If it holds up, Collins's claim would add Gault to the list of proposed pre-Clovis sites, including Monte Verde in Chile, Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania and Cactus Hill in Virginia. They're all controversial, however, based on charges of contamination and other problems.
Collins hopes to bolster his case by digging further at Gault. He'll also use another method to test the soil's age. And some 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) from Gault, in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, members of his team will soon tackle the perplexing question of how Paleo-Indians got here in the first place. Until an ice-free corridor opened in northwestern Canada about 13,300 years ago, providing a route to the interior, a dome of ice divided Asia from North America. Some archaeologists have proposed an ice-free route along the northwestern coast; others suggest the first Americans, like the first Australians, had boats and used them either to travel east from Asia or, a few daring archaeologists propose, west from Europe. Hard evidence is unavailable because the coastline moved several hundreds of meters inland when the ice sheets melted.
"The archaeological record is out there underwater," says Hemmings, "so that's the next frontier in this search." Hemmings plans to spend two weeks this summer in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico looking for Clovis and pre-Clovis sites. In an expedition funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a team lead by Hemmings and James Adovasio of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., will explore promising sites along ancient coastlines using remotely operated vehicles. They've identified prime targets by studying underwater maps for features Clovis people are known to have preferred, such as cliff faces near streams or rivers.
Back on dry land, Collins believes Gault has more to tell us about early Americans. "It's a special place," says Collins, "and it's been a special place for a long, long time."