New Archeology Find Buries Theory on First Americans, Re-Opening a Gaping Mystery

By Patrick Morgan | March 25, 2011 5:06 pm

What’s the News: Archeologists have discovered thousands of stone tools in Texas that are over 15,000 years old. The find is important because it is over 2,000 years older than the so-called Clovis culture, which had previously thought to be the first human culture in North America. As Texas A&M University anthropologist Michael Waters says, “This is almost like a baseball bat to the side of the head of the archaeological community to wake up and say, ‘hey, there are pre-Clovis people here, that we have to stop quibbling and we need to develop a new model for peopling of the Americas’.”

How the Heck:

  • At a site on Buttermilk Creek in central Texas, Archeologists discovered 15,528 items, ranging from chert flakes to blades and chisels.
  • The first indication that the tools were older than anything previous seen on North America came from their stratigraphic horizon: The excavated layer was underneath a layer of classic Clovis tools. (The sediments showed no indication of mixing after the tools were dropped.)
  • The most conclusive evidence came from a dating technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, which indicates how long minerals have been underground. Over 60 OSL dates revealed the tools to be about 15,500 years old, much older than the up-to-13,500-year-old Clovis culture.

What’s the Context:

Not So Fast:

  • Some anthropologists say that the “Clovis first” theory went out of style years ago, and that this study only puts the nail in the Clovis coffin.
  • Others are skeptical about this present finding, noting that OSL dating is less reliable than radiocarbon dating and that the site’s deposits are “potentially problematic” because they’re located on an old floodplain and could have been transported by water.

The Future Holds: Now it’s time for archeologists to rethink the North American narrative of migration: How did humans first populate the continent? As James Adovasio, the executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, told NPR, “Everything we’re learning now, from genetics, from linguistic data, from geological data, from archaeological data, suggests that the peopling process is infinitely more complicated than we might have imagined 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago.”

Reference: The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas. By Michael R. Waters et al. DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6024.1512

Image: Courtesy of Michael R. Waters

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • Wil

    I have never been able to understand why any scientists, including archeologists, would cling to ANY particular theory. After all, the entire point of science is to actively seek new knowledge and a better understanding. If someone wants to cling to a theory, they should leave science and find a career field better suited to themself.

    The only constructive and honest scientific attitude to take is: “This is the best theory we can postulate for the moment. Now let’s go and impartially find new data that either proves the theory, or that requires us to immediately discard that theory for a better one”.

    To answer my own question – scientists are human, and they are therfore very imperfect.

  • megan

    We haven’t. My North American archaeology textbook from 1995 discusses the evidence for pre-Clovis peoples. This is PR spin, or a chip on someone’s shoulder.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    One needs to think about it first though Wil. It would be silly to drop yesterdays theory for todays theory ‘just because’. The clovis theory has plenty of papers about it, much data supporting it etc., so before a new theory can be adopted as better fitting the facts, you need to prove all those facts, not just rush off higgley piggley. And yes, EGO’S are involved. And you have to get it past all the old guys, the ‘heavyweights’ in the business. That ain’t easy.

  • Glidingpig

    People got here long before even this find says. My evidence? None, but my own two feet.

    I have done 20 miles in a day with a 50+ lb pack on, I expect people moving, living off the land, and in better shape than my fat butt, can move that at least.

    We got here long ago, likely following the coast, living is easy there. Lot of fish, shellfish, and other eats. But with the rising and falling sea levels, any evidence is long gone.

    My call is, 5k years out of leaving Africa, we were everywhere.

    Just my opinion, call me crazy.

  • Wil
  • sean

    Don’t I remember “60 Minutes” doing a story about the Army Corps of Engineers burying evidence of early peoples in North America. This happened during the Clinton years. Where does that fit into this timeline?

  • Jason

    Wil – Scientists’ “clinging” to their theories is how a hypothesis is rigorously tested. If you don’t strongly defend a hypothesis then there is less drive by others to try and prove or disprove it. We would just jump from idea to idea and never be able to settle on a theory if we were so eager to change stances. Those lone scientists that go to their graves arguing their point of view is how knowledge and information stays alive and in the mix bringing about new thoughts.

    Incidentally, that is probably why religion is still alive today but on the decline. Religious groups rarely question their own doctrines and refuse to consider outside opinion. They are that “lone scientist” clinging to an idea keeping it alive. They unintentionally encourage others to disprove their beliefs the stronger they argue for their point of view. They create an irresistible challenge for others to think in new directions.

  • Jon Deane

    Wil: Go read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn. It will change your perception of what science is.

    I also recommend “An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies” by Sergio Sismondo.

  • John Lerch

    Jean, the reburied skull dates from about 9k BC or after both this find and Clovis.

  • Barry Johnstone.

    This has left me wondering, how will American YEC’s deal with infi like this? Can they?

  • dave chamberlin

    What is interesting to me is the absolute scarcity of stone artifacts before 13,000 years ago. The reason people clung to the Clovis theory was the question if we got here earlier than 13,000 years ago then why didn’t we get everywhere like we did after that date.

    I am inclined to agree with glidingpig but with a different twist. I don’t think we got to the Americas until after the great leap forward (50,000 years before present) and when we did so we did in small numbers. Basically accidental crossings of the Pacific now and then. We were too inbred to be as successful as we were after 13,000 years ago. If one looks at the Tasmanians before these poor people were virtually exterminated by the English they serve as the best example I can think of. They were isolated on Tasmania for 10 to 15 thousand years and reverted to an extremely primitive way of life with no tools, fire or clothing.

    Just an hypothesis, but one that may very well be confirmed or ruled out thanks to genetic testing of people alive and dead. Look at it this way, who could have imagined that a pinky bone found in a cave in Siberia would be linked to people alive today in New Guinea, the Denisovans. It should be a lesson to keep our minds open and not be stubborn in clinging to any theory.

  • E. Manhattan

    I agree with Glidingpig that given the speed with which humans can walk, and the curiosity and fearlessness of some humans, it does seem likely that within a couple of thousand years of finding a successful route out of Africa, people had explored the rest of the world wherever the terrain, climate and food sources allowed.

    Genetics gives us information about communities that survived well enough to pass their genes on to other communities; it tells a tale of gradual expansion, leading to us. Genetics gives us the topiary version of human history, with quite a lot of the original branching trimmed off.

    Only archeology, working from a very incomplete and scattered data set, can tell us anything about the many communities which dead-ended after one or ten or a hundred generations, and didn’t pass on identifiable genetic traces to current populations. And the prehistoric explorers? Archaeologists will be very lucky to find any evidence at all of them.

    Genocide, natural disaster, cultural suicide – the small communities that most early cultures gathered in were much more vulnerable than our own. Over thousands of years, how many failed communities left traces waiting to be found (like the first Norse settlement of North America)? How many others have left no trace at all? The un-found branches of early human expansion remain speculative, but likely, and are worth searching for.

  • s

    Good comment Wil. I agree…true scientific exploration is like as you said, “this is the best theory we have so far”.

    Just look at those “scientists” clinging to shredded theories that CO2 is a GHG. They are holding onto that theory like a pitbull to a poodle.

    But as you said, they are just human. :) And sometimes stubborn to the bitter end. :)

    I like the floodplain theory though….it is pretty plausible given the history of the area.

    Archeology is a tough tough tough scientific field to get into. Got a lot of respect for these guys.

  • MartyL

    Not mentioned here, but key in my opinion, is that Clovis points are quite distinctive in design and therefore diagnostic. The artifacts shown in the photo are not at all distinctive, they could be from almost any stone age culture. I’ve always believed that Clovis is simply the first widespread population in the New World that left behind a significant quantity of diagnostic and therefore identifiable artifacts. My guess is that humans go back at least 35,000 years in the Americas, but proving it will be difficult — this was once called the “pre-point horizon” problem, meaning there was no clear type projectile point for the earliest occupations. Also, it’s not unlikely that the earliest settlements were coastal, or in the far north. In the former case, the sites have been flooded by rising oceans. In the later, most were destroyed by glaciers.

  • Anthrowoman

    I agree with MartyL, but perhaps it’s because I studied with her in the 80’s! I believe that there were many crossings over the ice bridge, not a single crossing by a single group. I also believe there were coastal sites that have been destroyed. If Homo erectus could have made it to Polynesia 1.5 mya by boat, I do not see any problem with Homo sapiens exploring the west coast as early as 40,000 BCE. Their culture may not have been as widespread as the Clovis peoples, for example, so trying to find applicable sites from pre-Clovis migrants anywhere on two vast continents is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The evidence is somewhere, but 1) finding these sites is a problem, and 2) knowing what to look for is even a bigger problem.

  • Bosuntom

    Sorry folks to have to disabuse all your scholarly, but out of date, input but the origins of the first Americans. These were satisfactorily explained to me by an old seaman I sailed with in the 60’s. We were visiting Tasmania and discussing its fairly recent history as a penal colony for thieves and vagabonds from the British Crown.
    Barney opined that just as Tasmania was a dumping ground for the dross of Greater Britain so was our own planet a dumping ground for other civilizations in our solar system. Each having its own favoured part of our globe as its chosen open-prison. How else could we account for the differences in physiogomy, skin-tone, culture etc. Each race had patently originated on seperate planets. Earth was but a intergalactic rubbish dump.
    He also maintained that these superior beings from outer-space periodically came back to monitor us – thus acounting for UFO’s etc.
    To my ears Barney’s theory holds at least as much validity as any anthropologists’ – so there! We live and learn…
    By the way, as a sailor who has completed three seperate Columbus re-enactment voyages, on square-sail ships following his precise route, I can vouch that he never even glimpsed the American mainland, let alone set foot on it. So scrub Columbus Day or rename it Brendan Day or even Leif Erickson day. As for Martin Luther King Day – we won’t even go there…
    Always glad to be of assistence…

  • Paul

    Wil… Right on!
    Most folks without a science “head” are ego-bound to trust unequivocally the last thing they’re heard. I admire your phrasing, “This is the best theory we can postulate for the moment…” It says it all… at least to those who can understand it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m questioning whether there are any ‘facts’. [long discussion topic there]

    Iain… I think you misunderstood Wil; he didn’t say “…drop theories”.

    Glidingpig… You use common sense to question what amounts to almost infinitesimally small amounts of evidence found thus far. Smart.

    Jason… well, I don’t agree. Maybe it’s the wording or sequence. I feel any scientist rarely”clings” to their ideas, but perpetually seek further support evidence. In doing so, they originate or stimulate in others, new ideas. Some may support the initial premise, some may seek other answers. That’s science in action.

    Dave… “Yeah”, the “in-breeding” issue has always troubled me. But, as disparate as migrating groups have been, we’ve overcome it, and I suspect resulting genetic changes have indeed contributed to the variability in ‘specimens’ across the planet (i.e, ‘races’, a word that annoys me). We have no way of knowing how many failures there have been. I suspect a greater number than there have been successes.

    Although some prehistoric folks were very successful seafarers, I’m inclined to suspect that the ‘shoreline’ route from Asia was a greater source of migrators, both to North, then to Central and South America.

    I would not be surprised if indeed homo sapiens arrived here (Americas) 30K-50K years ago, the lack of seashore evidence being submerged below the 300 ft rise in sea level starting about ~ 15K years ago. And most shoreline evidence being buried under very recent sediments deposited since then.
    In regards to the Tasmanian immigrants, well, every group had different assets. I suspect that there was probably a high ratio of failures to successes. “Guns, Germs and Steel” is a great read.

    E., Manhattan… right on!

    s. Somehow, I missed the ‘floodplain’ reference…

    Marty L… ~ I agree.

    Anthrowoman… Yup! Depending on the absence of conflicts, technology (clovis points) would and obviously did spread widely. On the flip side, look how different folks can be across current ‘cultures’ just throughout the U.S. Makes one wonder about population density thresholds and rivalry for resources.

    Bosuntom… Never rule out any ‘universe’ possibility… although remember, “evidence” is the fuel of the scientific lamp. The variable “physiogomy” is conventionally and easily explained by genetic mutations.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that advanced extraterrestrials may have “tweaked” our evolutionary tree at some point, yet I find the “dumping ground hypothesis a stretch from my “human” reasoning perspective. But who knows? There could be an objective I haven’t considered, although mutations fit the bill so easily.
    Someone (don’t recall) once said, “The obstacle to discovery is the illusion of knowledge”. Open minded folks grasp that idea as twisty as it may be.

    Thanks to all of you for getting my “retired” mind cooking… if anyone wants to share more thoughts/new discoveries relative to the path of homo sapiens and our cousins, feel free to email me at: pjliebertz@comcast.net.

    Cheers,
    Paul

  • Anthrowoman

    Well said Paul! I just want to add that ‘racial’ differences are mostly adaptations to different environments. Dark skin protects from burn in places around the equator. Humans living in northern climates for over 40,000 years will have lighter skin tone to absorb Vitamin D as needed. Squinted eyes are adaptations to harsh climates, wind, sand, etc. to maintain moisture in the eyes. These adapations are not always clear because of the migrations of people. A population must be in a certain environment for millennia before the long term adaptions are apparent. These are scientifically proven facts, which have been in many cases corroborated by recent genetic testing.

    Alien dumping ground Bosuntom? Really?

  • Paul

    Thank you, Anthrowoman. You are obviously well informed.

    The only additional comment I would make is due to my stress over the use of the term ‘adaptation’ in discussions on evolution. I feel that folk are misled by its use—where my experience suggests that many interpret it to mean that critters change voluntarily. If indeed there are scientists who believe that, I’m anxious to hear evidence.

    Genetic mutations occurring over time, even with a periodicity, have been detected or measured with techniques I’m ignorant of.
    If we accept this, and I do, then my view is that the prevalence of different anatomical or physiological [disposition, psychological?]* features of people (many critters) in any given region of the planet are due to the success, i.e., the advantage that those changes rendered for the members of the group (over generations) in that environment and or in mate selection. [I guess I’m just a dyed-in-the-wool ‘survival of the fittest’ fan.]

    During conversations I’ve had with people, I get the distinct impression that many ‘understand’ evolution to be a choice made by individuals—that when suddenly faced with or move to a different environment, they simply decide to “change” [adapt] to the new circumstances. As I said, I’d love to see evidence of this.

    I envision migrations to new areas, across dozens of generations, where some individuals have a greater tolerance for the new environmental circumstances or demands. They survive. They live longer and foster ‘like’ individuals who equally survive.
    Throughout this generational journey, those ill-suited for the different environment(s) die off early and breed less, resulting in fewer and fewer of the group members over time whose makeup was better suited to the environment they left behind.

    It becomes a numbers or statistical issue. Mutations occur in some offspring, likely a very small percentage, who are even better suited for the new ‘world’ the group lives in, while other mutations are less suited than even those members not reflecting any mutations. The less suited individuals are less successful. Those less suited are less attractive to—are possibly even prohibited from—mating. They reproduce less or not at all. They are less able to ‘keep up’ with their daily needs and probably succumb; they are possibly even shunned by the group for a variety of reasons that one might imagine.
    Those better-suited mutations accumulatively become the ‘breeding’ foundation of the group in the new environment, surpassing, by their success, even the genetic lineage who simply had a better tolerance in the early days.

    Over thousands of years, the resulting ‘new’ group members are the product of an evolution—produced through the aid of mutations—fine-tuned to their new environment, notwithstanding ‘throwbacks’ in the chromosomal ‘crap shoot’ of reproduction. They did not ‘do it’ to themselves—consciously—its really been done to them. To echo the father of this topic, they have been selected naturally to their environment.

    Forgive me if I’m sounding didactic. It’s what—’adaptation’ and my sense of folks’ interpretation of its use in regard to evolution—does to me!

    * If you have not seen it, try to view, the next time it’s aired, Dogs That Changed the World: Part One, “The Rise of the Dog”. The 40 year Russian experiment with Siberian Foxes is a revelation. One out of 100 fox offspring had a docile mood compared to the others. The premise is that prehistoric man may have encountered a similar phenomenon exemplified in a wolf or two which may have been the precursors of dogs. Great film! And, great insight to the possibilities within genetic variation!

    It provokes my thinking about personality—mood—disposition… whatever, in primates and what genetic variation research could be pursued along the line of this idea. A hint lies with the dramatic difference between common Chimpanzees and Bonobos, the latter of which, in contrast with the former, would rather make love than war. Most likely another trait somehow dictated by natural selection, it is interesting that unlike the common Chimpanzee’s social order, Bonobos are more matriarchically ordered…. :-)

    Cheers,
    Paul

  • John Sang

    I’m still wondering about the archaeology site at Calico California. Apparently Louis Leakey visited there and said of the stone tools found there that if he found them in Africa he would say that they were man (or prehuman) made. They were dated at 200,000 year of age or more by the geology of the site.

  • John Sang
  • http://heatherspoonheim.posterous.com/ Heather Spoonheim

    Very interesting read. It reminds me of the findings at Hueyatlaco that produced some incredibly anomalous results that destroyed the careers of those who attempted to stand by the anomalous dating – particularly Virginia Steen McIntyre. Although the original dating was eventually shown to be subject to potential contamination/layer disturbance, it seems to me that there can be a lot of bias at times that threatens the integrity of archeology if it remains overly judgemental of results that don’t conform to accepted models.

  • Bill

    Sounds to me like an early bunch of those ignorant ‘low tech’ Mexican aliens coming into our country to downgrade our gene pool.

  • M

    I just want to say that it’s not as simple as Wil makes it out to be: It’s often not clear what the best theory is. Science needs people with different opinions on that to argue from different perspectives so that all possible angles are covered. Sometimes “the best theory” turns out to be totally wrong and the skeptics who seemed like idiots clinging to the wrong thing were right all along, but it’s only because of their persistance that we realize that. Old-theory-clingers can also be useful in the opposite way – by bringing up all possible objections they can help more clearly outline what we need to know to be sure that the old theory is wrong. Of course, on the whole usually it’s safest to go with what seems to be the best theory right now when extrapolating to broader world views or forming an opinion as a lay person. I am just saying that the scientists clinging to old theories can sometimes be quite useful and shouldn’t be thought of as people who make bad scientists.

  • Q

    This is total bs and I disagree with all of it!!! Native americans lived here first

  • M

    In Case S is still reading, Carbon Dioxide IS still a greenhouse gas. Usually people who don’t believe in greenhouse gases or global warming, also have a beef about paying their share of taxes!

  • Gary

    How does this square with the 2004 Topper site, in South Carolina, which puts the first inhabitants of North America here some 50,000 years ago? Odd that this piece doesn’t even mention this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Alais357 Patricia Liston

    Edgar Cayce Readings indicate habitation here over 40,000 years……

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