Winter 16: By David Malakoff.
Two decades ago, when molecular anthropologist Ripan Malhi was a graduate student studying the earliest human inhabitants of North America, he sometimes had to watch his tongue. Malhi and some of his colleagues were increasingly skeptical of the dominant Clovis First model of how and when people arrived in North America. But when the heretics voiced their views, they could expect some withering pushback from Clovis First advocates. “The Clovis police ruled, and they were everywhere,” recalled Malhi, who is now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Indeed, Clovis First had been the dominant paradigm in American archaeology for some fifty years. It derived from a plausible narrative: about 13,000 years ago, as the last ice age was ending, humans entered what is now North America after crossing Beringia, a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska, and then journeying south through a newly-formed ice-free corridor in western Canada. The Clovis culture—known for the distinctive fluted projectile points that were first discovered in the 1930s near Clovis, New Mexico—then spread across two empty continents before disappearing more than 12,000 years ago.
These days, Malhi has little dread of the Clovis cops. As new evidence was discovered, the plausibility of the Clovis First model diminished, as did the ranks of its defenders. Archaeologists have identified dozens of sites across North and South America that appear to have been occupied hundreds or even thousands of years before the Clovis period. Geneticists, for their part, say that Clovis First doesn’t fit with the patterns they see in studies of DNA taken from living Native Americans, ancient skeletons, and extinct plants and animals. In a 2015 review in the journal PaleoAmerica, archaeologist David Madsen concluded that the Clovis First model now “appears to be dead and buried.”
Clovis First’s death, however, has left researchers struggling to develop a new and better colonization model. Indeed, “its demise has opened a kind of Pandora’s Box, unleashing multiple models,” wrote archaeologist Jon Erlandson of the University of Oregon in Paleoamerican Odyssey, a book published in 2013. Some scholars have proposed that, instead of walking south from the Arctic, the first Americans travelled east from Asia, using boats to follow the arc of the Pacific Coast to new continents. In contrast, a few scholars have suggested they made their way west from Europe, around the North Atlantic. Furthermore, new DNA studies offer sometimes conflicting conclusions about just how many waves of early immigrants there were, where they originated, and when they arrived. The upshot, said Michael Waters, director of Texas A&M University’s Center for the Study of the First Americans, is that “it’s an exciting time to be studying the first Americans, but also a confusing time.”
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