Tag Archives: north america

A Milanese friar mentions North America in 1345 text, 150 years before Columbus

Despite pervasive myths, Cristopher Columbus was not the first European to discover and explore North America. We know from the Sagas of Icelanders, confirmed by archaeological evidence, that Vikings traveled from Scandinavia to Newfoundland via Greenland from around 999 AD. Some more informed Europeans, including perhaps Columbus himself, weren’t oblivious to this fact.

Painting depicting Vikings landing in North America. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In a new study, Paolo Chiesa of the department of literary studies at the University of Milan has documented the first written mention of America in the Mediterranean area. The researcher was stunned to come across a reference to a “terra que dicitur Marckalada,” found west from Greenland, in the work called Cronica universalis written by the Milanese friar Galvaneus Flamma in 1345.

“Galvaneus’s reference, probably derived by oral sources heard in Genoa, is the first mention of the American continent in the Mediterranean region, and gives evidence of the circulation (out of the Nordic area and 150 years before Columbus) of narratives about lands beyond Greenland,” Chiesa wrote in the study published in the Journal of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Marckalada refers to Markland, the name Icelandic sources give to a part of the Atlantic coast of North America. The mention of Markland occurs in the third book, which discusses the third age of humankind from Abraham to David. At one point, the Middle Age author “inserts a long geographical excursus, mainly dealing with exotic areas: the Far East, Arctic lands, Oceanic islands, Africa,” Chiesa says.

In his texts, the Milanese friar employs a variety of sources, ranging from biblical to scholarly treatises, including the accounts of travelers the likes of Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone. Galvaneus ascribed his description of Markland to the oral testimony of sailors who traveled the seas of Denmark and Norway, which was most likely passed down to the friar by seafarers in Genoa. The port of Genoa was the nearest to Milan and was the city where the medieval scholar studied for his doctorate.

The full-text mentioning Markland, what we now know as North America, was translated from Latin to English and reads as follows:

“Further northwards there is the Ocean, a sea with many islands where a great quantity of peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons live. These islands are located so far north that the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. Sailors who frequent the seas of Denmark and Norway say that northwards, beyond Norway, there is Iceland; further ahead there is an island named Grolandia, where the Polar Star remains behind you, toward the south. The governor of this island is a bishop. In this land, there is neither wheat nor wine nor fruit; people live on milk, meat, and fish. They dwell in subterranean houses and do not venture to speak loudly or to make any noise, for fear that wild animals hear and devour them. There live huge white bears, which swim in the sea and bring shipwrecked sailors to the shore. There live white falcons capable of great flights, which are sent to the emperor of Katai. Further westwards there is another land, named Marckalada, where giants live; in this land, there are buildings with such huge slabs of stone that nobody could build with them, except huge giants. There are also green trees, animals and a great quantity of birds. However, no sailor was ever able to know anything for sure about this land or about its features.

“From all these facts it is clear that there are settlements at the Arctic pole.”

Navigation routes Vikings took to reach Newfoundland.

The mentions of America are vague compared to those of Iceland and Greenland and even involves myth and hyperbole such as the land “where giants live”. This mention is likely owed to Galvaneus’ second-hand sources. For instance, Chiesa mentions in the study that the “huge stones” reference may recall the description of Helluland in the Eiríks saga rauða and in the Grœnlendinga Saga, which mention that Thorfinn Karlsefni “found many slabs of stones so huge that two men could stretch out on them sole to sole.” Giants are also common in Old Norse epic traditions.

Even the fact that the friar knew about Greenland in such stunning detail, a region that was very obscure to most 14th-century people living in south-central Europe, is very remarkable.

“Although the papal curia was aware of the existence of Greenland since the eleventh century, Galvaneus is the first to give some information about its features in the Italian area, and, more generally, in a Latin “scientific” and encyclopedic work, as his Cronica universalis claims to be,” the study mentions.

Columbus himself was a Genoese and these amazing descriptions may explain why the explorer was so daring in his plan to set off across the ocean when most of his contemporaries found the idea mad. Perhaps Columbus, like Galvaneus, was connected to sources that informed him that an entire continent may be found if he just sailed far enough west.

There’s a knowledge gap on effects of microplastics in North America, study finds

The world is becoming increasingly aware of the negative effects of plastics in marine ecosystems. But North America faces a challenge it’s not really familiar with: its understanding of the effects of microplastics on fisheries and humans is less than in other continents, a study showed.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Plastics represent up to 95% of all waste in global oceans and on beaches, and the amount that enters the marine environment grows every year. Plastics never really go away, they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces, until they become what’s known as microplastics. Microplastics have been found in surface water, sediments and in marine organisms, but also in tap water and even in humans. There are warranted fears that microplastics represent a threat to all marine ecosystems as well as human health — and it’s a threat we weren’t aware of until recently.

A group of researchers at Portland State University (PSU), Oregon State University (OSU), and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNC-W) looked at microplastics studies on commercially important fishery species published before March 1, 2019.

Most of the studies found were from Europe, Asia, and South America. This shows, researchers argued, that more research is needed to establish the prevalence, physiological effects, and population‐level implications of microplastics in commercial species from Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

“Because seafood — both aquacultured and wild-caught — are so important to the human diet and culture, it’s really important to investigate microplastics specifically on our continent and not relying on data from another part of the world because environmental conditions can be very different,” said Britta Baechler, a Ph.D. student in PSU’s Earth, Environment and Society program.

In the US, microplastic effects have been researched in only three of the top 10 commercial finfish species. This means more studies are needed to understand microplastic exposure and effects in a larger group of commercially harvested finfish and shellfish species.

Researchers also said there should be more studies that focused on the effects of microplastics on populations or food webs, addressing the current knowledge gap. This could help fisheries and aquaculture managers to predict much better potential population-level issues associated with increased exposure to microplastics.

Finally, the study argued there should be more work on the role of microplastic as an environmental stressor. Oceans are already being threatened by growing temperatures and acidification because of climate change so it would be valuable to understand better those impacts in relation to microplastics.

“We think of North America as a hotspot for scientific research, yet in terms of understanding microplastics — both contamination in our commercial fishery species and understanding effects, we’re lagging far behind,” said Elise Granek, a professor of environmental science and management in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

What do we know about microplastics?

Microplastics are not only found in the marine environment. They are also eaten by hundreds of species around the world. A 2015 study showed over 690 species had encounters with marine waste through entanglement and ingestion, with 92% of those encounters involving plastic.

The main way organismal microplastic exposure happens is when they are eaten by mistake, thinking they are prey items, or by eating contaminated prey items. Consumed microplastics can transfer across trophic levels and may in predators.

Microplastics have been detected in seafood intended for human consumption. Shellfish, small fish, bivalves, and echinoderms may pose the greatest risks to human consumers because they are usually eaten whole. Only one report has examined human faeces finding that samples contained up to nine different types of plastic

A 15,000 year old stemmed point. Credit: Texas A&M University.

Scientists find oldest weapons in North America, questioning the timeline of the continent’s colonization

A 15,000 year old stemmed point. Credit: Texas A&M University.

A 15,000-year-old stemmed point. Credit: Texas A&M University.

While digging at a site in Central Texas, archaeologists have come across a stockpile of ancient weapons. Dating of the sediment from which the spears and other tools were unearthed suggests the artifacts are 15,500 years old. That’s much older than artifacts found at Clovis sites, long believed to be the first culture that colonized the Americas.

Different shape, different timeline

The projectile points found at the Debra L. Friedkin site in Texas are made of chert. What’s immediately apparent is that their shape is very distinct from the Clovis-style lanceolate (leaf-shaped) fluted projectile point with concave bases. Instead, the newly-identified technology features triangular projectiles.

“There is no doubt these weapons were used for hunting game in the area at that time,” said Michael Waters, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “The discovery is significant because almost all pre-Clovis sites have stone tools, but spear points have yet to be found. These points were found under a layer with Clovis and Folsom projectile points. Clovis is dated to 13,000 to 12,700 years ago and Folsom after that. The dream has always been to find diagnostic artifacts – such as projectile points – that can be recognized as older than Clovis and this is what we have at the Friedkin site.”

Water and colleagues uncovered a staggering trove of 100,000 artifacts, including 328 tools and 12 complete and fragmented projectile points. Using optically stimulated luminescence on sediments — a dating method that measures the amount of light emitted from energy stored in certain rock types and derived soils — they determined the artifacts were between 13,500 and 15,500 years old.

Other projectiles found at the Friedkin site.

Other projectiles found at the Friedkin site.

It’s possible that the weapons were fashioned by people belonging to an earlier, separate migration into the Americas. The earliest artifacts belonging to the Clovis culture, a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, are dated to about 13,000 years ago — this evidence was previously thought to reflect the earliest occupation of the Americas. It is thought that the Clovis arrived in North America via an ice-free corridor through glacier-covered Alaska and western Canada.

Clovis points are found in association with the bones of Ice Age animals in sites in many areas of North America and document both the importance of big game hunting and the effectiveness of early Palaeo weaponry. The species exploited included mammoths, who grazed on the tundra grasses and mastodons who browsed on the spruce needles. Giant, long-horned bison provided a secondary food source.

There’s another distinct style of spear point technology, the Western Stemmed Tradition, whose points were leaf-shaped like Clovis, but which were tapered at the base instead of being fluted. The oldest Western Stemmed Tradition artifacts are dated to close to the earliest ones of the Clovis variety, circa 13,000 years ago. Some archaeologists argue that Western Stemmed Tradition precedes Clovis.

Excavations at the Debra L. Friedkin site 2016. Credit: Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University.

Excavations at the Debra L. Friedkin site 2016. Credit: Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University.

Scientists have always wondered if there was any connection between Clovis and Western Stemmed Tradition cultures. The new study certainly complicates things, suggesting that the technology found at Friedkin was a precursor. Alternatively, Clovis and Western Stemmed Tradition may have appeared from a second wave of migration that brought with it the leaf-shaped points.

More excavations and alternative dating methods of Friedkin artifacts might shed more light on the matter.

“The findings expand our understanding of the earliest people to explore and settle North America,” Waters said. “The peopling of the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age was a complex process and this complexity is seen in their genetic record. Now we are starting to see this complexity mirrored in the archaeological record.”

Scientific reference: Michael R. Waters et al. Pre-Clovis projectile points at the Debra L. Friedkin site, Texas—Implications for the Late Pleistocene peopling of the Americas, Science Advances (2018).

north american settlers archaeology

Found: oldest settlement in North America, confirms local tribe history

When Alisha Gauvreau, an anthropology PhD student at the University of Victoria started excavating a rocky spit on Triquet Island, some 500 kilometers northwest of Victoria, she didn’t really know what to expect, but this definitely surpassed even her most ambitious expectations.

north american settlers archaeology

The first North American settlers might have arrived on the coast and not on a frozen land bridge through Siberia, as was previously believed. Image via Wikipedia.

The archaeological team patiently dug and then sifted through meters upon meters of soil and peat, before they finally found something interesting: the charred remains of an ancient hearth. As it so often happens, that’s just the start of interesting things. Not long after that, Gauvreau and collaborators found a trove of items, including tools for lighting fires, fish hooks, and spears, all dating back from 14,000 years ago.

“I remember when we get the dates back and we just kind of sat there going, holy moly, this is old,” said Gauvreau.“What this is doing is just changing our idea of the way in which North America was first peopled.”

The findings tell an interesting story, that of an early migration occurring on British Columbia’s ancient coastline, and challenges some of the most widely-held beliefs about humans migrating to North America. The classic story is that humans arrived some 13,000 or 14,000 years ago, crossing a land bridge that connected modern-day Siberia to Alaska. But more and more research is starting to challenge that belief. The challenging theory is that people arrived on the coast, settling down on a coastal strip of land that did not freeze during the ice age. In a radio interview with the CBC, Gauvreau says that her research adds significant weight to that idea.

“[A]rchaeologists had long thought that … the coast would have been completely uninhabitable and impassible when that is very clearly not the case,” she explains.

To make things even more interesting, these findings support the ancient, oral, histories of aboriginals. The Heiltsuk people are the descendants of a number of tribal groups who came together Bella in the 19th century. For countless generations, Heiltsuk First Nation elders have told the story about how their ancestors arrived in the area, on the coast.

“[I]t reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years,” William Housty, a member of Heiltsuk Nation, proudly stated.

Now, anthropologists and archaeologists want to explore more of the coast and the coastal islands, to further document how the migration happened.

Credit: CHRIS BUZELLI, Nautilus.

First humans might have arrived in North America 10,000 years earlier during the Last Glacial Maximum

Credit: CHRIS BUZELLI, Nautilus.

Credit: CHRIS BUZELLI, Nautilus.

Anthropologists agree that the first human settlers arrived in North America from Asia through Beringia, a vast region stretching from the Lena River in Siberia to the Mackenzie River in the Yukon Territory. These ‘first people’ originated in Siberia, according to palaeogenetic analyses, but it’s still unclear when the first wave of migration happened. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest humans crossed a small land bridge between Siberia and Alaska some 14,000 years ago during the last glacial period. However, a new study that analyzed artifacts collected at the Bluefish Caves suggests the dispersal might have first started during the Last Glacial Maximum, some 25,000 years ago.

Bones don’t lie

The Bluefish Caves, a site consisting of three small caves located in the northern Yukon, first came into the limelight when excavations performed between 1977 and 1987 made a case the site was occupied by humans during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). The hypothesis, however, did not stand up to scrutiny and proved controversial. No other sites of similar age were found in Beringia and some scientists disputed the dating, as well as the anthropogenic signature of the bones found there.

Canadian researchers from the University of Montreal revisited the “Beringian standstill hypothesis” and performed  taphonomic analyses of the fauna remains unearthed from the caves beneath a layer of  loess —  “fine particles of aeolian silt which should not produce scratches on bones but can lead to polished surfaces,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in PLOS One. A taphonomic analysis establishes the conditions under which an organism decayed or became fossilized.

The various bones retrieved from the cave were analyzed one by one and cataloged into two groups: those whose alterations were clearly made by natural processes (biological agents, weathering, fractures by large canids, rockfall etc.) and those which bear evidence of potential cultural modification.

Cut marks on the medial side, under the third and second molars, are associated with the removal of the tongue using a stone tool. Credit: PLOS One.

Cut marks on the medial side, under the third and second molars, are associated with the removal of the tongue using a stone tool. Credit: PLOS One.

For a bone modification to be identified as a cut mark — and hence evidence of ancient human presence at the Bluefish Caves — it had to fulfill all of the following criteria: shape, trajectory, number of striae, shoulder effect and shoulder flaking, internal microstriations, anatomical location and orientation.

All in all, some 36,000 mammal bones were analyzed by the Canadian researchers, mostly belonging to wolves, lions and, to a lesser degree, foxes. The researchers reckon the caves were probably used as den sites for Ursids in winter and Canids in spring and summer, while the human occupation of the caves was probably sporadic and brief.

Though biological agents and carnivore tooth marks plagued most of these samples, a total of 15 bone samples with cultural modifications confidently attributable to human activities were identified. Another two dozen bones bearing ‘probable’ alterations made by humans suggest less than 1% of the faunal remains fall into this category.

Radiocarbon dating of six cut-marked bones revealed these are between 12,000 and 24,000 years old, which is consistent with previous estimates of Bluefish Caves remains. The oldest bone is a horse mandible found buried in basal loess, at a depth of 142 cm.

“It is highly unlikely that the cut marks observed on the Bluefish Caves faunal material were generated by nonhuman agents or natural processes,” the researchers reported.

“In conclusion, while the Yana River sites indicate a human presence in Western Beringia ca. 32,000 cal BP (calibrated years Before Present), the Bluefish Caves site proves that people were in Eastern Beringia during the LGM, by at least 24,000 cal BP, thus providing long-awaited archaeological support for the “Beringian standstill hypothesis”. According to this hypothesis, a human population genetically isolated existed in Beringia from about 15,000 to 23,000 cal BP, or possibly earlier, before dispersing into North and eventually South America after the LGM,” they added.

“By around 15–14,000 cal BP an ice-free corridor formed between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets potentially allowing humans to disperse from Beringia to continental North America; arguably, this corridor wouldn’t have been biologically viable for human migration before ca. 13–12,500 cal BP, however. It is now more widely recognized that the first inhabitants of Beringia probably dispersed along a Pacific coastal route, possibly as early as ca. 16,000 cal BP, and settled south of the ice sheets before the ice-free corridor became a viable route.”

Judging from the evidence, it seems likely that the Bluefish Caves represent the oldest known archaeological site in North America, which would support the standstill hypothesis. The findings don’t contradict previous migration theories into North America. The bulk of humans going south into continental North America, then further south into Central and South America, likely started 14,000 years ago. Meanwhile, dispersed and small populations sporadically might have occupied Eastern Beringia.

The dead center of North America is serendipitously located in a small town called Center, North Dakota

Credit: Travel Blog.

Credit: Travel Blog.

Peter Rogerson, a professor of geography at the University at Buffalo in New York, claims he’s found North America’s bull’s eye. According to his calculations based on a novel method Rogerson developed, the center of the continent lies in a North Dakota town called Center. The town’s 570 people residents now have a reason to rejoice for few can boast they live in the very heart of the continent.

Balancing North America on the tip of a needle

Since the 1930s, geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have tried to establish the continent’s center with limited success. Beyond the technical challenges, it wasn’t always clear how to draw the boundaries of the continent. Should we take into account only the landmass of North America or also its islands? What method should we use?

In a 1964 report, the USGS seemed to have completely given up after it stated: “There is no generally accepted definition of geographic center, and no completely satisfactory method for determining it.” The USGS isn’t alone either. Many distinguished researchers echoed much of the same sentiment, but that didn’t keep Rogerson from trying.

“There are all these people out there saying, ‘There’s no real good way to do this,’” says Rogerson, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of geography in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “As a geographer, my feeling is that if we want to come up with a good way of defining a center, we can and we should.”

One early method of establishing a geographic center involved balancing a cardboard cutout of a region on the tip of a needle-like point. Some might find this funny, but I actually think it’s very ingenious. We can all agree, however, that it can’t be accurate when attempting to find the center of a continent with confidence.

This is one of the reasons why the center of North America was moved by the USGS from Rugby, North Dakota (population 2,900), which was initially given the crown in 1931, to a small lake 20 miles southwest of Rugby in 1995. Suffice to say, the residents of Rugby were not happy at all having lost a sense of civic pride, but also tourism income.

Nope, not anymore. Sorry, Rugby!

Nope, not anymore. Sorry, Rugby!

The success of Rogerson’s technique depends on two key things. Firstly, like other models before him, Rogerson defines a geographic center as the spatial equivalent of the center of gravity in physics, meaning its location minimizes the sum of the squared distances to all other points in a region. Secondly, a good map projection is of the essence, meaning transferring the 3-D sphere that is our planet to a 2-D map. For his calculation, the geologist used the azimuthal equidistant map projection, which can preserve many important characteristics of 3-D objects when projected as a flat, 2-D surface.

It was then a matter of plugging the projection into a computer program which can find the centroids of 2-D polygons. Eventually, the model outputted the location of Center, North Dakota as the dead center of the continent. The town which was founded in 1902 got its name from its location near the geographical center of Oliver County. Apparently, it’s the exact center of North America which sounds a lot more fitting.

Previously, in 2015, Rogerson made a list of the centers for each U.S. state using this method. Back then, he took into account both land and interior waters, like lakes, as well as islands. For the center of North America, however, Rogerson used only the main landmass of the continent, ignoring the outlying islands.

Yet despite using state of the art topographic data and computers, the true center of North America might not exactly Center, North Dakota. For instance, Rogerson said his calculations consider the Earth as a sphere when in reality it’s slightly ellipsoidal.

A lot of people won’t mind, though (unless you’re from Rugby, North Dakota), and we can expect thousands of geography buffs to flock to Center just to take a selfie.

“It’s quirky. I think some people are just really interested in facts and the details of things,” Rogerson says. “For some people, the obsession is sports statistics, and for some people, it’s places.”

Photo: Texas A&M Universit

Skeleton remains prove first North American settlers came from Asia

The genome sequence of the Ice Age skeletal remains of a 1-year-old boy gave scientists tantalizing proof that the first settlers in North American originated in Asia, and not from Europe as some theories might suggest. The boy belong to a group of people known as the Clovis, the direct ancestors of modern day North American natives.

The remains of the Clovis child were first unearthed in 1968 near a rock cliff in Montana. At the burial site, thought to be some 12,600 years old, anthropologists also found 100 artifacts, including spear points and antler tools. In fact, the Clovis culture is widely known and recognized for its prolific use of tools. They’re the inventors of the the ‘Clovis point,’ a spear-shaped weapon made of stone that is found in Texas and other portions of the United States and northern Mexico. These weapons were used to hunt animals, including mammoths and mastodons, from 13,000 to 12,600 years ago.

Photo: Texas A&M Universit

Photo: Texas A&M Universit

Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of First Americans at Texas A&M, is part of the team that sequenced the genome of the skeleton remains. The analysis, by now standard, showed that the child and its forefathers no less, originated from Asia. This was widely considered of course, the leading theory being that ancient North American ancestors arrived at the continent by crossing a link between Asia and Alaska.

“We hope that this study leads to more cooperation between Native Americans and scientists. This is just one human genome. We need to know the genetic story of modern Native peoples and derive more genetic data from ancient remains to fully understand the origins and movements of the First Americans and their descendants,” Waters adds.

The Crow Tribe will oversee the the reburial of the remains in accordance with Native rituals in the near future, Waters also said.

“The genetic information provided by the Anzick boy is also part of the larger story of modern humans. We know that modern humans originated in Africa and then around 50,000 years ago spread rapidly over Europe and Asia.  The last continent explored and settled by modern humans were the Americas.  In essence, the Anzick boy tells us about the epic journey of our species,” he adds.