The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

Clovis R.I.P.

By Shanti Menon|Thursday, January 01, 1998
RELATED TAGS: PREHISTORIC CULTURE
At a bar in the Chilean town of Pelluco last January, a dozen archeologists toasted the passing of a paradigm. They had finally accepted that the nearby site of Monte Verde was 12,500 years old. In doing so they put to rest the long-standing theory that the first Americans were the Clovis people, big-game hunters who came from northeast Asia, and whose distinctive 11,500-year-old stone spear points were first found near Clovis, New Mexico.

University of Kentucky archeologist Tom Dillehay has been working at Monte Verde, 600 miles south of Santiago, for 20 years. We didn’t set out to question Clovis, he says. We were just doing local research. His initial announcement about the site, over a decade ago, was met with immense skepticism. The Bering land bridge was the obvious point of entry into the New World—aside from a trail of Clovis points, linguistic and genetic evidence also pointed to a northeast Asian origin for Native Americans—but massive ice sheets blocked that route, it seemed, until after 13,000 years ago. And it didn’t help convince people when Dillehay began saying that artifacts a few yards away from the 12,500-year-old ones might be a shocking 33,000 years old—which he still thinks, although he says the evidence is inconclusive.

But the evidence that people were living at Monte Verde at least a thousand years before Clovis, Dillehay says, is airtight. On the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, he has found a campsite that was occupied by a small band of hunter-gatherers for about a year until it was flooded by the creek. Layers of peat grew over the material they left behind, shutting out oxygen and preserving things like mastodon meat, wooden lances, planks and stakes, knotted reeds, animal hide, and chewed plant leaves. The wooden planks and stakes formed the frame of a large tent, once draped with mastodon hides and divided internally by more flaps of hide. Perhaps 20 to 30 people lived in it.

They were adept foragers, not afraid of traveling 30 miles to the Pacific shore to collect shellfish. They ate mushrooms, berries, nuts, and potatoes. They hunted mastodons and the ancestors of llamas with wooden spears and perhaps bolas—Dillehay has found heavy, spherical stones that look like the business end of a bola. They combed the beaches, bogs, and temperate rain forests, collecting novelties like colored pebbles, as well as important medicinal plants, some from 100 miles away. In another shelter, set apart from the main tent, Dillehay found a chewed-up wad of boldo, a plant now used to treat stomach pains. Near a fireplace, someone—probably a child—had stepped into soft clay, leaving a tiny footprint.

After the first volume of Dillehay’s report on Monte Verde was published in 1989, many archeologists believed the site was genuine. But it remained highly controversial, primarily because a small group of high-profile experts were unconvinced. They doubted that the artifacts he described were made by human hands. They thought his dating, based on radiocarbon ages from charcoal, wood, and ivory, showed too much variation and was somehow contaminated. Anyone who was going to claim a pre-Clovis site would have to go to extraordinary lengths to back it up. The site was very unfamiliar in almost all its details of structure and content, explains Dena Dincauze, an archeologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of the original skeptics. It required that we revise our entire model of how people came into North America. So you want to be really sure about that before you overturn your own applecart.

We kept saying, ‘Put your money where your mouth is and look at the evidence,’ says Dillehay. Finally, this past year enough funds were raised to bring a small group to Chile, including some of the last Clovis holdouts. After seeing the artifacts, examining the different layers of sediment in the trenches, and reading the 1,300-page second volume of Dillehay’s report, published last spring, even the staunchest skeptic was converted. I’ve signed off on it because there are six artifacts that are unequivocally artifacts, says archeologist and geologist C. Vance Haynes, Jr., at the University of Arizona in Tucson. These are projectile points, a slate rod, and a grooved stone. Dincauze herself was sold by Dillehay’s exhaustive analysis. She calls his monograph a superb archeological presentation, completely convincing, and thoroughly documented. Everything the preliminary reports weren’t.

The problem for archeologists now is explaining how people got to Monte Verde. The northern route is still the most likely—there’s no evidence for a transoceanic voyage. People were in North America long before 12,500 years ago, says Dillehay. It must have taken them thousands of years to get as far as Monte Verde. They must have arrived before the ice sheets blocked off Canada 20,000 years ago; in fact, they must have arrived much earlier than that if they reached Monte Verde 33,000 years ago, which is what Dillehay suspects happened. Conceivably, people could have avoided the ice by traveling down the Pacific coast, staying along the waterways. Right now, we’re at the anything is possible point, says Dincauze. It’s opened everything up. Now we have to start picking up the apples again.
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