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The First Americans [Preview]

Humans colonized the New World earlier than previously thought—a revelation that is forcing scientists to rethink long-standing ideas about these trailblazers

In Brief

  • For decades archaeologists thought the first Americans were the Clovis people, who were said to have reached the New World some 13,000 years ago from northern Asia.
  • But fresh archaeological finds have established that humans reached the Americas thousands of years before that.
  • These discoveries, along with insights from genetics and geology, have prompted reconsideration of where these pioneers came from, when they arrived and what route they took into the New World.

In the sweltering heat of an early july afternoon, Michael R. Waters clambers down into a shadowy pit where a small hive of excavators edge their trowels into an ancient floodplain. A murmur rises from the crew, and one of the diggers gives Waters, an archaeologist at the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, a dirt-smeared fragment of blue-gray stone called chert. Waters turns it over in his hand, then scrutinizes it under a magnifying loupe. The find, scarcely larger than a thumbnail, is part of an all-purpose cutting tool, an ice age equivalent of a box cutter. Tossed away long ago on this grassy Texas creek bank, it is one among thousands of artifacts here that are pushing back the history of humans in the New World and shining rare light on the earliest Americans.

Waters, a tall, rumpled man in his mid-fifties with intense blue eyes and a slow, cautious way of talking, does not look or sound like a maverick. But his work is helping to topple an enduring model for the peopling of the New World. For decades scientists thought the first Americans were Asian big-game hunters who tracked mammoths and other large prey eastward across a now submerged landmass known as Beringia that joined northern Asia to Alaska. Arriving in the Americas some 13,000 years ago, these colonists were said to have journeyed rapidly overland along an ice-free corridor that stretched from the Yukon to southern Alberta, leaving behind their distinctive stone tools across what is now the contiguous U.S. Archaeologists called these hunters the Clovis people, after a site near Clovis, N.M., where many of their tools came to light.

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.

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 in the spring of 2011, 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. “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.

Energized by such finds, archaeologists are now testing new models for the peopling of the New World. Drawing on evidence from a range of sciences—from genetics to geology—they are searching for answers to a host of pressing questions: Where did the earliest Americans come from? When exactly did they arrive, and what route did they take into the New World? For the first time in decades there is a heady whiff of discovery in the air. “We are now addressing the big issues,” says James M. Adovasio, an archaeologist at Mercyhurst College. “We are looking at the circumstances of the dispersal of humans into the last great habitat on the planet.”

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