Friday, 20 May 2016

Will Someone Please Kill Clovis? The Archaeological Theory That Just Won't Die

Last weekend, a note arrived in my email about ancient stone tools and a mastodon tusk found deep under the sediments in a Floridian river. The Page-Ladson site is on the eastern end of the Florida panhandle.  First excavated in 1983, the radiocarbon dates done at that time were discounted as impossible because they were so old. The site was re-excavated by Michael Waters of Texas A&M, and Jessi Halligan of Florida State University, along with diver/ investigators from University of Toronto. They have just reported in Science Advances that human beings were at work at Page-Ladson long before the previously accepted Clovis First theory says humans arrived in the Americas. Using all the latest tools of archaeological investigation in the murky river waters, they dug below a sealing layer of sediment, centimeter by centimeter. The evidence they found showed that during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, the site was not under a river: it was a sink hole or pond surrounded by grasslands. It was just the kind of place that a mastodon would have found attractive; just the kind of place where human hunters would have lain in wait. The mastodon tusk they dredged up bore cut marks from human-made stone tools, such as the knife and other tools they also found. You can see them here. Their radiocarbon tests said the remains were 14,550 years old, within a 100 years of the original dates previously written off as obviously wrong-- because they were two thousand years older than Clovis.

This turned out to be a popular story. The headline in one of my newspapers said "Resetting clock on continent's history". If only! The Clovis theory has been disproved over and over again to no avail, yet it is still constantly referred to as the Ur story of the peopling of the Americas. Clovis First is a vampire of a theory--it just never dies. Reason and heaps of evidence have been unable to bring it down. How about garlic? Wooden stakes?

The Clovis First story goes back to the 1920s when beautiful stone spear points were found intermingled with the bones of extinct animals at Clovis, New Mexico. The site was thought to be about 12,000 years old. Soon Clovis style points were found at other sites in the southern US, prompting generation after generation of leading American archaeologists to insist that these Clovis people were the first to populate the Americas. They had no evidence to support such claims. But so what? Whenever anyone was foolish enough to point to a site with dates earlier than Clovis, and there have been many, the leaders in the field fell upon that investigator, critiqued the work unmercifully and made certain he/she failed to advance in his/her career. Sensible archaeologists soon understood it was better to walk away from such a site than to try and publish on it. Meanwhile, the Clovis First theory spawned more theories: the second was that these Clovis people were responsible for the extinction of the major mega fauna that once roamed the Americas from Alaska to Chile and they did it in less than a thousand years. The third was that these Clovis people must have originated somewhere in Siberia because the only way humans could have entered the Americas was by walking over the Bering Land bridge when it was above sea level during the last Ice Age. From Alaska, they were said to have walked down through what was called the Ice Free Corridor between the two major glacial masses, the Laurentide and the Cordilleran, that were assumed never to have met and merged. In other words: these Clovis people must have been Asians First and most Native Americans are their descendants.Also: they were incapable of building and using boats.

We do love our stories.

My friend sent me a link to the story about Page-Ladson because he knew it would make me laugh. I wrote a book called Bones: Discovering the First Americans, 15 years ago that debunked the Clovis First theory by reference to actual evidence. My research lead me to fascinating sites from one end of the Americas to the other, from Fort McMurray, Alberta, where archaeologists were unearthing ancient hunting grounds of ancient people who clearly arrived from the south on their boats, all the way down to Minas Gerais and Piaui in Brazil. I learned from Brazilian anthropologists who study ancient human remains, that the oldest found in the Americas are in the south-- in Brazil and in Mexico-- not in Alaska, or in northern Canada where you think they'd be if Clovis First was correct. And no, the Brazilian human remains -- found in rock shelter burials in Minas Gerais -- most closely resemble Africans, not Asians (though they don't actually look like any people alive nowadays). I met geneticists who chart human migrations and relationships of descent by means of DNA markers whose work showed at least four entries and maybe more with significant differences between populations on the west side of the Americas and on the East. I read the work of linguists who painted a picture of multiple movements into the Americas along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. I visited one scholar who found a hearth site in Piaui that dates back 30,000 years.

But for me, the definitive disproof of the Clovis First/Bering Strait/Ice Free Corridor theories was presented by a Chilean-Canadian geologist who works for the Geological Service of Canada. Unlike those who relied upon the Ice Free Corridor theory without ever bothering to go to the Mackenzie Valley to test it, Alejandra Duk-Rodkin actually took the trouble to study the geology of the Mackenzie Valley and the history of its river from top to bottom. Over the course of many summers, she walked every inch of it, tapping away at this rock face, sampling here and there. She showed conclusively in the 1990s that the two great North American ice fields actually met and merged during the Ice Age's maximum, and failed to part until about 10,000 years ago. That's twenty five hundred years after people who made those fabulous Clovis spear points were killing mega fauna in New Mexico.

You'd think that leading American archaeologists would by now be familiar with Duk-Rodkin's work.

You'd think Canadian newspaper editors would refer to it.

But no.

That's why I'm off to buy garlic.

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