Academic Heresy and Atlantic Ice

Academic Heresy and Atlantic Ice June 5, 2015

I have been writing about the nature of academic debate, and how scholars assess claims. In some cases, it’s not too difficult to dismiss arguments as bogus or pseudo-scholarship, but often we find controversial views that are removed from the general consensus, and yet they demand to be discussed and debated. Sometimes, ideas that initially seem radical or counter-intuitive will gradually become part of a new consensus, a new orthodoxy. Others don’t. What makes the difference?

Plenty of examples of such “heretical” works come to mind. I remember in the 1970s reading the book Redating the New Testament by Bishop John Robinson, who argued that virtually all the New Testament writings were completed before the year 70 AD, far earlier than the academic consensus would accept. Most Bible scholars would still reject his arguments, but the way he posed them forced even the best-accredited experts to re-examine their assumptions, to justify why they believed what they did. In this case, a heretical work failed to become orthodoxy, but it did some really valuable services along the way.

One of the illustrations I have been using in recent columns is the whole question of early human settlement in the Americas, and that area is currently the subject of intense debate. Again to illustrate how scholars argue, let me cite one ongoing battle.

As I remarked, the standard view of early human occupation assumed that big game hunters entered the New World from Siberia and eastern Asia around 13,000 years ago, and you can recognize them by their Clovis culture tools. More recent work has pushed that movement back by several thousand years, but still assumes that the newcomers came from East Asia, perhaps sailing along the coasts rather than tramping across the land-bridge.

Over the past quarter century, though, a heretical alternative view has arisen, which suggests that at least some of the first early humans came from Western Europe – from Iberia rather than Siberia. However odd this sounds, you can actually make a surprisingly good case for this view. Very early Americans used a stone technology reminiscent of the Solutrean cultures of Western Europe. Also, you can now find an impressive roster of really ancient pre-Clovis archaeological sites in the Eastern US, rather than the West, and some of the very oldest are on or near Chesapeake Bay. One of the truly amazing finds is the so-called Cinmar site, some miles off Virginia’s present day coastline, where a fishing boat dredged up an archaic stone blade in the company of mastodon bones. If true (and that find has been subject to a major recent assault) that would place human beings on the east coast 22,000 years ago. That’s a very long way from the Bering Strait and Siberia.

This all meshes well with the theory that Clovis cultures emerge from some earlier phenomenon in the east, probably the mid-Atlantic region, and then diffuse west. Getting into really controversial territory, the earliest human remains in North America look nothing like Native Americans in skull or facial type, suggesting the presence of other ethnic groups.

It’s a complicated story, but the Solutrean hypothesis is well laid out in a book called Across Atlantic Ice by Dennis J. Stanford and Bruce A. Bradley. They argue for the existence for ice-based cultures that could coast very long distances, even to the point of crossing the frozen North Atlantic. The arguments from other parts of the world about Paleolithic access to boats seem convincing. To over-simplify, they suggest a model like this: In the beginning were the Solutreans; the Solutreans begat pre-Clovis, which begat Clovis.


So here we have a standard consensus view, and an insurgent alternative. How is anyone to tell which is more accurate? The first thing is to look at who the “insurgents” are and how they make their case. Dennis Stanford himself is very much an insider. A fine scholar, he is a Curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, and anything but a flake. (You may recognize that that word as a dreadful pun in the world of ancient stone tools). Across Atlantic Ice appears from a very prestigious press, the University of California’s. Moreover, that is by no means the only work on the subject. The Solutrean view is supported by many scholarly articles and papers by various authors, and published in well-established academic outlets.

The Solutrean case is a minority view, but nevertheless, it is a real scholarly argument, one that other archaeologists representing the mainstream consensus have had to fight vigorously against. See for instance the fierce and mocking rebuttal in David Meltzer’s First Peoples in a New World, also from the University of California Press. That condemnation is itself important, because it shows that mainstream scholars acknowledge the existence of a serious rival view, which they do not, for instance, in dealing with Mormon claims.

On a personal note, the Solutrean case is one I sympathize with, and in many ways find convincing. That makes me sad to report that recent developments have not been kind to the argument. In the past couple of years, genetic evidence has definitively linked Native Americans to East Asian populations. Much more important, some of those Asian-derived peoples had facial characteristics like those of the mysterious human remains mentioned earlier. If they did not look like classic Native Americans when they arrived, they developed those characteristics over the centuries by means of evolution, and interbreeding with later arrivals. We no longer need to postulate non-Asian migrants to explain those early bones.

Just as telling a counter-argument, if Europeans were in fact flooding into the eastern United States, we have to ask what happened to their genetic inheritance, which is simply not found anywhere in the New World. That does not of itself rule out the chance that some Solutreans might have reached the Chesapeake, but even if they did, they did not leave much of a footprint in the Americas.

If the Solutrean thesis is not dead, it is not doing well, and it has by no means become a new orthodoxy. For the current state of arguments, see a book of conference proceedings like Kelly E. Graf, Caroline V. Ketron, and Michael R. Waters, eds., Paleoamerican Odyssey (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014).


What we are seeing here, then, is a classic scholarly debate. People point to evidence that apparently does not fit the existing consensus. They then develop a new hypothesis that, in their view, better fits that evidence. All this, moreover, takes place within the approved channels of scholarly debate, in peer-reviewed journals, in papers at major professional conferences, and in books from prestigious presses (which are also subject to peer review).

Both sides work within known and approved methodologies. Both sides then debate the case, pointing to weaknesses and inconsistencies in their opponents’ arguments, and refining their own beliefs. Both sides return to the specific evidence cited to see if it is as solid and impregnable as it originally appeared. As in any scientific endeavor, skeptical testing is the rule of the day. Books are reviewed, articles are subject to rebuttal, scholarly papers provoke arguments. As new evidence emerges, each side tries to incorporate it into their own case. Ultimately, chiefly based on that evidence, either the insurgent view establishes a foothold in mainstream opinion, or it does not.

Equally, look at what did not happen in this instance. An activist did not present his or her innovative views in the form of self-published books, of youtube clips, or rants on a blog. That person did not present a case in terms of claiming to overcome a sinister consensus supposedly pledged to suppress the truth. S/he did not cite controversial evidence dredged up from sources that were doubtful, outdated, discredited or spurious. His or her main argument was not founded on the principle of “This is something I would really like to believe.”

That is what separates real scholarship from its disreputable distant cousins.

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  • MesKalamDug

    Once again I refer you to Islam. Almost fifty years ago John Wansbrough published his pioneering reconstruction of early Islam. Once could not ask for a more scholarly presentation. There has been considerable discussion and opinion
    has divided into three camps – Pious Islam which rejects Wansbrough lock stock
    and barrel, Skeptics who more or less follow Wansbrough and the majority of
    western scholars who find Wansbrough too radical to stomach but nowadays
    always write with one eye aimed at Wansbrough even if they do not mention him.
    This particular argument has probably not even reached its peak yet. And, due to the fear Islam inspires, has not always been carried on in scholarly ways.

  • philipjenkins

    Wansbrough fits exactly into the model I suggest here: you may not agree with him, but he asked some wonderful questions that drove research and debate.

  • MesKalamDug

    I agree with JW about 95%. I do not accept his theory that the
    Quran was formulated I-am-not sure-where and explained (tafsir) in Iraq in such a way as to give it an origin in the Hajiz that it did not actually have. I do understand where he got such an idea.

    And I date the canonization of the Quran 25 years earlier than he does – to the reign of Harun. Among other points I observe that earlier Caliphs went on Hajj once or twice, but Harun went ten times and no Caliph after him ever went. Islamic piety jumped the shark with Harun. Harun lived a generation or more before solid Islamic history begins so the truth would be easy to lose.

  • James or Not

    I’m afraid you are still preaching (teaching) to the choir. As clear and compelling as your arguments may be, the “faithful” will reject or ignore them, mainly because they do not challenge an epistemology based on personal “revelation” as opposed to evidence. That type of experiential “knowledge” feels amazingly good and is like a powerful drug. ( or may be, like oxytocin, an actual drug).

  • philipjenkins

    You don’t think that if they read the truth framed in sound academic form, they will immediately abandon error?


  • James or Not

    Deep sigh.

  • Charlie Johnson

    Suggestion: Find some way to link the posts in this series into a clear sequence.

    I really like this series but don’t check the blog every day. It’s hard to tell if I missed something or in what order posts are intended to be read. Also, people in the future will probably find these posts helpful but will need a guide through them.

    Great work.

  • philipjenkins

    You are so right about the problem, and I wish I had the tech ability to solve it!

  • Joseph M

    There is of course always the problem of what evidence you are considering and consider valid.

    See for example the debate between physical and linguistic anthropologists on new world settlement patterns and ages.

  • philipjenkins

    I appreciate the cite to an interesting article! Lots of challenging questions.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Your articles on what constitutes proper scholarship and why have been excellent. Keep up the great work.

  • philipjenkins

    and thank you!

  • JohnH2

    You are saying that you have adademic knowledge of Christ but not a knowledge born from the Spirit? Clearly then you know nothing of the things of God and can know nothing of the things of God according to what Paul teaches.

    If you want to say that we should have both and that they shouldn’t contradict, then I agree with you, and so I still believe in the Book of Mormon, while also being familiar with New World archeology and as I have repeatedly stated, if we had the plate for the Book of Mormon alone, just that and nothing else as of yet, that would be sufficient from an academic standpoint and scholars would be attempting to figure out how what is in the ancient text relates to New World archeological finds and where the text took place.

  • Steven James Whitmer

    Recognizing that this comment is not particularly relevant or valuable to this post, I need a space to “vent” re the “debate” between Jenkins and Hamblin about BOM historicity. You are free to ignore, block or delete, but since Hamblin refuses to accept comments, and more relevant Jenkins posts appear to be closed to comments, I find no other choice. (1) I have had to quit reading Hamblin on this (so called) debate because it is like watching a mouse being tortured by a cat, just psychologically painful. Why didn’t Hamblin quit long ago and try to retain some dignity? (2) Why are you, Prof. Jenkins, lowering yourself to his level? Yes, you have exercised extreme restraint and decency, but, while amusing, this is a waste of your obviously superior intellect and forensic skill. I would much rather see you debate Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris on the existence of God, if it could be arranged. Though I must admit I wonder, in such a debate, if you might not find yourself more sympathetic to Hamblin’s current plight. If my comments constitute “trolling”, I apologize, but I feel better none the less.

  • philipjenkins

    I have no idea why any comments sections should be closed, and I am writing right now to find out what is happening.

    And you are absolutely not trolling.

  • JohnH2

    Hamblin’s usual rule is that he wants full names or the commenter is banned regardless of the comment made and he often closes comments sections.

  • philipjenkins

    As to my own blog: May I just repeat that I have NOT NOT closed comments sections on any posts here, and I am trying to find out what the $#@*% has happened. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.

  • Steven James Whitmer

    It could be that I just don’t know what I am doing when trying to comment on you’re older blog posts. It wouldn’t be the first time I was confused by technology protocol.

  • philipjenkins

    No no, you were dead right. The Patheos techies are still working on it. But it was certainly no decision of mine.