The First Americans May Have Arrived 130,000 Years Ago

By Gemma Tarlach | April 26, 2017 12:00 pm
Mastodon ribs and vertebrae from a site in Southern California that may contain evidence that the First Americans were here more than 100,000 years ago. (Credit San Diego Natural History Museum)

Mastodon ribs and vertebrae from a site in southern California that may contain evidence that the First Americans were here more than 100,000 years ago. (Credit San Diego Natural History Museum)

Is the conventional chronology of human migration little more than a house of cards? Maybe. And there’s a strong wind (or at least a tantalizing breeze) blowing in from southern California, where researchers say they have evidence that the First Americans may have arrived on the continent almost ten times earlier than we thought. And here’s another kicker: the first humans in the Americas may not have been Homo sapiens.

The results, published today in Nature, came out of several different lines of inquiry, all leading to the same stunning conclusion: A partial mastodon skeleton unearthed near San Diego appears to have been processed by some kind of hominin about 130,000 years ago.

To put this in context, right now the generally accepted arrival date for humans in the Americas — from Siberia, via the land bridge Beringia — is a mere 15,000 years ago. There have been a handful of sites from Brazil and Chile to the Great Plains of the U.S. suggesting human activity up to 40,000 years ago, but academic opinion on the legitimacy of those sites is deeply divided.

This is the kind of brainshock that, once you shake off the initial surprise, questions go stampeding through your head like a bunch of spooked mastodons. So let’s take it one step at a time.

The Backstory and The Bones

The site in question, along State Route 54 in San Diego County, was discovered during highway construction in 1992. Known as the Cerutti Mastodon Site, the area was first identified as paleontologically significant when an excavator unearthed partial animal remains in an upper layer.

Construction halted, paleontologists came in and started digging down. And, more than three meters below the surface, they found a partial mastodon skeleton in a much older layer. And that’s when it gets weird.

The mastodon remains were laid out in a way that would not make sense if the animal just dropped dead, was brought down by a predator and/or later scavenged. The bones appeared to be arranged in clusters. For example, both heads of the femurs, long bones in the leg, were sitting side by side. One of the tusks was vertical, penetrating the older sedimentary layers as if someone had stuck it upright in the ground. That stuff just doesn’t happen in nature.

What’s more, several of the bones were broken. Specifically, they were spirally fractured. This is a kind of break that would only happen with fresh bone when it’s struck a certain way. Also, some of the breaks occurred in big, robust, sturdy bones not usually busted up during the natural process of being buried and fossilized.

The kinds of breakage found were not consistent with a carnivore munching on the bones, or with a herd of heavy beasties trampling the unfortunate mastodon, alive or dead.

The team, which has grown over the years as the initial researchers added colleagues from other disciplines, claims that the damage to the bones is the same as breakage found in 1.5 million-year-old elephant bones in Africa that were processed by hominins.

Some of the researchers also traveled to Tanzania to conduct experiments on the bones of a recently deceased elephant and found the breaks in both the Cerutti Mastodon and the modern elephant were identical.

The researchers took years to analyze the bones, date the samples and surrounding rocks and replicate the damage, one big reason that the results are coming out a quarter-century after the Cerutti Mastodon was unearthed.

A Rock In A Hard Place

Then there are the rocks…specifically, the cobbles. Five large stones that the authors believe were used as hammerstones and anvils to process the carcass. The presence of these stones in Bone Bed E, where the mastodon remains were deposited, is unexpected because the layer is fine-grained silt. It’s what geologists and paleontologists consider a “low energy deposition” environment. There was no raging river here when the mastodon met his end, just a gentle stream.

One of the rocks from the Cerutti Mastodon site that researchers believe hominins used to process the carcass. (Credit Tom Deméré, San Diego Natural History Museum)

One of the rocks from the Cerutti Mastodon site that researchers believe hominins used to process the carcass.
(Credit Tom Deméré, San Diego Natural History Museum)

That means we don’t have a natural explanation for the big rocks being here — no rapids would have washed them here, and there is no evidence of other geological forces, such as landslides, that might have dropped these large stones into an otherwise silty spot. The only explanation, claim the authors, is that the stones were collected from elsewhere by hominins and brought to the site intentionally to process the animal carcass.

The experiments team members conducted in Tanzania used similar types of cobbles on fresh elephant bone, confirming these kinds of primitive tools could indeed cause the damage found on the mastodon bones. But were they used for that purpose?

During a press conference on Tuesday, I asked co-author Richard Fullagar of Australia’s University of Wollongong whether the team had tested the cobbles for protein residues that might confirm they were used to process the mastodon. He told me they had been looking at that possibility but were not ready to discuss results.

While we wait for those findings, consider that another team recently tested 250,000-year-old stone tools and was able to confirm not just that they were used to process animal carcasses, but even to identify the kinds of animals processed.

Research published today in Nature included not only descriptions of the bones and artifacts associated with the potential butchering site, but also multimedia information on how the team replicated the damage on modern elephant bones in Tanzania, using tools they believe the hominins might have had. (Credit Kate Johnson, San Diego Natural History Museum)

Research published today in Nature included not only descriptions of the bones and artifacts associated with the potential carcass processing site, but also information on how the team replicated the damage on modern elephant bones in Tanzania, using tools they believe the alleged First American hominins might have had. (Credit Kate Johnson, San Diego Natural History Museum)

The Dating Game

Of course, as with any find quite so sensational, one of the first questions that must be asked is how good the dating is. According to the researchers, they used multiple methods to date a number of the bone specimens.

Some of those methods didn’t work out. They were unable to get a result using radiocarbon dating (RCD), for example — which actually strengthens their case for the bones being 130,000 years old, because RCD is generally unusable beyond 40,000 years or so.

The researchers ran into a similar dead end using optically stimulated luminescence dating, which can calculate when a sample was last exposed to sunlight — but again, OSL is known to be generally ineffective in samples older than 100,000 years.

The team did, however, have success with Uranium series dating, which is based on the known and stable decay rates of different isotopes of uranium. Using U-series dating, the researchers found the three separate specimens tested all fell into the age of 131,000 years, plus or minus 9,000 years.

Who Dis?

So…the researchers behind today’s study laid out a multidisciplinary case for hominins being in San Diego 130,000 years ago or so, but if you accept that, the big question is, well, which hominin?

Let’s consider the usual suspects, by species:

Anatomically Modern Humans: The conventional (and increasingly iffy) timeline for AMHs leaving Africa is around 100,000 years ago, though each year researchers uncover more evidence that challenges that chronology, such as potential AMH remains in the Middle East that are 115,000 years old and other partial remains from China that may be up to 125,000 years old.

As the first footsteps of our species appear to get pushed further and further back, it’s no longer cray-cray to consider that AMHs were racking up the mileage far from our ancestral African homeland by 130,000 years ago. And that’s assuming we’re all still signed on to the “ancestral African homeland” idea.

Some researchers are pushing for a reassessment of where AMHs evolved, arguing that the species may have arisen out of the intermingling of regionally evolved archaic hominins that were living in East Asia and elsewhere well before the conventional 100,000 year Out of Africa moment.

Neanderthals: Our stocky elder siblings got around, too, as the fossil record from Spain to Siberia shows. And in the past decade, new discoveries have shown that they were remarkably handy and ingenious with tool-making and other skills requiring both brains and brawn.

Denisovans: Another possibility. Though I feel that ever since this mysterious branch of our genus was genetically confirmed at a single site in Siberia in 2010, they’ve become kind of like Mikey. Remember Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials? When in doubt give it to Mikey. When you’re not sure which hominin was involved, consider the Denisovans.

Homo erectus, Homo habilis or some other distant relative: A number of much older H. erectus fossils, such as Java Man, have been found in Indonesia and East Asia. The much-debated Dmanisi hominins, which some researchers suspect are neither H. erectus nor the earlier H. habilis, were already as far north of Africa as western Asia by 1.87 million years ago.

The truth is, there are probably at least a few more (possibly many more) members of our genus out there waiting to be discovered. And it’s possible that one of these early hominins, physically and cognitively capable of making primitive tools, made it as far as San Diego. The land bridge known as Beringia has, after all, connected Siberia with North America on and off for 70 million years during periods of intense glaciation.

In fact, the authors of today’s study pointed out that Beringia was high and dry for some time immediately before 130,000 years ago, after which rising sea levels sunk it for a good long while. So it is possible that one or more of these hominin species took a road trip out of Siberia, crossing into the Americas via Beringia before it was swallowed by the seas (temporarily) 130,000 years ago.

What happened to whoever bashed the Cerutti mastodon? We don’t know. But humans are like any other living organism, lead author Steven Holen pointed out during the press conference: “It’s quite possible early populations came in and didn’t make it.”

UFOs: Seriously. Another reporter broached the idea during Tuesday’s press conference, as a joke, I think (I hope). And while a find that causes this much of a paradigm shift is bound to bring out the wild speculation, no. Just no. Unearth me a well-preserved Stargate from a pristine geological context and we’ll talk but until then, there is no, repeat no evidence of E.T showing up to bash some mastodon bones.

But mere mention of some wild speculation brings me to…

And Now A Word From My Inner Skeptic

Whenever scientists make a discovery, it should be met with skepticism. That’s how the scientific method works and other researchers should feel obligated to try to replicate their colleagues’ results or bust them apart like fresh mastodon bones. The researchers behind today’s paper said they continue to test and analyze the mastodon remains and the cobbles, and that they welcome scrutiny from others in the field.

My two cents on the matter is that I am willing to believe it’s possible, and I think that out of the gate, the team has done a good job of anticipating the doubts raised. Already, questions such as “how do we know the road construction heavy equipment didn’t cause the damage to the bones?” have been raised and answered, usually with multiple lines of evidence.

(Bone Bed E, where the goodies were found, was more than three meters under the surface, insulated from damage by heavy equipment, and you can’t get spiral fractures from heavy equipment rolling over old bones anyway. And oh, by the way, don’t forget the mastodon remains were found in a freaky arrangement that appears intentional, such as one tusk stuck upright and femur heads placed beside each other.)

If protein residue studies can definitively tie the cobbles to the processing of the carcass, that would be a big boost in my confidence about the study. But I want even more. We humans, like all living things, are constantly shedding our DNA everywhere we go. Yucky for fastidious types, but having some ancient DNA, on the cobbles or mastodon bits, that could be tested (and verified as uncontaminated by modern human DNA) would be the cliché holy grail.

Until the team’s results are replicated and additional information added in support of their argument, though, I can’t stop thinking about a 2016 study that showed at least one smashy-bashy group of capuchin monkeys in Brazil busts up rocks to create shapes remarkably similar to human-made stone tools. Those monkeys, by the way, live rather close to two of the highly controversial sites where some researchers assert humans were present 20,000 years ago, based entirely on what they claim are stone tools made by our species. Hmm.

So stay tuned to see whether additional evidence proves this is the archaeological find of the century or just another tantalizing possibility that will fuel debate for decades to come. For more on this potential bombshell in the story of the First Americans, check out Nature‘s video on the research.

More into ancient rock-breaking than all that pesky academic talk? Feast your eyes on a video of the techniques researchers used to re-create the damage seen on the mastodon bones.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
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  • SFM

    So very much we don’t know and Science is not the end All to our creation, existence and migrations. I imagine the real story could be rather shocking to our sensibilities?

    • OWilson

      Depends on who writes the history, as usual.

      20th Century colonial white guilt gave us the “out of Africa” scenario, and it also gave us the very “first” Americans, from whom the “white European invaders” stole the land.

      Truth owes nothing to current culture and political correctness.

      It is a continuum of survival, for which there are no heroes, just survivors. Dead ends and new branches.

      There’s lots more interesting stuff to be discovered about our origins.

      • nik

        WE may not have very much time left to do it, if my post above is correct!

    • J Smith

      There is nothing shocking about these findings. And science is the end all– there is no other way intelligent people seek to understand. Alternatives such as Zeus et all don’t help at all.

  • http://www.grammarparrot.com/ Karla

    Is there any evidence that there were monkeys living in san diego 130,000 years ago? Everyone poo-poos the idea that maybe Pangea didn’t break up when they think it did, but that would explain a lot of mysteries in the archeological records, I think.

    • OWilson

      La Brea Tar Pits in LA had giant sloths, sabre tooth tigers and mammoths, but no monkeys have been found!

      • Tafur_Kern

        Were the monkeys smart enough so they did not get trapped in the tar pits.

    • J Smith

      There are not “mysteries” in the archeological record, just unknowns. And that Pangea broke up a couple of hundred of million (not a hundred thousand) years ago is well established, with no data contravening this conclusion. And monkeys were in the new world from 40 million years ago already

  • Kurt S

    Dear discover, you made a slight err that should be corrected;

    “…..the authors of today’s study pointed out that Beringia was high and dry for some time immediately before 130,000 years ago, after which rising sea levels sunk it for a good long while.”

    The correct term would be “flooded” not “sunk” . I do believe that using the word “sunk” would be misleading or confusing to some readers.

    • J Smith

      Indeed. And although small changes in the land masses’ altitude do occur,they do in the opposite way from the implication of Discovery’s language. Glaciated land tends to rise slightly during warming (as the weight of glacier ice on them abates), and sink slightly when the ice mass on them increases. So as sea levels rise, former glaciated land areas also rise (again slightly)

  • nik

    Logical really.
    Neanderthals have been around for over 400,000 years, that’s at least 5 inter ice ages, so in any one of those periods, there could have been either land or ice bridges from Asia to America, for them to cross. Also there were many more ‘hominids’ in the past, which are still turning up in the fossil record, so if some managed it 15,k years ago, its more than just likely that others would have done the same over 400,000 years, or more. Its just that finding the evidence after so long, and all the ice ages is very much against chance.

    • J Smith

      agreed. and the evidence now shows that what would become American bison had a sharp genetic division from Asian bison between 140,000 to 100,000 years ago, and that a major cooling and very large land bridge occurred at that period. Homo bands who followed bison could have easily followed them across the land bridge at that time. If they stayed mostly in coastal areas, which could be huge swaths now submerged, we would not be running up against them. They could have gone extinct after some time, or newer arrivals from asia 15kbp could have finished then off

      • nik

        European remains have been found in north america that were older than the 15kbp, but they were claimed by the NA ‘indians’ as theirs, and then reburied, and the whole site was then bulldozed and buried to prevent any further investigation. Someone was probably scared that their ‘first people rights’ to NA might evaporate.

        • Lee Chapman

          You have a link?

          • nik

            Hi, sorry no.
            Its a couple or more years ago, and although I may have saved it, I’ve thousands of saved stuff. I also has a total crash, and the main board and hard drive were replaced, so I lost a lot of stuff.
            There are some youtube documentaries, on similar things, like stone tool caches, that are definitely European style, different from NA indians, and they were found right across from east to west and north west, which is where the remains were found.
            Try Youtube, search, with something like; ”Europeans in america first, or, before indians” or similar.

          • soberiam

            Look up Kennewick Man.

        • Tafur_Kern

          I have a couple of books to recommend, but I need to find my notes.

          In the latter 1800s, the Smithsonian Institute decided that anything found in the US would be credited to Native Americans. This would be held true even if the Indians of the area had no idea what they were. Congress gave the present day Indians the rights to any old bones found in their historical era or area. This is explained in one of the books I need to get the info. As much as anything can be explained when there is a cover up.

          • nik

            Politics trumps truth, always.

  • RebelSoldier

    So that long ago would mean we’re dealing with another hominid species, very related to ours, sort of like grand-uncles to grand-nephews. That is a new and intriguing possibility. The globe, the glaciers at least and their footprint on the land, blocking animal migrations would have been very different before the last ice age or several ice ages ago, I’m no expert on ice ages except to know there have been many, in a row, separated by warm periods, and the last ended about 12,000 years ago. So maybe a hominid species from say Asia migrated here in the dawn of time. Just like in Asia and Europe they were eventually completely eclipsed by our own out of Africa species. But not this long ago. If these are hominids they are not homo sapiens, but homo something else. The thing that keeps hitting me in the head and saying our kind didn’t reach here is the complete disappearance of the America’s mega fauna 12,000 years ago. As in Australia (giant wombat, giant kangaroo and 20 foot long monitor lizard – think giant Komodo Dragon), Madagascar (the elephant bird and giant Lemur) and New Zealand (the giant Moa bird) the arrival of modern humans has been the death knell for giant mammals everywhere.

    • http://secure93.com Paul Evans

      G­℮t resiԁuаl m०n℮y eaᴄһ ѡe℮к..܁ It’s ɑ greɑt sidе wοrĸ ౦ppσrtᴜnͺty ſ૦г aᴨyƄ٥dy܁.܁ Ꭲhе Ꮟesτ paгт αbοut іτ is ᴛһaτ ყou ᴄan Ꮷo thͺs j೦b fᴦ०ʍ c૦mforᴛ of γ๐ur Ꮒ೦m℮ αռd sᴛarτ gettιnƍ ן0Ο˗Ƨ00О dolІɑᴦѕ at тhe end of eveгʏ աeeĸ ܂.۰ ᗅρpӀy f໐г ᴛհe јoᖯ ոoѡ anԁ have ᶌοᴜr firsτ ϱaʏcheϲk ɑτ ᴛhe eпԁ of tᏂe w℮eϰ..܂› RU.VU/bvGJX

      vodsnes

    • J Smith

      Earth has gone from near complete iceball, to temperate, or even tropical climates, at the poles; and rain drenched swamps in the Sahara and desert conditions in what would become amazon, a huge number of times. The earth’s norm is not a stable climate but constant change and oscillation.

      As far as the megafauna extinction in north America of 12kya, since humans in large hunting cultures came because of the land bridge which occurred because of the climate change, the two large events that brought the humans (lots of climate change and the land bridge) themselves could have brought about the extinction, for example climate stressing food chain, or even an animal bringing pathogen(s) for which there was no resistance

      • OWilson

        Good grief!

        Are you daring to suggest that our cute and endangered “furry friends”, could be as dangerous as the destructive human?

        You might have a point though. Our precious biodiversity includes a host of creatures carrying plagues, malaria, HIV, bacterial infections, virus’s, bird flues, and cancers.

        All these pathogens, and more, are a gift from Mother Nature herself. :)

      • nik

        http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/PageMill_Images/image277.gif

        I you look at the above graph of 600 m.y. of Earths climate, you will notice that there are four periods when global temperatures plummeted to extremely low levels;
        450 m.y.; 300 m.y.;150 m.y; and now!

        I have searched for a reason, and found that the Sun orbits the centre of the galaxy. This orbit takes about 600 million years. During that orbit, the sun, and its satellites pass through the spiral arms of the Galaxy, at roughly 150, million year intervals. These events are marked by long term temperature drop, and glaciation due to the suns energy being blocked by space debris, increased meteor activity as the system passes through the debris fields, extreme volcanic, and earthquake events caused by gravitational effects, and major extinctions. In the case of the Permian, extinction of nearly all life on Earth.

        Prior to 600 m.y. it is accepted that the Earth was in a ‘snowball’ state for several millions of years, so this event may mimic that period, and the Earth is due for a long period, [millions of years,] of extreme cold.

        • Tafur_Kern

          There are a series of factors that must line up in order to bring about climate change. If I can find my notes and then find you, I will give you what I have.

          I believe our warming period is supposed to last until about another 1000 years, then a period of extreme cold begins.

          • nik

            You’ve missed the point, we are already in an ice age, and this moderate period is purely temporary. If history repeats this is a repeat of the ‘Snowball Earth’ event, and it will only get colder, and colder as time progresses, for 30-50 million years.

    • nik

      The oldest homo sapiens fossils found were about 160,000 years old, so they could possibly have been ‘us,’ IF they were really fast movers.

  • Roberto

    Did anyone say “Bigfoot” yet?

    (Just kidding, but I think that deserves as much a mention as UFOs)

  • dmappin
  • no1 atall

    If I remember Elaine Morgan published a theory some decades ago explaining many otherwise confusing human attributes–we’re the only hairless apes, the only ones with subcutaneous fat, the only ones with tear ducts, and so on, all of which are features shared with mammals who had a period of aquatic or semi-aquatic evolution (examples include elephants and dolphins).

    I believe Morgan also theorized that AMH evolved from a species of New World great apes, and that remains of now-vanished ancestors might be found off the western coasts on the continental shelves or in areas now flooded.

    The dating of this mastodon find fits well with Morgan’s theories.

  • Mr_Rogers

    Uranium dating for times less than ~ 1 million ya is sketchy at best. At 130,000 ya, you’re trying to ascertain the presence of lead in a uranium sample of about 20 parts-per-million. Given that the sample sizes are usually minuscule as well (milli- to micrograms), you’re now talking about trying to detect 20 nanograms or less of lead (most likely, MUCH less). And then to say that your error bars on the measurement are ± 9,000 ya implies that you’re able to detect the difference between 20 nanograms and 21 nanograms.

    Move along folks – there’s nothing to see here.

  • Alan

    Bigfoot?

  • Brian McInnis

    First Americans may have arrived where?

  • R. Deschain

    How did all this happen just 6,000 years ago? That’s how old the Earth is anyway.

    • Tafur_Kern

      Does a comment like that establish your reputation and a genius in your circlejerk of friends.

  • Brian McInnis

    Anatomically modern humans is not a species. Homo sapiens is.

  • Richard Maroon

    Just had the pleasure and honor of having Richard Cerutti over last Saturday for a barbecue.
    Although in his 70’s he has the bright eyed enthusiasm of a 14 yr old when talking about this find over Coronas and tacos. Caltrans hated him for holding up the 54 for months! They ultimately had to reroute. Amazing mind as he remembers in minute detail not only this find but others some decades ago! Just a great all around guy! Very down to earth (excuse the pun)!

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