Thursday, November 8, 2007

Archaeology and the Peopling of North America: Before Clovis

The question of when the first people arrived in the Americas has long been of interest. Over the course of the years, hundreds of theories have been put forth, ranging from ancient African seafarers landing in Mexico to Polynesians making their way to South America and then spreading north and south. However, the one that has had the most support, and been the standard voice of the academic community, is that of the Bering Landbridge and the Clovis-First hypothesis. This theory contended that ancient Asian migrants moved across the Bering Landbridge at the end of the Pleistocene (14,000-12,500 years ago) when sea levels were reduced and water was trapped in giant glaciers. The technology these people were thought to have used was called "Clovis", named after the famous site in Clovis, New Mexico where lithic points were found.

The story of how this theory - now generally discredited - became the standard academic stance for close to 100 years is an interesting one. The Clovis site was not the first one to be discovered with Pleistocene/Holocene aged artifacts in the Americas. Nor was it the best preserved or most extensive of early people's archaeological sites. Rather, it was the one that academics were allowed to see and agree upon in situ. An article by Matthew E. Hill, Jr. (Before Folsom: The 12 Mile Creek Site and the Debate Over the Peopling of the Americas) clears up this strange history of how certain sites in the Americas have been given credit, while others have gone unstudied or neglected in theories examining the peopling of the New World.

Here is the abstract:

Histories of American archaeology rightly point to the discoveries at the Folsom site as the turning point in the debate of a Pleistocene peopling of North America. However, this was not the first site where fluted projectile points were recovered in association with an extinct form of bison. In 1895 University of Kansas paleontologists excavated the 12 Mile Creek site in western Kansas and recovered an in situ fluted projectile point with the remains of 13 Bison antiquus skeletons. The site is generally overlooked in the histories of this debate. Published articles and unpublished personal letters reveal that 12 Mile Creek was influential to the Folsom excavators as well as a number of other important researchers. The limited influence that 12 Mile Creek had on the anthropological community was not because of the loss of the projectile point from the site or difficulties in dating the site, but was instead due to the manner in which the investigators presented their results. What differentiated the 12 Mile Creek site from Folsom was that the investigators of the latter site allowed outside researchers to independently validate claims about the site's age and the association between the artifacts and animal remains.

This is a very interesting article, for we can see that the same process has taken place again, almost 100 years later. Sites such as China Lake, Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, Pedra Furada, and numerous others have all been considered old, but the evidence has not been overly accepted by the academic community. In fact, it was not until Monte Verde in Chile was excavated by Tom Dillehay - and independently verified by a group of archaeologists - that the Clovis-First hypothesis was finally called dead. What I find especially interesting is that the indigenous peoples of the Americas (Native Americans, First Nation peoples, Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, and numerous others) have all been saying that their oral traditions point to a time before the Holocene. This is exactly what the archaeological evidence now affirms (as well as the genetic evidence). But because academics cannot "confirm" this form of evidence in terms of their epistemology (i.e., oral traditions do not fit into the standard scientific paradigm), it has been left out of the picture.

The article by Hill demonstrates two things: 1) how slow archaeology changes its paradigms despite other evidence; and 2) that our current picture of the peopling of the Americas could be greatly enhanced if we opened up our avenues for evidence to indigenous peoples and their knowledge. Oral traditions are a powerful source of evidence. Perhaps if we incorporated them into our understanding of the peopling of the Americas we could get a more human understanding of what happened many thousands of years ago. Instead, we have a picture filled with lithics, DNA, and animal bones. A little humanness would do a great service to shedding light on this interesting time period and bring the indigenous peoples of the Americas into the picture.

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Bay Radical said...

Just found this post via the history carnival. Pretty interesting stuff. Thanks for filling me in a on a lot of things I knew nothing about. I'm going to check out the rest of your blog now...

James Lorenz said...

Very interesting post. Thanks!

Peter N. Jones said...

Thanks bay radical and James for stopping by. I agree, there are some interesting new developments in the peopling of the Americas. Another article on Culture Groups in the Pleistocene and what that means for Clovis has some new information.

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