By Mike Toner
This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
The headlines—some of them in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals—are provocative. In a cave high in the mountains in Mexico, there is evidence that humans fashioned stone tools there 32,000 years ago. In the Yukon, the cut-marked mandible of a prehistoric horse and caribou bones provide “indisputable traces” of human activity in a cave 24,000 years ago. In Maryland and Virginia, eroding shorelines expose unmistakable stone tools in 20,000-year-old soils along Chesapeake Bay. In South Carolina, deeply buried cobbles and stone flakes on a Pleistocene terrace along the Savannah River suggest that humans worked there 50,000 years ago. In Southern California, a cache of broken mastodon bones and crude stone “tools” hint that humans, or at least hominids, were there 130,000 years ago.
Maybe. Or maybe not.
Researchers examine faunal remains recovered from Chiquihuite Cave. | Credit Devlin Gandy
Archaeologists work at the Topper site in South Carolina, which is said to be 50,000 years old. | Credit: SEPAS
In 2017, researchers published a paper in the journal Nature that stated the Cerutti Mastadon site is 130,000 years old. Excavators work at the site in this photo. | Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum
Researchers in protective body suits prepare to collect ancient DNA samples in Chiquihuite Cave. | Credit: Devlin A. Gandy
No single topic has dominated American archaeology—and at times deeply divided Paleo-Indian experts—more in the recent decades than the story of the first Americans. Who were they? How did they get here? Where did they come from? When did they arrive? And how did they spread to the distant corners of two continents and adapt to the forests, jungles, deserts, tundra, mountains, and seashores they eventually occupied?
As new evidence has accumulated and old evidence has been reconsidered, the answers to those questions, and sometimes the questions themselves, have changed. Until a spear point was found embedded in an extinct bison near Folsom, New Mexico, in 1927, most archaeologists believed there were no humans in North America until about 5,000 years ago. For years after that, they were confident people entered America from Asia no earlier than 13,000 years ago. Then two decades ago that entry date was pushed further back with archaeologist Thomas Dillehay’s discovery and documentation of a human settlement at Monte Verde in southern Chile dating to 14,200 years ago. Since then, other sites have offered evidence of even earlier arrivals, though not nearly as early as the aforementioned headlines suggest.