Who Came First?

Before ever a word was written, at least five thousand generations of human beings had lived out their lives on this earth, among them extraordinary innovators and adventurers who planted the first crops, created the first art, and discovered and settled entire continents. Yet except in the most extraordinary circumstances, nothing but stone tools and broken bones remain to tell us of their lives and triumphs. It is to shed light into this void that archaeologists delve into the earth, and—as one might imagine—the stories they emerge to tell are open to interpretation. Few, however, have proven as contentious as those concerning the peopling of the Americas.

The very first human discovery of the Americas must have unleashed enormous opportunity for those tribes that crossed from Asia, for at a swoop they and their descendants occupied 28 percent of the globe’s land surface—including some of its richest, most diverse, and most spectacular landscapes. Today the details of that conquest have been obscured by the mists of time, and so scientists continue to argue the basics of who, when, and how.

The traditional view is that the earliest Americans were the Clovis people, who arrived around 13,200 years ago by way of a narrow land corridor which was just then opening in the ice sheet that had long divided temperate North America from Asia. For at least thirty years, however, some archaeologists have been suggesting that the first Americans were already in residence 16,000 years ago, and that they arrived by skirting the ice barrier in boats. Their work has received much recent popular coverage, including an extended article in National Geographic magazine.

While inherently interesting, the debate also has wider dimensions, for many traditionalists think that the Clovis were big-game hunters who exterminated America’s megafauna (including the mammoth, mastodon, and other ice-age beasts) much as hunters of the historic frontier nearly did to the buffalo. The champions of a pre-Clovis presence, on the other hand, read into bones and stones the story of a gentle people who caused no detectable environmental disturbance. Whatever the case, it is becoming clear that the debate is about even more than that, for it touches on the very way we conduct science.

J.M. Adovasio is a passionate believer in a pre-Clovis human presence in America. His book, The First Americans, which was written with the assistance of Jake Page, a former editor of Natural History magazine, presents what the authors claim to be indisputable proof that people inhabited the Americas some 16,000 years ago.

Adovasio has spent much of his professional career excavating a single site—the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania—and it is this site that provides most of the evidence presented in his book. His team began work there in 1972, and over the past thirty years they have dug through eleven identifiable layers, recovered more than two million artifacts, and obtained fifty-two radiocarbon dates, using the technique by which age …

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