Ice Bridge: The Impossible Journey (2018) - full transcript

Is it possible that Ice Age people succeeded in crossing the frozen Atlantic Ocean to North America, thousands of years before the Vikings and Columbus? Two archaeologists believe so after discovering artifacts in Chesapeake Bay t...

Did ice age people,

thousands of years before
Columbus and the Vikings,

make an epic journey to cross
a freezing Atlantic ocean...

This is a very different concept

of where people may have come from.

To become the first humans in America,

far earlier than anyone thought...

These people were here,

and they were here in great numbers.

Encountering a vast new continent

and its fearful creatures.

It's a radically controversial idea.

It's a romantic story,

but it doesn't hold up to the evidence.


or a breathtaking new reality?

A 20,000-year-old mystery

in a terrifying world of ice.

North America, 20,000 years ago.

An ice age wilderness where beasts rule.

The short-faced bear...

The American cave lion...

The giant sloth.

But no humans.

Or so we have long thought.

In 2012, on an island
off the east coast of Maryland,

a team of archaeologists found
something that astonished them.

It was a stone spear point

sticking out of a layer of coastal cliff.

Archaeologist Dennis Stanford
analyzed the find.

He immediately saw its unusual features.

This is a biface,

uh, very thin,

it's been resharpened a couple times,

with about this much of it
sticking out of the bank.

Biface meant

the stone point had been
sharpened on both sides...

Evidence of an ancient people

capable of making sophisticated tools.

And it was not the only one.

And here's another biface.

We have done some blood residue
analysis on this artifact,

and as it turns out,
it's got buffalo blood on it.

Both of these were coming out
of that soil horizon,

the very surface of it.

The chesapeake site

turned out to be a treasure trove.

Bifaces, projectile points, blades.

17 individual finds in all.

But most exciting was the date.

Local archaeologists calculated

that the soil layer

the spear point was found in

was around 20,000 years old.

Dennis Stanford believed
this allowed him to date

the stone tools and weapons as well.

What's really exciting

and really interesting

about these new finds we're
making here on the chesapeake

is that they're around 20,000 years old.

If this dating turned out to be true,

they were here in chesapeake bay
around 5,000 years earlier

than humans are supposed
to have arrived in America.

It challenged
everything we thought we knew

about the first native Americans...

Who they were,

where they came from,

how they got here,

and when they arrived.

The long-accepted theory
is that the first Americans

traveled on foot across beringia,

a bridge of land...
Now the Bering strait...

That once connected Asia
to North America.

What we believe

is that native Americans
entered the continent

sometime maybe around
15,000, 16,000 years ago,

and that the first migration

must have been along the west coast

because we have native Americans
down in South America,

quite far,

about 15,000 years ago.

The 2012 chesapeake discoveries,

if confirmed, would mean
a much earlier migration

on a completely different route.

What's changed

is we now have things
that are 6,000 years older

on the eastern side of North America.

Now, this doesn't work at all
with the old theory.

From there comes the obvious question...

Where did these people come from?

For Bruce Bradley,

himself an expert re-creator of
ancient stone tools and weapons,

the origin of these
20,000-year-old tool makers

became a worldwide quest.

But instead of looking west...

The traditionally accepted route...

He looked east,

straight across the Atlantic
from the chesapeake bay.

A cave in the pyrenees mountains

on the borders
of today's France and Spain.

20,000 years ago.

The ice age.

Home to a people of enormous ingenuity...

The solutreans.

They were primarily hunters.

We know that they were hunting
reindeer, sometimes horses.

They developed
what we call a spear thrower,

which has an incredible advantage

in terms of velocity and killing power

than from the hand.

If you do that with a spear thrower,

it's up to 100 times more force.

The tools they made

are what define their culture today.

They innovated a lot of different things

that we see as technologies

that the other people didn't do.

One of the innovations

is a needle that has an eye in it.

The development of an eye needle

makes sewing much more efficient.

That's something that becomes
very dominant and widespread

after that development.

The eyed needle

allowed solutreans to make
finely stitched clothing...

Essential for warmth in an ice age.

The solutreans lived 4,000 miles
and an ocean away

from the chesapeake,

around 22,000 to 17,000 years ago.

We still don't know why they died out,

but their mastery of this long-ago world

depended on one thing above all others...

Manufacturing the stone weapons

that allowed them to hunt and kill.

If you say the word
solutrean to an archaeologist,

this is the tool
that often comes to mind,

this bi-pointed knife-like tool.

What's often extremely respected

is to have something this long and wide

that's this thin.

The solutreans' unique innovation

was what is now known
as overshot flaking.

They struck stone with
incredible precision,

causing fractures that fan out
from the point of impact.

They endlessly repeated this

to create a leaf-shaped weapon

sharper and thinner than any before.

For Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford,

the solutrean tools were a revelation.

The similarities with the finds
in the chesapeake bay

seemed overwhelming.

This is a cast of a solutrean biface,

and this is one from the chesapeake.

They match in terms of shape,

method of manufacture,

size, and use.

And we're getting
a lot of these artifacts.

Yeah, this projectile point,

it's a broken base from the chesapeake,

and this is one from France.

Actually, look at that.

They're almost identical.

And that was a conundrum.

You know, what in the heck
is going on here?

Could this happen accidentally?

We argue no, absolutely
it couldn't be unrelated.

Stanford and Bradley had found a match.

But it seemed to defy logic.

Simple geography means

the solutreans could only
have traveled to America

from the wrong direction,

arriving not on its west coast

but its east.

That would mean ice age people

succeeded in crossing the Atlantic

many thousands of years before
the Vikings and Columbus.

Why would they even attempt
such a dangerous journey?

The solutrean hunting grounds
in this ice world

were full of menace

and competition.

Starvation threatened
both humans and animals.

Could it be that
the nearby ocean and ice,

with their potential harvest
of fish and seabirds,

were not a threat,

but an opportunity?

And that a single step into that ocean

eventually led to a new world
4,000 miles away?

Solutrean people,

like many other people in the world,

wouldn't just sit around
and get either conquered

or die out from starvation.

They're going to, like the rest of us,

have that drive to survive.

And to survive,

they would not need
to cross an open ocean.

The ice age formed a 1,200-mile bridge

between the continents.

So, Dennis Stanford and I

came up with this hypothesis

that people came across
the North Atlantic

about 20,000 years ago.

The solutreans could have traveled west

across the ice bridge

or along the edge of the ice
from Europe to North America.

And established themselves here.

This is a very different concept

of where people may have come from.

Announcing this idea

put Stanford and Bradley
out on a serious limb.

They met a chorus of opposition
from mainstream archaeologists.

First, said the critics,

the chesapeake bay site
was too messy to prove anything.

What we have is
just the harvesting of artifacts

from a cut bank surface

or artifacts that have
already fallen, you know,

out of that cliff surface.

Then another chorus
of mainstream geneticists

voiced its disapproval.

Every line of evidence from every field

is supporting the model

that people came here
from beringia, not Europe.

Above all,

the whole idea of
a transatlantic ice crossing

seemed preposterous.

There is no evidence whatsoever for boats

or early use of boats.

It was an idea
that could change human history.

But no one believed them.

Five years later, they return
to the chesapeake bay,

determined to confound the critics

and show that a supposedly
impossible journey

really happened.

Southwest France, 20,000 years ago.

A cave once lived in
by a group of families

from a people called solutreans.

A people who, according
to a revolutionary idea

posed by two archaeologists,

will cross the Atlantic

to become the first native Americans.

The solutrean people
were really quite advanced.

They did cave art.

Primarily they were illustrating animals,

but sometimes just handprints.

Dennis Stanford's
collaborator, Bruce Bradley,

joins land-owner joelle darricau
inside isturitz cave

to see an astonishing
piece of ancient art.

This is just phenomenal.

It's overwhelming.

Bradley needs evidence

that the solutreans might have been more

than just forest hunters.

Wow, that's incredible.

A fish associated with deer.

That's really interesting.

In many cultures, salmon are very special

because they live both
in the sea and in the rivers.

It might indicate
a connection with the ocean.

It's the first link

between the solutreans and the sea.

But you don't need to cross an ocean

to fish for salmon.

Another solutrean cave,
on the south coast of France,

holds an even stronger clue.

It's a painting of a giant sea bird

called the great auk.

The great auk was a beautiful bird.

I mean, it was a large bird.

You know, weighed about 10 pounds.

It would have been this big.

It had a white spot on the forehead,

and it had this beautiful
black sheath over its bill.

The great auk was 30 inches tall

and could swim, but not fly.

For an ice hunter,
it was the perfect prey.

The great auk has a huge breast muscle,

you know, on a 10-pound bird,

so probably something like
having a 10-pound Turkey.

It has a lot of oil...

The same as a seal would.

So it's probably very nutritious food.

Auks were good swimmers

but clumsy on land.

And despite appearances,
no relation to the penguin.

They were hunted to extinction
in the 19th century.

But during solutrean times,

their abundance made them irresistible...

Worth venturing
far into the ocean to hunt.

There were a lot of them,

tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands.

It would be like a bird city.

It's the density that's overwhelming.

You'd be awestruck.

How could you not see

this massive grocery store
out there on the edge of the ice

and not say, okay, it's worth the risk?

All you got to do is follow the food.

I turn the question around all the time.

Not why would they;

why wouldn't they?

As they ventured farther and farther out,

were the solutreans also headed
to the coast of a new continent?

Five years after finding the tools

that match solutrean technology,

the team of archaeologists
returns to the chesapeake bay,

determined to answer their critics.

The vast majority of archaeologists

in both the new world and the old world

do not accept that people
crossed the North Atlantic.

You need solid, unequivocal evidence

to make any kind of interpretation.

To prove the skeptics wrong,

they need to find
this irrefutable evidence...

Fragments of boats
the solutreans crossed in,

or encampments they lived in

before any other humans came to America.

But the team is in a race against time.

Every day, the eroding cliffs
are slipping away.

And so that in itself...

Watch out, guys.


- Oh, my gosh.
- Are you okay?

I think everybody needs
to stay away from the wall.

Just the vibration of it...
I can see cracking in here.

Will they find the evidence they need,

or will their theory be washed away?

The chesapeake bay, 2017.

A team of archaeologists
races to find proof

that the first Americans
came not from Asia,

but from Europe...

Across thousands of miles
of freezing ocean.

The problem is

that the main evidence for their theory

is stone tools,

and stone cannot be dated.

What can be dated, by radiocarbon,

is charcoal...

The remains of wood burned by humans.

And that means finding a fire-pit...

What archeologists call a hearth.

Finding a hearth is really important

because we don't know where that
charcoal actually came from,

whether it was flowed in, blown in.

What we want to find is where we know

whoever made this artifact

sat there and cooked a meal

and baked the ground and burned up wood.

If we get the radio-carbon date

and tools in place with the hearth,

they're going to have
a real hard time denying it.

And that's going to happen,

'cause these people were here,

and they were here in great numbers.

But the same erosion
that exposed the evidence

is also threatening it.

Every year, over 300 feet of shoreline

disappears into the bay.

This new high tide
that's coming in right now

is going to dissolve a lot of that soil

that could contain artifacts.

And if there is

a 20,000-year-old occupation here,

we hope it hasn't been destroyed
by coastal erosion.

We've got a serious

offshore breeze right now

that reversed the tide.

It looks like it's coming in
even harder right now

with bigger waves.

20,000 years ago,

this ocean, stretching
thousands of miles east,

looked completely different.

The sea level is 400 feet lower,

and the shoreline stretches
many miles farther out.

Ice spans the Atlantic,
but it isn't solid.

Ice islands, some several miles wide,

shift and crack with the ocean currents.

It's the biggest obstacle
to their theory so far.

The solutreans could not just
have walked across the ice

to America.

Dennis Stanford sees a parallel

with the native American inuit people,

who arrived in the arctic
thousands of years ago.

I had worked in Alaska
with inuit hunters.

I've been out on the ice.

And I'd see these huge ice islands,

and I'm thinking, now how...

You know, those solutrean guys,
maybe they had boats.

There's no evidence
that solutrean people had boats.

We don't have a boat,

we don't have any tools that
show the boats were made,

any solid evidence of boat transport.

My critics would say,

well, you have no evidence
that they had boats.

Well, you know, where are we
going to get that evidence?

Because if they had boats,

they're using those boats on the ocean,

and the ocean that they were on
is now 250 meters underwater.

The world's oldest
physical evidence of boats

are wooden paddles
found in Western Europe,

dating back 9,500 years.

But new evidence

from an archaeological dig in Australia

suggests humans arrived there
65,000 years ago

from islands in Indonesia.

They could only have come by boat.

So if you think about boats,

most boats are made out of wood,
skin, organic materials

that do not preserve over time.

We don't have the boats,
but we have people in Australia.

So we know, unless you want to
put them in hot air balloons

to get there,

then watercraft was involved.

We think that easily
goes back 20,000 years

to the solutrean times.

If they had a boat,

then they'd be in good shape
for getting around the ice.

And if you have a boat,

you know how to deal with rough water.

A picture builds

of how the epic trans-Atlantic
crossing 20,000 years ago

might have happened.

The solutreans venture
ever farther into the ocean

in search of food,

surviving on auks, seals, and fish.

They live and travel in a boat
just like the inuit one,

called an umiak.

Somewhere out on the ice,

they reach the point of no return.

If you're going to
really be moving a whole group,

like an extended family,
multiple extended families,

you need a cargo carrier.

You need like the suv of the day

to carry the family in.

And that would be the umiak,

and that's the way they used it.

You can fill that up

with a lot of equipment, a lot of people,

you can pull that up on the ice,
turn it on its side,

and use it as a weather break.

We landlubbers
think of the ocean as a threat,

but people that live on
the ocean and use the ocean

think of it as a highway.

We know historically

that the ocean was the way
people migrate.

Without hard evidence,

it could still just all be romance,

not reality.

But there's one even more
intriguing piece to the puzzle.

Could the solutreans
have left behind genetic traces

in people who still live
in North America?

Could an ancient people
called the solutreans

have been lured
by the bounty of the sea...

And survived a journey
across the frozen Atlantic?

If they did arrive
on the shores of North America,

perhaps genetic evidence could prove it.

There's an indigenous group
in eastern Canada

with an unusual
and intriguing origin story.

They're called the huron-wendat.

We have a legend that is saying

that the huron-wendat came from the east,

from the great salted lake,

from a mountain, a cave,
from the Atlantic.

Dr. Louis lesage
has come to england

to see if there is any truth
in the legend.

We have questions,

and we want answers.

We are curious to know

the life and times of our ancestors.

The box contains 40 teeth...

Exhumed remains from
Dr. Lesage's ancestors,

buried before Columbus
first came to America.

These remains are sacred.

Genetic work like this
is almost never permitted.

But the huron-wendat council
has made a rare exception.

It's quite something

to know that it's my ancestors
that are in this little box.

And please don't call them samples.

They are not samples;
They are individuals.

That's important.

It's your responsibility
to take care of them.

We're very honored and grateful

in the trust that the huron-wendat

have put in us to do this work.

If these North American teeth

contain genetic markers

prevalent in Europe 20,000 years ago,

they could rewrite history.

This project will look directly

at the ancient and modern DNA

of first nations populations

and test the possibility

that some of their ancient DNA

actually came
directly across the Atlantic.

Oppenheimer's team

is looking for a small
genetic marker called x2a.

X2a is part of an ancient gene
group called "x".

It's found in the middle east,
Europe, and North America...

But not east Asia.

If the teeth have x2a markers,

Oppenheimer believes
it will be clear evidence

that people carrying x
came over before Columbus,

across the Atlantic.

It was clear to me,

just, just looking at the, at the map,

that the most obvious route
is across the Atlantic.

Oppenheimer's team
will spend the next three months

searching for evidence of x2a

and proof that the earliest
migration into North America

came from the east.

If the solutreans
did make this epic journey,

it would have been one of
humanity's great achievements.

Freezing winds blowing from west to east

pick up their numbing chill

from the 2.5-mile-thick
ice sheet covering Canada.

By the time the winds reach the sea,

the average temperature
is minus 31 degrees fahrenheit.

Winter is extreme...

The harshest time to survive.

Even more treacherous
as the seasons change

is shifting and rolling pack ice.

There's one consolation.

The journey is not as long
as you might think.

Our critics constantly say 4,000 miles.

Well, it's not.

Look at the ocean and the sea ice

at that point in time

and what's exposed.

Today, 3,500 miles of Atlantic ocean

separate Europe and North America.

But 20,000 years ago,

massive ice sheets
have locked up so much water

that the sea level
is over 400 feet lower.

The continental shelves are dry land,

cutting the sea journey in half.

That's still a long way,

but for inuit people
that wasn't a big deal

to go 1,500 miles
across the North of Canada.

Assume 15 miles a day.

Just a hundred days
across the sea and ice islands.

Just over three months
from land on one side

to land on the other.

Difficult, but not impossible.

People are remarkable.

We, you know, we're so smart.

Well, they were that smart, too.

There's no shortage of food.

Oil is fat.

And you can render it out of animals,

seals in particular,

and the great auk.

You just need it for everything.

For light, you'd have oil lamps,

for heat, for protection.

And the best places to get the oil

was on the ocean, on the ice.

That's where the major sources are.

And you can live out there
all year round.

If you're out there hunting
and camped out,

you can take a boat and go back to land,

or you can continue on with the ice.

Pretty soon you just keep moving,

and you might end up

on the continental shelf
of North America.

Could the solutreans,
perhaps by accident,

have reached American land

and made their way south
to the chesapeake,

bringing all their know-how with them?

Did they leave any footprint behind?

The team is on day five of the dig.

This is no longer about
finding things on the surface.

They're cutting
right into the cliff face,

going ever lower and older,

slice by slice.

Well, we're about that close,

and that's really exciting

because this is the layer
we need to be in.

And hopefully we'll find some evidence

of cultural occupation

in this level that
we're coming on down to now.

Dennis, I think we've
got a small piece of charcoal

in the occupation level in here.

- Oh, great!
- Yeah, it's great.


Yeah, it's pretty exciting.

Charcoal is a good sign,

but not enough.

They need to find evidence
of human-made tools

and a hearth on the same level.

I think that this looks
like charcoal right here.

You see that black speck right there.

But it's very exciting

because we're coming down
on charcoal. Yay!

We can get a radio-carbon age for this

and if we're lucky,

maybe we'll find stone flakes
to go along with that,

little stone artifacts.

If the solutreans
did come here 20,000 years ago,

what kind of place did they find?

What terrors did it hold?

The chesapeake bay, 20,000 years ago.

Imagine the first solutreans,

the first ever humans in America,

exploring their new land.

When you landed here,

you'd be in front of
an ice age environment,

which is what
you were in front of at home.

You know exactly how to adapt to it.

Their first task is to find stones

to make the tools and weapons
on which their survival depends.

Pretty soon they begin
to understand where they are.

It's pretty good

because nobody else has been there before

and there's lots of stuff.

They would have
encountered new animals...

Animals that had
never seen people before.

The solutreans' new home,

this great canopy of icy wilderness,

contains unimagined sights and creatures.

As they enter the forest
for their first hunt,

shocks await.

They don't yet know it,

but this is a land
of massive prehistoric mammals

unlike any in ice age Europe.

Among them,

one of the most terrifying
predators of all time,

the short-faced bear...

Capable of chasing its prey
at 25 miles an hour...

And rearing up to heights of 13 feet.

It would have been a challenge,

but I think that challenge
would have been met

by slowly adjusting to the new way,

behavior of those animals.

Another shock is in store.

The bizarre sight
of a giant ground sloth.

It stands over 10 feet tall.

Only the weapons
the solutreans have invented

will save them.

It's hard to believe
that such terrifying encounters

once happened here.

The team is now slicing through

a 20,000-year-old layer of dirt

to try to show that they did.

We're working really, really slowly now,

we're really just peeling off,
peeling off little layers

one at a time,

and really keeping our eye out
for anything indicative,

whether it's artifacts or charcoal.

In addition to
their stone tools and weapons,

there's one more thing

the solutreans might have left behind...

A genetic trace.

After months of testing,
the results are in,

and they're astonishing.

Dr. Oppenheimer's team
has discovered

that three of the ancient
huron-wendat teeth

contain traces of the genetic marker x2a.

We have found evidence

that x2a was present

before Columbus.


That's very interesting.

It's not something
which came over with Columbus.


We can say, for those who have the x2a,

it's likely that their ancestors
came from across the Atlantic.

The evidence is there.

They came from the ocean, the, the...

Or from the east.

These new findings about the x2a genes

is very fascinating,

the way that we can put it
in parallel to the legend

of the arrival of the huron-wendat.

It just blew out our previous conception

of the colonization of North America.

If it's true,

Dr. Lesage himself
may be related

to the ice age solutreans
who made this epic journey.

These kind of results
help us, brick by brick,

to construct our history.

Who were we exactly?

For me, I'm proud to say that
my ancestors help all of us

to better understand our common history.

But not all geneticists agree

with this interpretation.

Oppenheimer is arguing
from one single genetic marker.

We cannot explain
the peopling of the Americas

based on one piece of data.

It has to be supported
by multiple lines of evidence,

or it's not a good model.

And currently the best model we have

is people came here from beringia,

not from Europe.

The debate is far from over,

and for many,
the idea of this epic journey

is still hard to believe.

The solutreans lived between
22,000 and 17,000 years ago.

If they did reach America,
how many of them were there?

In more recent times,

once Columbus proved
the journey was possible,

Europeans swept into the new world.

Did solutreans come and go, too?

We're not talking about migration.

We're talking about expanding territory

to the point where they became
knowledgeable of both ends.

So they're tethered on land at both ends

and using the middle
as the grocery store.

Some stayed, some went back,

they brought their technology with them,

and we're finding that technology

on the chesapeake bay.

This is it, I'll tell you.

Alrighty, here we go.


We're starting to see charcoal,

and it's in relatively large pieces.

Wow, that's a lot of charcoal in here.

That's really neat.

12 weeks after the dig ends,

the results of the charcoal
carbon-dating arrive.

Three samples fall just inside

the beginning of the solutrean era.

But the archaeologists
don't manage to find

the crucial hearth

that would prove
there was human habitation.

On the very last day of the dig,

another find reinforces their faith.

What have you got?

It's lovely because
it's made out of the quartzite

that we're finding all the flakes from.

Look at it!


Isn't that neat?

A complete biface.

The last day.

It's the point of the last day.

Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley

remain sure that one day,

the final proof will come

that 20,000 years ago,

the solutreans did cross
the Atlantic ice bridge

in one of the greatest
human journeys of all time.

They're not going to give up,

even if they have to
get there on their own.

A young archaeologist in the future

will be taught a different story

based on the work that we've been doing,

because we're changing
the history of the world.