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America was populated earlier than traditionally thought, scientists conclude

March 24, 2011
Courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers in Tex­as say they have un­earthed thou­sands of ar­ti­facts show­ing that peo­ple were in Amer­i­ca over a thou­sand years ear­li­er than pre­vi­ously be­lieved.

The con­ti­nen­t’s first set­tlers were long thought to be the so-called Clo­vis peo­ple, who would have ar­rived about 13,000 years ago and left be­hind tools known for dis­tinc­tive points. The new find­ings came from a lay­er of earth di­rectly be­neath a group of Clo­vis relics, adding to ev­i­dence that oth­er cul­tures pre­ced­ed the Clo­vis one in North Amer­i­ca, the re­search­ers said. 

Some of ar­ti­facts from the Fried­kin site. (Im­age cour­te­sy Mi­chael R. Wa­ters)


This pre-Clo­vis toolkit, they added, seems to be be­tween 13,200 and 15,500 years old and it in­cludes blade tech­nol­o­gy that may have lat­er been adapt­ed—and im­proved up­on—by the Clo­vis cul­ture.

Ev­i­dence had been build­ing for years for the ex­ist­ence of pre-Clo­vis Amer­i­can cul­tures, but was of­ten dis­put­ed in part be­cause of a pau­city of ac­tu­al ar­ti­facts.

The new site in Tex­as, known as the Deb­ra L. Fried­kin site, is said to in­form re­search­ers about the tran­si­tion to Clo­vis cul­ture and tech­nol­o­gy, which is lat­er seen across North and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca as well as north­ern South Amer­i­ca. These new ar­ti­facts com­prise what re­search­ers are call­ing the But­ter­milk Creek Com­plex. De­tails of its ex­cava­t­ion are de­scribed in the March 25 is­sue of the jour­nal Sci­ence.

Mi­chael Wa­ters of Tex­as A&M Un­ivers­ity and col­leagues de­scribed the var­i­ous blades, scrap­ers and chop­pers found among the 15,528 ar­ti­facts in the But­ter­milk Creek Com­plex. They used lu­mi­nes­cence dat­ing, which meas­ures the light en­er­gy trapped in sed­i­ment grains, to date the 20-centimeter (8-inch) thick lay­er of sed­i­ment sur­round­ing the toolkit.

“We have found ev­i­dence of an early hu­man oc­cupa­t­ion… 2,500 years old­er than Clo­vis,” said Wa­ters. “This makes the Fried­kin site the old­est cred­i­ble ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in Tex­as and North Amer­i­ca. The site is im­por­tant to the de­bate about the tim­ing of the co­lon­iz­a­tion of the Amer­i­cas and the ori­gins of Clo­vis.”

Excavations at the Debra L. Friedkin Site in Texas. (Im­age cour­te­sy Mi­chael R. Wa­ters)


The tools are small and made of chert, a type of rock some­times used in place of flint to make tools, though flint is of bet­ter qual­ity. The re­search­ers sug­gest that the gad­gets were de­signed for a toolkit that could be easily packed up and moved. The ob­jects are dif­fer­ent from the Clo­vis tools al­though they do share some si­m­i­lar­i­ties.

Un­der the tra­di­tion­al think­ing, the Clo­vis peo­ple came to the New World from North­east Asia by cross­ing the Ber­ing Land Bridge, which once con­nect­ed Asia and North Amer­i­ca. From there, they would have spread out across the con­ti­nent and even­tu­ally reached South Amer­i­ca.

But some prob­lems with this mod­el have re­cently aris­en, ac­cord­ing to its crit­ics. First of all, no Clo­vis tech­nol­o­gy has turned up in North­east Asia and the dis­tinc­tive “flut­ed” points disco­vered in Alas­ka are too young to be Clo­vis. Fur­ther­more, there are six sites in South Amer­i­ca that do not con­tain Clo­vis tech­nol­o­gy, al­though they did ex­ist dur­ing the same time pe­ri­od.

The ev­i­dence at the Fried­kin site im­plies that Clo­vis tools could have evolved from tools like those found at the But­ter­milk Creek Com­plex, in­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­gued, and that the Clo­vis cul­ture, de­vel­oped in North Amer­i­ca.

“This disco­very pro­vides am­ple time for Clo­vis to de­vel­op,” said Wa­ters. “Peo­ple [from the But­ter­milk Creek Com­plex] could have ex­pe­ri­mented with stone and in­vented the weapons and tools that we now rec­og­nize as Clo­vis… In short, it is now time to aban­don once and for all the ‘Clo­vis First’ mod­el and de­vel­op a new mod­el for the peo­pling of the Amer­i­cas.”


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Researchers in Texas say they have unearthed thousands of artifacts showing that people were in America over a thousand years earlier than previously believed. The continent’s first settlers were long thought to be the so-called Clovis people, who who would have arrived about 13,000 years ago and left behind tools were known for distinctive points. The new findings came from a layer of earth directly beneath an group of Clovis relics, adding to evidence that other cultures preceded the Clovis culture in North America, the researchers said. This pre-Clovis toolkit, they added, seems to be between 13,200 and 15,500 years old and it includes blade technology that may have later been adapted—and improved upon—by the Clovis culture. Evidence had been building for years for the existence of pre-Clovis American cultures, but was often disputed in part because of a paucity of actual artifacts. The new site in Texas, known as the Debra L. Friedkin site, is said to inform researchers about the transition to Clovis culture and technology, which is later seen across North and Central America as well as northern South America. These new artifacts comprise what researchers are calling the Buttermilk Creek Complex. Details of its excavation are described in the March 25 issue of the journal Science. Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and colleagues described the various blades, scrapers and choppers found among the 15,528 artifacts in the Buttermilk Creek Complex. They used luminescence dating, which measures the light energy trapped in sediment grains, to date the 20-centimeter (8-inch) thick layer of sediment surrounding the toolkit. “We have found evidence of an early human occupation… 2,500 years older than Clovis,” said Waters. “This makes the Friedkin site the oldest credible archaeological site in Texas and North America. The site is important to the debate about the timing of the colonization of the Americas and the origins of Clovis.” The tools are small and made of chert, a type of rock sometimes used in place of flint to make tools, though flint is of better quality. The researchers suggest that the gadgets were designed for a toolkit that could be easily packed up and moved. The objects are different from Clovis tools although they do share some similarities. Under the traditional thinking, the Clovis people came to the New World from Northeast Asia by crossing the Bering Land Bridge, which once connected Asia and North America. From there, they would have spread out across the continent and eventually reached South America. But some problems with this model have recently arisen, according to its critics. First of all, no Clovis technology has turned up in Northeast Asia and the distinctive “fluted” points discovered in Alaska are too young to be Clovis. Furthermore, there are six sites in South America that do not contain Clovis technology, although they did exist during the same time period. The evidence at the Friedkin site implies that Clovis tools could have evolved from tools like those found at the Buttermilk Creek Complex, investigators argued, and that the Clovis culture, developed in North America. “This discovery provides ample time for Clovis to develop,” said Waters. “People [from the Buttermilk Creek Complex] could have experimented with stone and invented the weapons and tools that we now recognize as Clovis… In short, it is now time to abandon once and for all the ‘Clovis First’ model and develop a new model for the peopling of the Americas.”