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Story of first Americans being rewritten

Feb. 22, 2007
Courtesy Texas A&M University
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have tra­di­tion­ally as­cribed the first peo­pling of the Amer­i­cas to the Clo­vis cul­ture—big-game hunters thought to have roamed North Amer­i­can plains start­ing around 11,500 years ago.

Clo­vis spear- or arrow-heads re­cov­ered from the Gault site, Tex­as. (Cour­te­sy Cen­ter for the Study of the First Amer­i­cans, TAMU)


But that idea has been wide­ly chal­lenged in re­cent years. Now, an an­thro­po­l­o­gist has found ev­i­dence he claims could be the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for the “Clo­vis first” mod­el.

Mi­chael Wa­ters, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of the First Amer­i­cans at Tex­as A&M Uni­ver­si­ty in Col­lege Sta­tion, Tex­as, and a col­league de­tailed the find­ings in the Feb. 23 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence

“The new dat­ing that we did in­di­cates that the Clo­vis Com­plex ranges from 11,050 to 10,900 ra­di­o­car­bon years be­fore the pre­sen­t,” Wa­ters said. A ra­di­o­car­bon year is a year as de­ter­mined by ra­di­o­car­bon dat­ing, an anal­y­sis wide­ly used to date or­gan­ic ma­te­ri­als based on their con­tent of the ra­di­o­ac­t­ive el­e­ment Carbon-14.

The new­found dates con­tra­dict “an emerg­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal rec­ord that sup­ports a pre-Clo­vis hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion of the Amer­i­cas,” his team wrote. Stone tools and butchered mam­moth re­mains dat­ing to 12,500 ra­di­o­car­bon years ago have been found in Wis­con­sin, they re­marked; hu­mans also ap­pear to have been pre­s­ent around then in Chil­e.

The new­ly clar­i­fied dates show that Clo­vis lasted no more than 200 to 400 years, mak­ing it al­most im­pos­si­ble for the Clo­vis peo­ple to spread as far as pre­vi­ously thought in such a short time, Wa­ters added.

“How could peo­ple, in such a short pe­ri­od of time, reach the tip of South Amer­i­ca? It does­n’t make any kind of an­thro­po­log­i­cal sense that these peo­ple could have been mov­ing that fast, nor would they have wanted to … it seems high­ly un­like­ly, giv­en 20 gen­er­a­tions, they could have made it that far that quick­ly.”

Wa­ters and co-author Thom­as Staf­ford of Staf­ford Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries in La­fa­yette, Colo. tested sam­ples from Clo­vis sites in an ef­fort to re-date some of what Wa­ters said were poor­ly dat­ed sites. Be­cause of technolog­i­cal ad­vanc­es, Wa­ters ar­gues that that the pair was able to re-date more pre­cise­ly some of the more than 25 dat­ed sites found in North Amer­i­ca.


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Scientists have traditionally ascribed the first peopling of the Americas to the Clovis culture, big-game hunters thought to have roamed North American plains starting around 11,500 years ago. But that idea has been widely challenged in recent years. Now, an anthro pologist has found evidence he said could be the final nail in the coffin for the “Clovis first” model. Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and colleagues detailed the findings in Friday’s issue of the research journal Science. “The new dating that we did indicates that the Clovis Complex ranges from 11,050 to 10,900 radiocarbon years before the present,” Waters said. A radiocarbon year is a year as determined by radiocarbon dating, an analysis commonly used to date organic materials based on their content of the radioactive element Carbon-14. The newfound dates contradict “an emerging archaeo logical record that supports a pre-Clovis human occupation of the Americas,” his team wrote. Stone tools and butchered mammoth remains dating to 12,500 radiocarbon years ago have been founding Wisconsin, they remarked, and humans appear to have been present around then in Chile. The newly clarified dates show that Clovis lasted no more than 200 to 400 years, making it almost impossible for the Clovis people to spread as far as previously thought in such a short time span, Waters added. “How could people, in such a short period of time, reach the tip of South America? It doesn’t make any kind of anthro pological sense that these people could have been moving that fast, nor would they have wanted to … it seems highly unlikely, given 20 generations, they could have made it that far that quickly.” Waters and co-author Thomas Stafford of Stafford Research Laboratories in Lafayette, Colo. tested samples from Clovis sites in an effort to re-date some of what Waters said were poorly dated sites. Because of technological advances, Waters argues that that the pair was able to re-date more precisely some of the more than 25 dated Clovis sites found in North America.