MARTIN, S.C. – At a depth of about four feet, 13,000-year-old artifacts emerge from the floor of a hole known as HS-N207E66 in such dense profusion that they leave the volunteers little room to work.
Like others who’ve dug here since the 1980s, the crew assigned to HS-N207E66 has reached the Clovis layer at the Topper-Allendale archeological site. Excavations there tell different versions of the same story: Near the end of the last ice age, America’s first great artisans came to this hillside to quarry a prized stone tool-making material called chert. The artifacts suggest the intense period of Clovis-era activity begins a few centuries before 11,000 B.C. and fades away roughly 500 years later.
Topper remains one of the most productive Clovis sites in North America, yet Clovis artifacts aren’t the reason this place became famous. Just down the hill, below the chert outcropping that attracted the ancients, lies a deeper hole. And in 1988, archaeologists found something impossible there. Read more.
When and how did the first people arrive in the Americas?
For many decades, archaeologists have agreed on an explanation known as the Clovis model. The theory holds that about 13,500 years ago, bands of big-game hunters in Asia followed their prey across an exposed ribbon of land linking Siberia and Alaska and found themselves on a vast, unexplored continent. The route back was later blocked by rising sea levels that swamped the land bridge. Those pioneers were the first Americans.
The theory is based largely on the discovery in 1929 of distinctive stone tools, including sophisticated spear points, near Clovis, N.M. The same kinds of spear points were later identified at sites across North America. After radiocarbon dating was developed in 1949, scholars found that the age of these “Clovis sites” coincided with the appearance at the end of the last ice age of an ice-free corridor of tundra leading down from what is now Alberta and British Columbia to the American Midwest. Read more.
The New York Times and The Chronicle today both picked up the report in Science about the discovery of an archaeological site northwest of Austin that dates between 13,200 and 15,000 years ago. It appears significantly older than the paleo-Indian culture called Clovis that was once thought by archaeologists to represent the first human occupation on North America. The Clovis culture, known for its distinctively fluted projectile points, offered a relatively simple narrative of big-game hunters arriving from Siberia and moving quickly across the continent to exploit the rich opportunities, especially the abundance of mammoths.
The Clovis projectile points were first scientifically excavated (near Clovis, New Mexico) in the 1930s and were recognized as especially ancient artifacts. For a long time, nothing else turned up as unambiguously older, and New World archaeologists gradually settled on the “Clovis-first” hypothesis as the best fir with the data. There were, however, dissenters within the discipline—and herein lies the part of the story that I think bears on broader issues in academe. Read more.