In the Shadow of the Sabertooth

Recently I’ve started reading “In the Shadow of the Sabertooth” By Doug Peacock, a short ramble about “Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene.”

My aunt warned me when she passed it along that the subject matter was fascinating, but that she was not a fan of Peacock’s writing style.

I’m about a third of the way in, and I can see what she meant. It reads like a top-notch blog series, but not quite like a book. There’s a certain amount of repetition and slight lack of coherence. Louise’s exasperated comments in the margins also contribute to the “bloggy” feel.

At any rate, I share Doug’s enthusiasm for early human exploration and, polished or not, I’ve been enjoying the read.

Peacock has a funny way of telling the story of the first Americans. He is very up-front in telling the reader that there are multiple possible scenarios including several over Beringia, a Pacific oceanic route, as well as the Atlantic route. He goes into a certain degree of detail with all of them, but when he goes into storytelling mode he presents the Beringian hypothesis not as the most mainstream theory but as undeniable truth. As a recent reader of “Across Atlantic Ice” I find these unequivocal storytelling sections frustrating to read.

However, he is very fair overall, and I appreciate the amount of research that comes through.

One tidbit in particular caught my eye yesterday. On page 72 we hear

“Early DNA analyses implied an entry date as old as 36,000 years ago.
A more recent DNA study concludes that the First Americans hit Alaska 30,000 years ago, lingered in Beringia for perhaps another 15,000 years, then headed southward.”

And then on 73 “Other estimates of arrival times derived from mitochondrial DNA range from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.”

And “Linguistic modeling infers that about 35,000 years would be required for the divergence of the complex of American languages and dialects.”

Peacock more or less sticks to the conventional model: “Perhaps a few hunters came to America after 30,000 years ago, but not much happened until about 15,000 years ago.”

I feel compelled to (re) offer another scenario which would might fit the genetic and linguistic timeline.

Around 35,000 years ago, a new group of humans exploded onto the scene. I think it’s likely that they had one or two special genetic adaptations which I will explore in another post, but their primary advantages were cultural.

Leveraging these cultural advantages and following herds of migrating mammals, they quickly spread themselves across the globe – so quickly in fact that they managed to reach North America from both sides before any other group was anywhere close.

Thus the 30-35,000 year span suggested by the genetic and linguistic data might not reflect branching occurring only within the Americas, but a branching that occurred as one group headed into Europe and another to Asia.

These groups were wildly successful hunters and world class explorers, but, while they lived in denser groups than their neanderthal predecessors, they were spread somewhat thinly. Eventually they were displaced from many of the most attractive locations by less adventuresome groups who were willing to make more of their living at a lower trophic level.

Thus these original populations hung on only in harsher or less accessible environments – Siberia, Mongolia, Finland, and, for many thousands of years, the Americas.

I don’t think it takes anything away from first nations groups to suggest that some of their ancestors might have come by a different route. In this case, I would say coming by way of Europe doesn’t make you “European”.

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