First Americans: Gault Projectiles Point To Earlier Presence

By Gemma Tarlach | July 11, 2018 1:00 pm
Stone tool assemblage recovered from the Gault Site. (Credit: Produced by N Velchoff ©The Gault School of Archaeological Research

Without human remains older than about 13,000 years, the best evidence for the earliest peopling of the Americas comes from stone tools such as the Gault projectiles, unique in shape, and other artifacts from a site in Texas. They represent previously unknown First Americans that pre-date Clovis, once thought to be the first indigenous culture in the New World. (Credit: Produced by N Velchoff ©The Gault School of Archaeological Research)

Amid a growing number of finds that challenge the long-held timeline of the peopling of the Americas, researchers get to the point: Artifacts found at a site in Texas, including projectile points of a previously unknown style, are at least 16,000 years old, pre-dating the conventional arrival date of First Americans.

For decades, the Clovis culture loomed large in theories about when the First Americans arrived to the New World. Named for a town in New Mexico where the first artifacts were found in the 1930s, Clovis was long considered the first indigenous culture of the Americas.

Thousands of examples of the iconic Clovis point — a thin, usually sharp projectile point with distinct fluting, skillfully formed from various types of rock — have been found throughout North America. Some examples, or similar artifacts, have also turned up in South America.

But they’re not found anywhere else, leading researchers to believe the Clovis culture arose in the New World, created by some of the first people to settle here. The wide distribution of Clovis points suggested that the culture was widespread, perhaps the result of people radiating out across the continent from a single founding population.

A selection of Clovis Points found in Iowa are among the thousands of projectiles unearthed across most of North America. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Bill Whittaker)

A selection of Clovis Points found in Iowa are among the thousands of projectiles unearthed across most of North America. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Bill Whittaker)

The oldest securely-dated Clovis artifacts are about 13,500 years old, which coincides with what had been the conventionally held arrival date for the First Americans via the now-submerged land bridge of Beringia.

An Early Start

Beginning in the 1990s, however, and accelerating in recent years, researchers have unearthed a trove of sites older than 13,500 years and thousands of miles from Beringia, such as a mastodon butchering site in Florida. Additional finds from Alaska to Chile have shown that modern humans were present in the Americas well before Clovis.

Late last year, a group of researchers called for the field to accept that the Americas were populated thousands of years earlier than once thought. They called for increased exploration of potential sites — many now submerged — that may offer additional evidence of an earlier arrival date via the Kelp Highway: early people using boats to follow the nutrient-rich Pacific coastline from Asia and into the Americas millennia before glaciers receded enough to expose land corridors.

Some researchers go a step further, arguing that the pre-Clovis finds  are distinct enough from both Clovis and each other to suggest that people had been living in the Americas long enough to establish their own unique regional identities. That school of thought gets a boost today in the form of stone artifacts, including unique projectile points, from a site in Gault, Texas.

The Gault site is not new to science: it has been excavated for decades and has yielded hundreds of thousands of artifacts, particularly of Clovis culture. Located about an hour’s drive north of Austin, the Central Texas site is in the Buttermilk Creek Valley and offered year-round resources that would have been valuable to the First Americans, including water and high-quality stone for tool-making.

Layers of sedimentary deposits have preserved evidence of occupation by a succession of cultures, but researchers only recently returned to the oldest layer to be studied, known as Area 15. This layer is beneath the deposits that contained Clovis artifacts.

Stimulating Results

The team behind today’s study used optically stimulated luminscence (OSL) to date the Area 15 deposits. One of the relatively newer scientific dating methods, OSL exploits a neat aspect of buried sediments and some other types of rocks: Once covered and no longer exposed to sunlight, quartz crystals in the material accumulate a luminescence signal. Researchers sample the material and are then able to measure the signal in the lab, giving them an accurate estimate of when it was buried.

The researchers determined that the Area 15 layer is at least 16,000 years old, and may be as old as 20,000 years. The team concluded that the Gault site was most likely inhabited at least 17,000-18,000 years ago. The new dates confirm that the layer is not just pre-Clovis but significantly so, by a few thousand years. In addition, there is separation between the pre-Clovis and Clovis layers, suggesting that the pre-Clovis tool-makers abandoned the site before the Clovis people moved in. What’s particularly important about Area 15’s date is that, unlike other, isolated finds that have been dated to pre-Clovis, the Gault site preserves multiple layers of occupation above the artifacts, providing what the authors call “distinct and well-separated occupational horizons.”

In other words, Area 15 isn’t just a bunch of really old stone tools. It’s a snapshot of an earlier time preserved in an entire photo album that chronicles the story of human occupation at a single site.

A Pointed Find

Analyzing 184 Area 15 artifacts, including projectile points, the team also found that some of the tools show a method of production and style never before seen. Stemmed projectile points in particular differ enough from Clovis points that the authors concluded they were “technologically and morphologically distinct” from the later style, suggesting a completely different group of people made them.

Some of the other artifacts, such as hand axes, have some similarities to those seen in Clovis culture but are still distinct, leaving the researchers to conclude that the Area 15 artifacts “represent a unique pattern…that indicates regional adaptation after the initial colonization of the New World.”

Once considered both monolithic (no pun intended) and the first indigenous culture of the New World, forged from the first people to arrive in the Americas, Clovis is looking more like a late addition to a diverse and well-established cultural landscape that began millennia before the first enterprising toolmaker thought to create a fluted point.

The study appears today in Science Advances.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • nik

    Most archaeology of civilisation, at present, rarely goes back further than 15,000-20,000 years, but 100,000 years ago the at the end of an inter ice age like our own at present, there could have been civilisations similar to those that have existed and developed during this inter ice age. All traces of those civilisations would either now be buried deep underground, deep under the seas, or have been ground to dust by widespread mile high glaciers.
    The more archaeologists search, the more the ”out of Africa 40,000 years ago” theory becomes untenable.
    Remains of humans, such as ourselves have been found that are presently up to 300,000 years old, or three ice ages. Given the almost total destruction of everything, by ice ages, humans may be even much older than present finds suggest, but the chances of finding evidence is probably slim to zero, short of an accident.
    These previous civilisations may be the source of the ‘anomalous’ finds that occur quite frequently, but are shelved, because they dont fit current theory. However, current theory is constantly being updated, so maybe a new look at the anomalous artefacts would be enlightening, in the same way that new finds in the Americas have been.

    • OWilson

      Life leaves tell tale persistent evidence which ice ages and the intervening warm spells can even reveal.

      Pimitive “tools” almost 3 million years old have been found recently, but no evidence of great Atlantean or Alien cities, that arose from their use!

      The truth is not quite as sensational, (Mesopotamians and their abundant wild grasses) but interesting nevertheless! :)

      • nik

        Hi OW.
        As I said most of the evidence would be destroyed, or deep under ground, or sea.
        There are persistent discoveries that hint that intelligent and mathematically advanced communities existed before our own, even during this inter ice age, so if one were to excavate back 200-300,000 years, who knows what would be found!
        Mostly what is found is stone tools as they are the most resilient, and long lasting. Most metal will corrode to dust in just a few tens of thousands of years, so non older than that will be found, but that doesn’t mean that they couldnt have existed.
        There’s a popular myth that the Egyptians only has bronze tools, but they traded with other middle east countries for a whole variety of metals. Some are those that would be used for alloying with steel for hardness, like cobalt. Steel plates were discovered jammed between stones when an entry was being cut into one of the pyramids, and there is evidence of an iron working unit nearby, from the same period. All this ignored by archaeologists so they can perpetuate their ”mystery” of how the Egyptians cut granite with bronze tools. Obviously they could not, so they must have had tools that could. It’s just that they haven’t survived 5000 years of corrosion.

        • TheNotoriousKGP

          Archaeologists are not in the business of perpetuating mysteries that they know are untrue. Perpetuating THAT myth is tired and irresponsible.

          • nik

            Which particular myth is that?

          • TheNotoriousKGP

            The myth that archaeologists are in the business of perpetuating myths.

          • nik

            Its not a myth, most are, with regard to ancient Egyptian tools, usually those who pontificate on television.

          • OWilson

            Archaeologists are heavily invested in their theories, papers, books and teaching, with an unseemly need to tie up all the loose ends, before they leave the planet.

            What is missing is a true scientific open mindedness, that inevitably leaves them “puzzled” and “scratching their heads” and even attacking new contradictory new findings. :)

            Like climateology, it is one of the soft, interpretive sciences, influenced heavily by current societal mores!

      • nik

        If the coastlines that existed during the last 90,000 years of ice age were mapped, [underwater] and the places like estuaries, where people tend to settle were investigated by remote controlled vehicles, it would probably show ancient settlements.
        Someone, before this inter ice age, seems to have mastered advanced mathematics and stone working and building technologies, combined with really exact knowledge of astronomy.
        Some are known to exist off the coast of India, but are relatively recent. Older settlements would be too deep to explore by scuba diving.
        (No Aliens required.)
        If it is considered that there are still tribes that exist that have no contact with present modern society, then its perfectly feasible that a technically advanced society could develop while the rest of the worlds tiny population was still in the stone age.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Dead Things

Digging up the dirt on the latest finds and weirdest revelations, from lost civilizations to dinosaurs.

See More

Collapse bottom bar