Fall 2014 Is It Really Pre-Clovis? By Julian Smith
The first prehistoric artifacts at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter site in southwestern Pennsylvania turned up in a groundhog burrow in 1955. When Jim Adovasio began his decades-long investigation of the site in 1973, his team worked with much greater care. “What we were trying to do from the beginning was excavate more carefully than any closed site [i.e. cave] had been on the planet,” he said.
It’s fortunate they did, because radiocarbon dates eventually showed the site was occupied 16,000 years ago, well before the start of the Clovis era, which was once widely considered the earliest human occupation of the Americas. As data from Meadowcroft began to be published in the 1970s and ‘80s, it fueled a burning debate over when the first people arrived in the New World.
The idea that people first entered the New World roughly 13,000 years ago by way of an ice-free route between Siberia and Alaska held sway for much of the 20th century. In recent decades, though, a series of findings throughout the Americas has cast doubt on the “Clovis First” model. Sites from Oregon to Chile have produced radiocarbon dates that are older—in some cases by thousands of years—than the Clovis period.
While little of this evidence has gone unchallenged, the idea of pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas has gained widespread acceptance in the scientific community. At the same time, although many sites are said to be of pre-Clovis age, only a few of them are considered to be legitimate by many experts. This raises the question of how pre-Clovis sites achieve acceptance, or don’t, in the archaeological community. Why does one site make the grade while another doesn’t, even though both were investigated by professional archaeologists?