Humanity in the Americas 30,000 Years Ago?

When did human beings first arrive in the Americas? The “accepted” date keeps getting pushed back.

The Clovis Culture were mammoth hunters whose archaeological sites have been dated to ~13,000 years ago. The Clovis people are thought to have walked here over the Bering Land Bridge, Northern Alaska, and through a Canadian ice-free corridor.

But coastal archaeological sites may be much older, suggesting that people in boats arrived in the Americas as much as 30,000 years ago. Controversy on the earliest date is decades old and one of the favorites questions debated by modern archaeologists.

New evidence has surfaced that supports the maritime hypothesis:

Discovery by Oregon archaeologist looks 12,000 years into past at people who settled the West Coast

by Joe Rojas-Burke, The Oregonian , March 03, 2011 [here]

A trove of Stone-Age tools, discarded shells and animal bones unearthed by a University of Oregon anthropologist and others open a new window on lives of the long-vanished people who settled the West Coast more than 12,000 years ago.

The excavations — made on California’s northern Channel Islands — show that these early Americans were seafaring travelers adept at hunting birds and seals, in addition to catching great quantities of fish and shellfish. Their toolmaking style, especially the finely worked crescent-shaped blades found by the dozens, connects them to the first people in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Delicate barbed projectile points also found resemble stone tools found in ice age sites as far away as Japan.

Human bones uncovered in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island revealed to archaeologists that people occupied the Channel Islands very early. Those 13,000-year-old remains are the oldest human remains found in North America, but their burial site included nothing but the bones. Until now, “we really didn’t know who they were or what they were doing on the island,” says Jon Erlandson, a University of Oregon professor of anthropology and a leader of the new excavations, described in a report this week in the journal Science. …

The team found one shard of obsidian debris from toolmaking, and unlike the island chert used for all recovered tools, the obsidian was imported. Chemical analysis matched it to an obsidian source nearly 200 miles away on the mainland, which suggests long-distance trading networks in place 12,000 years ago.

One site yielded 52 stone projectile points, some with intricate barbs and serrations. Erlandson says the islanders’ projectile points are unlike those of the mammoth-stalking Clovis hunters who migrated along an ice-free inland corridor and rapidly occupied much of North America. Clovis points are famous for their fluted shape. None have ever been found on the Channel Islands. The island’s projectile points and crescents more closely fit with those common in Oregon, Washington and across the Great Basin.

Charlotte Beck, an archaeology professor at Hamilton College in New York, says the new findings support the view that the first Americans followed a coastal migration from Asia — before the Clovis hunters.

“The first colonists to arrive in the Americas probably came from Siberia, leaving that region possibly as long as 30,000 years ago,” Beck says

Erlandson shares that view. He and colleagues believe seafaring people followed a “kelp highway” from coastal Asia across the Arctic and down the West Coast, using the same technology to exploit the nearly identical marine and coastal resources along the way. … [more]

Dr. Erlandson is Executive Director of the Univ. of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. The paper referenced above is:

Jon M. Erlandson, Torben C. Rick, Todd J. Braje, Molly Casperson, Brendan Culleton, Brian Fulfrost, Tracy Garcia, Daniel A. Guthrie, Nicholas Jew, Douglas J. Kennett, Madonna L. Moss, Leslie Reeder, Craig Skinner, Jack Watts, and Lauren Willis (2011) Paleoindian Seafaring, Maritime Technologies, and Coastal Foraging on California’s Channel Islands. Science 4 March 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6021 pp. 1181-1185

I haven’t read it yet, but two of his older papers on Channel Island anthropology are posted at W.I.S.E.

Torben C. Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, René L. Vellanoweth, Todd J. Braje, Paul W. Collins, Daniel A. Guthrie, and Thomas W. Stafford Jr. 2009. Origins and antiquity of the island fox (Urocyon littoralis) on California’s Channel Islands. Quaternary Research 71 (2009) 93–98. [here]

Erlandson, Jon M., Torben C. Rick, Michael Graham, James Estes, Todd Braje, and René Vellanoweth. 2005. Sea otters, shellfish, and humans: 10,000 years of ecological interaction on San Miguel Island, California. Proceedings of the Sixth California Islands Symposium, edited by D.K. Garcelon and C.A. Schwemm, pp. 58-69. Arcata: Institute for Wildlife Studies and National Park Service. [here]

W.I.S.E. member and Honored Fellow of the Institute Dr. Carl Johannessen comments:

The analysis in the article is very cautious in posing the date of 30,000 years for the entry of people to the Americas. But human activity of that vintage has already been discovered in Chile [Monte Verde, here] so it makes it highly likely that humans were in North America too by that time.

From my acquaintance with Jon Erlandson at U.O., if he says it, you can be certain that it is an honest report and can be trusted explicitly. Result: it is likely that people came down the Algae Forest Highway early, before anyone could traverse Alaska and northern Canada by foot, and entered the continent in more temperate climes. They may have been replaced when the Clovis hunters dominated the terrain for a few millennia much later.

I consider this research to be of major importance in causing us to re-think our cultural history. Perhaps now Baja California can be examined with greater confidence, and researchers there will find further evidence of people in the Americas much, much earlier than Clovis. Known sites may be re-interpreted to have been really early and not be limited to just 13,000 years of potential record based on foot travel down the ice-free corridor overland through Alaska. Brigham Arnold of Sacramento State University did marvelous work on Baja and found really ancient stone tools in place on the margins of Lake Chapala, Baja.

Note: Dr. Johannessen is the co-author of World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 [here].

There is no question that people have been living in the Americas since before the Holocene. The Holocene (our modern epoch) began ~11,750 years ago. That date marks the end of the Younger Dryas, the last stadial (cold period) of the Wisconsin Glaciation. When the great continental ice sheets started melting ~15,000 years ago, people were already here. When the modern forest species invaded the tundra and steppe that covered most of North America, people were already here.

People, and anthropogenic fire, pre-date most forests in North America. Human beings have been burning landscapes and altering vegetation and wildlife since before the trees invaded. Our forested lands of today have been experiencing human impacts and human stewardship during their entire existence as forests.

It makes one wonder just what “wilderness” really is. If people have been living on the land for that long, isn’t it rather puerile and jejune to refer to those lands as “untrammeled wilderness”? Maybe we need to exorcise the a-scientific, a-historical myths from our groupthink and get real.

4 Mar 2011, 1:08pm
by Tim B.

There’s another theory on the origins of the Clovis Culture, since some doubt that there was an ice-free corridor connecting Siberia with North America more than 13,000 years BP, and since there is not even a vague NE Asian match to their lithic technology. There was a vaguely similar technology on the Iberian Peninsula about 17,000 BP, related to the Solutrean Culture. The theory is that culture, which was at least coastal maritime in nature, boated across the Atlantic along the ice cap front, much like speculation arising from the recent Channel Islands studies about those people might have gotten over here.

The Solutrean/Clovis origin theory also helps explain why occasional Caucasoid skeletons have been found scatted across nearly the entire non-boreal portion of N. America (i.e. Kennewick Man). The last article I’ve read about this also speculated that the Clovis Culture died out during the Younger Dryas period (a particularly cold snap that lasted 1,500 years), before they ever encountered the later Siberian overland immigrants, since the Clovis lithic technology seems to have totally evaporated.

4 Mar 2011, 6:36pm
by Bob Zybach

Tim B. makes some great points. Another line of reasoning is that Clovis culture “totally evaporated” about the same time several ice-age megafauna went extinct; i.e., it was a culture based on large mammals to some extent.

There are similar historical markers in the precontact past: e.g., the proliferation of acorn orchards [oak savannas] throughout the Pacific Northwest 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and the arrival of bow-and-arrow technology about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago were both marked by an abrupt and identifiable change in lithic evidence.

Too, there may have been (probably were) several waves of overland and shoreline immigrations of people into North America during the past thousands of years. Stone tools changed over time, but the use of fire remained constant.

The important point (at least to those of us with an interest in forest and wildlife sciences) made in Mike’s report is that as North American glaciers retreated and lakes and rivers subsided near the beginning of the Holocene, human footprints preceded — not followed — the first tree seedlings to grow into woodlands and forests in the new lands.

25 Mar 2011, 12:19pm
by Evidence for Neanderthal in America « Xenophilia (True Strange Stuff)

[...] The Clovis Culture were mammoth hunters whose archaeological sites have been dated to ~13,000 years ago. The Clovis people are thought to have walked here over the Bering Land Bridge, Northern Alaska, and through a Canadian ice-free corridor. But coastal archaeological sites may be much older, suggesting that people in boats arrived in the Americas as much as 30,000 years ago. Controversy on the earliest date is decades old and one of the favorites questions debated by modern archaeologists … viawestinstenv [...]



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta