The First Americans: Mounting Evidence Prompts Researchers to Reconsider the Peopling of the New World
Humans colonized the New World earlier than previously thought—a revelation that is forcing scientists to rethink long-standing ideas about these trailblazers
By Heather Pringle
Over the past decade or so this Clovis First model has come under sharp attack as a result of new discoveries. In southern Chile, at a site known as Monte Verde, archaeologist Thomas D. Dillehay, now at Vanderbilt University, and his colleagues found traces of early Americans who slept in hide-covered tents and dined on seafood and a wild variety of potato 14,600 years ago, long before the appearance of Clovis hunters. Intrigued by the findings, some scientists began looking for similar evidence in North America. They found it: in Paisley Five Mile Point Caves in Oregon, for example, a team uncovered 14,400-year-old human feces flecked with seeds from desert parsley and other plants—not the kinds of comestibles that advocates of the big-game hunters scenario expected to find on the menu. “What we are seeing,” says Dennis L. Jenkins, director of the Paisley Caves dig and an archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Ore., “is a broad-range foraging economy.”
Now, along Buttermilk Creek, Waters and his team have made one of the most important finds yet: a mother lode of stone tools dating back a stunning 15,500 years ago. In all, the team has excavated more than 19,000 pre-Clovis artifacts—from small blades bearing tiny wear marks from cutting bone to a polished chunk of hematite, an iron mineral commonly used in the Paleolithic world for making a red pigment. Publicly unveiled this past spring, the site has yielded more pre-Clovis tools than all other such sites combined, and Waters has spared no expense in dating each layer multiple times. The work has impressed many experts. “It is easily the best evidence for pre-Clovis in North America,” says Vance T. Holliday, an anthropologist and geoscientist at the University of Arizona.
Indeed, the findings add almost 50% to the time Indians have lived here as unchallenged masters of the land and its resources. Their ownership of the Americas is that much more unassailable.
Moreover, Paleo-Indians weren't responsible for the megafauna extinction that occurred around the same time as the Clovis cultures. The Paleo-Indians had already been here for several thousand years when the animals began dying off. All the talk of waves of brutal killers exterminating species left and right--didn't happen.
Conservatives have used the megafauna extinction to attack Indians. They weren't proto-environmentalists who revered and protected nature, these critics have claimed. The mass exterminations prove they were thoughtless brutes who killed indiscriminately--savages, basically.
Poor, bigoted conservatives: All their semi-racist insinuations are out the window. Nobody exterminated anything until white Christian Euro-Americans began slaughtering species from the buffalo to the passenger pigeon.
For more on ecological Indians, see Ecosystem Disruption Killed Megafauna? and The "Black Mat" Theory.
(Illustration by Tyler Jacobsen)