Lost World: Rewriting Prehistory-How New Science Is Tracing America's Ice Age Mariners

by Tom Koppel
ISBN: 0743453573

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A Review of: Lost World: Rewriting Prehistory - How New Science is Tracing America∆s Ice Age Mariners
by Brian Charles Clark

The standard model of how people first came to the America's is being busted to pieces by recent (in the last 15 years or so) archaeological research. The standard model claims that early humans trekked across the Bering Straight "ice bridge" (which turns out to have been a mini-continent, a tract of land almost a thousand miles wide), down through the Mackenzie Corridor, and into central North America. The problems with this model were evident from its inception in 1932. The most glaring problem is that the so-called Mackenzie Corridor was never ice free for long enough to permit early humans to make the trip. Another problem is that the Beringia subcontinent (the "land bridge" across of the Bering Straight, as geologists now call it) connecting Asia and the Americas was a wasteland-there was no food to be had in this icy desert. Did early humans pack vittles enough for a trip that, at minimum, would have lasted several years? The suggestion is ludicrous, but the standard model has been preached and taught for the better part of a century as if it were gospel.
Tom Koppel, a fine writer and award-winning journalist (he's been honored by the Canadian Archaeological Association), provides an exciting narrative in Lost World that tells of new research that at last offers a plausible alternative to the standard model. The story starts with the research and evidence collected in the caves of coastal islands along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. The remains of bears were found in the early 1990s, and were carbon dated to 10,000 and more years ago. According to the standard model, these are impossible bones. The old theory, untested gospel, states that British Columbia, like most of the rest of North America, was covered with a solid mass of ice a mile of more thick, which extended beyond the coast to cover the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Hecate Straight.
Bones don't lie, however, and carbon dating is a well-tested technique that has, over many years of work on the part of archaeologists, physicists, and biologists, been calibrated with tree ring counts, or dendrochronology. The discovery of bear remains in the islands of the Hecate Straight and elsewhere on the Pacific Northwest coast set off an explosion of research in the area. Soon human remains and artifacts were found in other caves (such as "On Your Knees" Cave, so-named because that's what you have to do to explore it). If the coast and the islands had been under a mile or more of ice, how did these remains end up where they were? The bones and stone tools were found in situ, as archaeologists say; that is, they were left there, not pushed there by erosion or flood.
Koppel follows the research activities of a number of archaeologists in their search for evidence for a new model of the peopling of the Americas. The current hypothesis is that there were "coastal refuges," or refugiums, all along the Pacific Northwest coast during the last Ice Age, and that people using small boats or rafts simply island hopped their way south over a period of centuries or more. The climate, scientists are now beginning to see, would have been moderated by the Pacific Ocean. And the islands themselves would have been much larger, and the seas shallower, because the immense mainland ice pack would have lowered sea level as much as 350 feet below present levels. Thus, line-of-sight navigation from island to island and refuge to refuge would have been possible.
Koppel has a novelist's touch; he writes a mystery story where the "who" whodunit is both hero and victim. The archaeologists Koppel follows are heroes because they are finally presenting us with a theory of the peopling of the Americas that makes sense. These same scientists are also victims-of the archaeological orthodoxy. One of the primary underpinnings of the old standard model are the Clovis People. This early American culture (perhaps as old as 15,000 years before present) was first discovered, in the form of the famous "arrowhead" or tool points that bear the name of Clovis, New Mexico, in the early 1930s. Indeed, despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary, the fact that humans had made it to New Mexico so early was apparently all the orthodoxy needed to "prove" that there must have been a land bridge migration that then proceeded through the Mackenzie Corridor. In fact, as Koppel's informants report, humans could have gotten to the interiors of the continent much quicker by following the coast south.
And south those early humans did go-clear to Peru and beyond. Weaving together several strands of current research, Koppel paints a picture of new possibilities. Some are pretty far out, and he lets the reader know that: trans-Pacific migration to the Americas (by the same peoples who populated Polynesia and Hawaii somewhat later), for instance, barely has a leg to stand on, but it still keeps insisting itself for reasons Koppel takes pleasure in relating.
Koppel is the best kind of science journalist: deeply engaged with both the science, the scientists and the people the science affects. He quietly emphasizes the important role of Native Americans in current Canadian archaeology. He digs deep and wide into other areas of scientific endeavor to bring context and meaning to archaeological discoveries (what do DNA remains tell us of the genetic diversity of the first Americans?). By developing the characters of the players in the archaeological controversies and discoveries in Canada and the rest of the Americas, by digressing into fascinating back alleys of pertinent information, and by always returning to the focus of his book, Koppel has provided an excellent introduction to the contemporary first-peoples argument.

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