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Impossibly Old America? Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Mike Toner

New sites and controversial theories fuel the debate over the origins of America's first people.

[image] Archaeologist Al Goodyear believes people were at South Carolina's Topper site 50,000 years ago. (Mike Toner) [LARGER IMAGE]

Al Goodyear's renowned barbecued pig is roasting on the grill a mile away, but the 200 professional and amateur archaeologists peering into the steep-walled pit where he's standing have other things on their minds.

Goodyear, director of the University of South Carolina's Allendale Paleoindian Expedition, is explaining why he thinks people were here--on the banks of the Savannah River--50,000 years ago. For most of his audience, this sounds almost 40,000 years off, and the notion of a human presence in the New World before the end of the last Ice Age, much less here in South Carolina, is heresy that flies in the face of a half century of American archaeology. Lunch will wait.

"We now have hundreds of artifacts dated between 14,000 and 18,000 years ago," Goodyear says, standing deep in the pit from which he and an army of volunteers have been excavating them over the past several field seasons.

Then he points to a chert boulder and a streak of charcoal embedded in dun-colored clay six feet below him. Fragments were broken off the basketball-size boulder, he says, and used to make crude stone tools. The charcoal stain is, perhaps, an ancient hearth.

"Based on the radiocarbon dates of the charcoal, I think we have evidence of human activity here in the interior of America 40,000 to 50,000 years ago," he says. "It looks like people came here periodically to get chert for their tools. Where they came from and when, I still have no clue."

[image] These stone flakes from the Topper site could be tools, though skeptics insist they are natural. (Darryl P. Miller, USC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology) [LARGER IMAGE]

Could modern humans have made it to the New World at about the same time they were first moving into Europe? Goodyear concedes that such an outlandish claim is "a little like saying we've found life in outer space." After 30 years as a professional archaeologist, he knows it will take more than chert flakes and a band of charcoal to overturn the prevailing view of how the Americas were first settled. Like most other archaeologists, he grew up steeped in the conviction that Ice Age hunters entered Alaska from Siberia around 14,000 years ago, followed an ice-free corridor between the great ice sheets down through Canada, and quickly dispersed to every corner of North America. Alternate theories provided plenty of fuel for spirited debate late last year as hundreds of nationally recognized archaeologists gathered in Columbia, S.C., for "Clovis in the Southeast," a conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of the First Americans, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of South Carolina, and others. Even as archaeologists wrangle over who was first, fresh evidence emerging from several digs--notably the Gault site in central Texas--is posing new questions about the Clovis culture itself. Increasingly, the peopling of the Americas is looking like a more complex process than previously thought.

Regardless of which version of the peopling of the Americas one subscribes to, there is growing agreement--amid the debate over when, how, and from where--that the story is still unfolding. University of Tennessee archaeologist Anderson, in an effort to stake out a skeptical inquirer's middle ground, says the flurry of new questions is a healthy sign.

"We've got to start investigating the peopling of the Americas as a process and not an event," says University of Tennessee archaeologist David Anderson. "The more we know, the more we realize how complex the situation is. The fact is we don't have a simple story to tell. That's what makes this an exciting time in archaeology."

Mike Toner is a science writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and writes frequently about archaeological issues in the Southeast.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America