpreting archeological evidence. I am not fond of the distinction of “hard” science and the natural conclusion that then there is “soft” science. I don’t think describing the recovery of artifacts from archeological deposits differs substantially from the detection of the percentage of metal in certain stars, that are reported as older than other stars. I think all data collectors are prone to spin their results, in fact in the manner that Karl Popper, the philosopher of science discusses as “conjectures and refutations.” As you point out investigators who want ‘the last or final word’ should be mistrusted. I think there is an important Orwellian issue here and that is the extent to which “lay persons” are expected to accept the pronouncements of the “priesthood” and their minions without criticism. The struggle to exclude some from the access to information so anyone with time and interest can burrow-in is the great benefit of our age. You have done a masterful job of helping us burrow-in on the Azick reportage and I think your assessment deserves wider distribution- perhaps the Society for American Archaeology “Archaeological Record” ? At any rate each of your points about how Anzick helps us tell the “the just so story” about who, what, where, when, how and why people came to the western hemisphere and the general point of how the media represent the research deserve continuing discussion. – Mark

    • Jim O'Donnell February 25, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

      Mark, thank you for the comment. I agree with you. I am used to the press screwing up these stories but I was more than a little stunned to see these well-respected researchers make some pretty outlandish claims. How do I get this to the “Archaeological Record”? I’d love to spread this around some more.

      You also make a good point about “hard” science. Thank you for that.

  6. RKay Butler February 22, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Excellent commentary. I completely agree and have believed for many years that the out-of-Siberia-only peopling of the Americas theory had many holes in it. Thank you for pulling together the argument for the other side so succinctly.

    • Jim O'Donnell February 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

      Thank you for the kudos. There are indeed many holes in it and I really wish these researchers had not taken such miniscule evidence to use as a hammer to press thier own point.

  7. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    What is going on out in the anthropology world today that is getting this post so many hits?

  8. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    What is going on out in the anthropology world today that is getting this post so many hits?

  9. CheyAnne Sexton July 22, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Because you know your s*%* and they want to too…..

  10. CheyAnne Sexton July 22, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Because you know your s*%* and they want to too…..

  11. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

    CheyAnne Sexton Hahaha. Well thank you. I do seriously wonder though WHY a post like this that has had no views for months suddenly is top of the list and people are actually taking the time to read it. What drove that today? Just curious, you know.

  12. David Kilby July 22, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    I think what may have driven the hits today is that the bones were just reburied in Montana. Jim, I'm not trying to instigate a debate, but I have to say that I think you get some things wrong in this post. Every aspect of this is complex, but to risk oversimplifying: You're right that this is only one individual, but it is a key individual from a critical time period. It is an excellent individual for testing these models. It is the earliest American individual ever sequenced, and over 80% of modern Native American genetics is descended from him, and his close genetic relatives are in NE Asia. I agree with Raff and the vast majority of professionals in this field that if there was an early European connection we should have seen it in this individual. His DNA, along with the strongest evidence from archaeology, bioanthropology, and geology, supports the less sensationalized scenario wherein the Americas were originally colonized by Pleistocene people from Northeast Asia.

  13. Karen Hoppes July 22, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    I always read your articles Jim. Why it is getting so many hits recently is a myster to me. You have also shared many articles on the Clovis debate. I find the entire debate facinating. I am an archeolist wanna be or was one in a past life.

  14. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    David Kilby – I appreciate that excellent response Kilby! I was hoping for more of that when I posted this. My beef with the researchers however has more to do with the sweeping and unsubstantiated statements and pronouncements that came with this study. As you said, this is one individual and no matter how key the time period it is just a slice of time. I'm not pushing so much for a European connecection as I am pushing for a more responsible and less sensationalized way of reporting out these results. I think the results are actually more cautious than the claims made in the media.

  15. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    David Kilby Oh and I dont at all mind a debate. Thats how I learn and people reading this can learn. You know you're shit and I respect you tons so its all good.

  16. Jim O'Donnell July 22, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    David Kilby – of course you smell funny and yo mamma wears combat boots but thats a whole other issue.

  17. David Kilby July 22, 2014 at 11:21 pm #

    Jim, you’re wrong. I wear the combat boots and my momma smells funny.

    I do agree with you that sensationalized reporting of results is a problem, and that may be a valid criticism of the reporting of this (I would, however, differentiate between what is actually stated in the formal journal publication vs. what is stated in press releases, etc.). In this case, though, I think maybe I can sympathize a little with any tendency to trumpet the results for the simple reason that what they are primarily responding to – the “Solutrean connection” – is a hyper-sensationalized argument which has gotten lots of media attention, and has taken on a fairly rabid fan base among the public, despite the fact that it has almost no traction among professional archaeologists on either side of the Atlantic. This fan base has become increasingly entrenched (I’m not sure what their motivation is, although it seems consistent with trends in conspiracy paranoia and anti-intellectualism similar to, say, the anti-vaccination movement), and has tended to lash out at professional archaeologists, sometimes personally. So, similar to having to trumpet the sober studies that refute the anti-vax fallacies, I can sympathise with the temptation for legitimate researchers to shout loud in order to be heard over the maddening crowd of “Across Atlantic Ice” true-believers
    .

  18. Juli Barbato July 23, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Team Solutreans, s'il vous plait. ;)

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