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Pre-Clovis Sites, People, Culture & Artifacts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who were the first people to live in the Americas? It's an interesting question, and one that's hotly debated. In this lesson, we'll explore one proposed answer and see what evidence supports it.

Before Clovis

Who were the first people to live in the Americas? If humans evolved in Africa, then when did they enter the Western Hemisphere and how did they get here? For decades, the consensus has been that the first culture native to the Americas was that of the Clovis people, who emerged in North America between 11,500 and 10,000 BCE. The theory is that during the last Ice Age, so much sea water was trapped in glaciers that sea levels fell and revealed a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Ancient people walked across (or sailed along the coastline) and became the first inhabitants of the Americas, forming the Clovis culture.

Traditional model of human distribution around the world
human distribution

That's the accepted history of the hemisphere, and for years it went unquestioned. However, evidence has emerged that suggests a possible human presence in the Americas before the Clovis people arrived. Could there have been a pre-Clovis culture in the Western Hemisphere? It's one of the most controversial topics in modern archeology.

The Pre-Clovis Culture Debate

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, archeologists began to notice some unusual things about their Clovis sites. They were appearing all across North America and all dated to roughly the same time. Why were Clovis sites in Florida and Virginia as old as those on the west coast? Think about what this would mean. In a time span of a few centuries, a foreign people made it from Siberia to Alaska, trekked all the way down the glacier-covered coastline of Canada, adapted to a brand new environment, and then diffused across the entire continent so successfully that enough of their material culture could be found 12,000 years later.

It was a troubling question, and the theory of a pre-Clovis culture began to emerge. However, the archeological community at large vehemently rejected the idea. It just didn't seem possible, and the reason goes back to those glaciers. The land bridge between Siberia and Alaska was only open for a short time period; before that, it was still under water. The only other time it was exposed was 40,000 years earlier. So, either humans lived in the Americas for 40,000 years longer than we thought and left no evidence of their presence, or they found a way to sail across some of the most treacherous seas in the world before 12,000 BCE.

Clovis stone tools, like these, are very uniform. The stone tools found in most pre-Clovis sites do not match Clovis typologies
Clovis tools

However, as the body of evidence for a pre-Clovis culture continues to grow, more archeologists are accepting that our traditional assumptions may have to be reexamined. There are numerous potential pre-Clovis sites across the Americas, but let's look at three which have really had an impact.

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter

In the 1970s, archeologists excavating a rockshelter in Pennsylvania uncovered a surprisingly rich array of stone tool flakes and animal bones which seemed to have been butchered and cooked over a fire. Bone is great because you can carbon date it. Those fragments ended up yielding dates ranging from 12,000-14,000 BCE. That could predate the Clovis culture by up to 3,000 years. It's also worth noting that the stone tool flakes found at these levels are inconsistent with Clovis stone tools, which had a very systematic and uniform typology.

So, what happened at this site? Skeptics claim that natural carbon in the soil or groundwater contaminated the bone fragments, throwing off the radiocarbon dates. The archeologists who excavated what is now known as the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, however, insist that their samples were tested for contamination. The fragments have since been tested with more modern methods and the dates are still consistent with the original findings.

Pedra Furada

Potentially pre-Clovis dates in North America are intriguing enough, but what about South America? The rockshelter of Pedra Furada, located in Brazil, may suggest that ancient people diffused across the entire hemisphere and not just the northern continent. At this site, potential stone tools were found with an incredible date range of 30,000-40,000 BCE.

Pedra Furada, in Brazil
Pedra Furada

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