[Homestead] Asiatic influx pedated Clovis culture, came by boat, not walking
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Thu Sep 23 00:30:07 EDT 2004
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from the September 23, 2004 edition
Signs of an earlier American
By Peter N. Spotts
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Al Goodyear is holding his breath in anticipation. Within days, the
affable archaeologist expects to read the results of lab tests
indicating that stone tools he recently found in South Carolina are
25,000 years old - or older.
Such results would be explosive. They would imply that humans lived on
this continent before the last ice age, far earlier than previously
believed. Even if the dates came in younger than 25,000 years old,
researchers say, the find would add to the mounting body of evidence
that humans trod North and South America at least 2,000 years before the
earliest-known inhabitants, known as the Clovis culture.
DIGGING DEEPER: At the Topper site in South Carolina, artifacts have
been found more than six feet below the level of the Clovis, thought to
be the first Americans.
DARYL P. MILLER/ UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA
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Dr. Goodyear's efforts are among the latest from a growing group of
archaeologists and anthropologists who have become emboldened to buck
conventional wisdom and probe far deeper into the hemisphere's past than
many of their predecessors did. What they are finding not only could
rewrite old chapters in the history of two continents, it could write
"With all these new discoveries, it's almost a rebirth of excitement in
the field. All sorts of new ideas are coming forward about migration
routes and timing of arrival," says Michael Waters, a geoarchaeologist
at Texas A&M University who is involved in several pre-Clovis digs
around the United States. "You still have to be careful. Every claim of
pre-Clovis occupation needs to be looked at quite carefully."
And they are. When stunning discoveries surface in North America's
paleolithic past, they can ignite debates conducted with all the
gentility of the Stanley Cup finals - as Goodyear knows.
"When these dates come back, I'll be hiding in a coal mine. I've already
got a little Groucho Marx disguise I'm going to put on," quips the
University of South Carolina scientist, who along with colleagues is
working what's called the Topper site in Allendale County, S.C., along
the Savannah River.
For decades, the Clovis culture has held sway as the oldest in the New
World. Evidence for this group's presence was first unearthed in 1936
near Clovis, N.M. A second site that emerged in Arizona in 1959, and
others since. A uniquely fluted spear point became the culture's icon.
Radiocarbon dating at Clovis sites so far has bracketed their presence
from roughly 11,200 to around 10,800 radiocarbon years ago.
(Archaeologists prefer expressing dates in radiocarbon years because
converting to modern calendar years becomes tricky beyond a certain age
Searching for Big Foot
As evidence for the Clovis culture's presence cropped up throughout the
continent and the sites became the subject of intense study, the notion
that Clovis people were the oldest immigrants to the Western Hemisphere
became firmly entrenched. Although some research teams periodically
claimed to have found older sites, their evidence was shaky or later
proved to have a less radical explanation. To claim a pre-Clovis find
was akin to claiming to spot Big Foot.
Researchers often hesitated "to dig below the Clovis horizon for fear of
ridicule," Dr. Waters says.
By many accounts, the turning point came seven years ago when
anthropologist Tom Dillehay published the second of two encyclopedic
volumes of results from a site in southern Chile known as Monte Verde.
His team's evidence pointed to a human presence there 13,000 years ago.
Other sites began to appear with evidence for pre-Clovis occupation that
many saw as more credible than evidence from earlier efforts.
One of these sites, known as Mud Lake, sits near Kenosha, Wis. It was
discovered by accident in January 1936, the same year as the first find
of a Clovis point, when a Works Progress Administration crew was digging
a drainage ditch and unearthed most of a foreleg from a juvenile
mammoth. Turned over to the Kenosha Historical Society, it sat there
until 1990, when an amateur archaeologist noted cut marks on the bones.
Bones from nearby sites, known as the Fenske and Shaefer sites, showed
similar markings. In 1992 and 1993, researchers excavated Shaefer and
found bones with cut marks on them and stone tools underneath a pelvis
bone. Radiocarbon dates on the bones and on plant material at the same
level of the dig ranged from 12,500 to 12,300 years ago, nudging them
beyond the Clovis time scale.
Dates from the Mud Lake bone were more stunning, says Dan Joyce, senior
curator at the Kenosha Public Museum. Purported hunters slew the mammoth
13,450 years ago. He remains cautious about the presence of hunters. Cut
marks are suggestive, but not conclusive. This past August, he and his
team searched for the rest of their mammoth. But so far it has remained
elusive enough to earn the beast the sobriquet Waldo, after the
children's "Where's Waldo?" series.
While Dr. Joyce and his colleagues were planning their hunt for Waldo,
Goodyear was taking a deeper look at Topper, a site he had been studying
for 20 years. An adherent to the Clovis-first idea, he began to rethink
his position after reading a site report from Cactus Hill, a pre-Clovis
site in Virginia, in 1998.
His subsequent work at Topper uncovered what looked to be
industrial-scale toolmaking well below the level at which Clovis
artifacts were found. With no organic material available to
radiocarbon-date the level, the team had to use a different technique
that stunned them with date estimates of 16,000 to 20,000 years ago.
In May, he took his crew back to Topper for another, deeper look. They
found what they interpret as tools in a layer roughly two meters (6.5
feet) below their earlier pre-Clovis finds. The soils and geology
suggest that the artifacts are several thousand years older, he says.
But nothing beats radiocarbon dates. Fortuitously, they found a sample
of wood charcoal to derive three radiocarbon dates.
"I'd be very surprised if they're less than 25,000 years old, but I'm
preparing myself mentally for the possibility that they could be a lot
older," perhaps as old as 30,000 or 40,000 years, he says.
Such finds raise intriguing questions. Clovis groups were thought to
have crossed a broad land bridge across the Bering Strait, hiking
through breaks in the glaciers to what is now the lower 48. But if
people lived on the continent at least 2,000 years earlier, they would
have arrived at a time when the glaciers were impassable. This has led
some to argue for a sea route along the land bridge and then the western
coastline. Others suggest some may have come from Australia or the
But is it civilization?
Not everyone is convinced by the evidence so far for pre-Clovis finds,
although some doubters don't rule out the possibility that some groups
where here earlier.
"The tools people find are not self-evidently hunting or butchering
tools" in the way Clovis artifacts are, says Stuart Fiedel, an
archaeologist with the Louis Berger Group in Washington, D.C.
Like Vikings making landfall in North America before any other modern
European group, pre-Clovis sites don't seem to represent the first
long-term colonization of the Western Hemisphere, he says. Interest in
Clovis grew out of their apparent role as a continent-wide colonizing
population and a key to the origins of the native Americans Europeans
encountered after they arrived.
But others see potentially deeper insights coming from pre-Clovis finds.
"This could help us get a better handle on the amount of genetic
variability we see in the descendants of these populations," says David
Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It
also could reset the clock for the development of civilizations in the
The First Americans: By land or by sea? Researchers have put forth at
least four explanations for how people first came to the Americas.
Recent discoveries suggest humans came to the Americas at least 10,000
years earlier than has been thought hitherto, researchers say. That
means they must have come by sea rather than by land across the Bering
Taken from map by Joe LeMonnier / Lynda D'Amico / SCOTT WALLACE - STAFF
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