Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Boning Up on the First Americans Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Eric A. Powell

The past few years have seen a rash of books on the archaeology of the first Americans. One of the more intriguing is Canadian journalist Elaine Dewar's penetrating Bones: Discovering the First Americans (New York: Carrol&Graf, 2002; $30).

Unlike similar volumes written by archaeologists who have spent decades wrestling with radiocarbon dates and skeletal morphology, Bones reflects the perspective of a latecomer to the debates over the character and timing of the first entry into the Americas. Indeed, before she dug up a human bone while tending forsythia in her Toronto garden in 1995, Dewar admits she hadn't given much thought to the question of who peopled America. But after making inquiries about her find, she was hooked.

Dewar quickly discovered that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1991 had radically changed the political and legal ground rules of archaeology at the same time researchers were challenging the long-held belief that large mammal-hunting Clovis people were America's first inhabitants. The Kennewick Man saga, which pits a group of archaeologists against Native Americans seeking to rebury 8,000-year-old remains, and the controversy surrounding the putative pre-Clovis site of Monte Verde were obvious starting points for her research. But beyond interesting character sketches of principals like James Chatters, the archaeologist who first studied Kennewick Man, and Tom Dillehay, who excavated Monte Verde, the author has little new to add to these familiar stories.

Dewar's tenacity and reporting skills, however, pay off in a series of visits to museums and sites that play peripheral roles in the drama. Readers who feel they know Kennewick Man's most intimate details will be interested to learn about Canada's obscure Gore Creek remains, a skeleton of considerable antiquity that was reburied after a bureaucratic snafu. It's also nice to find out that nasty infighting isn't solely the province of Americans. While in Brazil, Dewar visits Pedra Furada, a controversial site dug by archaeologist Niéde Guidon, who is embroiled in a lawsuit against Brazilian colleagues she accuses of slandering her with articles critical of her radiocarbon dates.

Halfway through Bones it's clear Dewar roots for the paradigm-busting pre-Clovis advocates. One can't help wishing that she had pursued the other side of the story with the same enthusiasm. Still, sharp writing and strong reporting make Bones a compelling, though idiosyncratic, take on the controversies inspired by the first Americans.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America