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The Site of Monte Verde "Monte Verde Under Fire"
October 18, 1999
by Michael B. Collins

Stuart Fiedel (1999) has thoroughly and carefully reviewed the two-volume monograph series on Monte Verde as well as many other publications relating to the site. This was a prodigious task because much has been written by scores of contributors over the 20 years of investigations of this site and its data. Few readers of this material would look as closely as Fiedel has, and he provides a useful critique of the work and the publications derived from that work. One value of his effort is identification of numerous errors and inconsistencies that all of us need to be aware of as we use the reports. However, Fiedel incorrectly concludes that these errors and inconsistencies nullify the validity of Monte Verde as an early site. He also suggests, again incorrectly, that the investigators deliberately misrepresent evidence from the site. I worked with the lithic collection from Monte Verde intermittently over an 18-year period and spent a week at and near the site in 1985. My fieldwork was specifically directed toward understanding the natural occurrences of stones like the ones found in the site. The insights gained in this endeavor proved absolutely invaluable to my studies of the Monte Verde lithics. I did no archeological excavation. I did, however, closely examine the stratigraphic sections for both the MV-I and the MV-II components and had the opportunity to see ongoing excavations in MV-II. I can say from my observations that the stratigraphic contexts of both cultural horizons are of excellent integrity and are well and accurately depicted in the reports. There is no potential for artifact mixing or intrusion in either MV-I or MV-II.

Fiedel's review is clearly biased and negative in tone. He ignores material that does not support his critical thesis and takes the more negative or improbable of alternative views of each case that he discusses. An even, balanced review of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the material would have been more appropriate. In regard to his critique of the lithics, Monte Verde is not dependent upon a handful of artifacts for establishing its status as a site. The presence of many of the stones at the site cannot be explained except as the result of human activities--rock types that only occur in remote geologic outcrops, stones larger than those occurring in the natural gravels of the region, and rocks found locally but non-randomly selected for their sizes, shapes, and lithologies. Fiedel expresses doubt that the rhyolitic core is cultural, basing his opinion on a photograph. The flat, almost featureless flake scars characteristic of rhyolite are not apparent in the photograph, but they are clearly depicted in the accompanying line drawing which Fiedel does not mention. Nor does he mention the unequivocally cultural quartz chopper that has counterparts among stone-tool industries throughout the world.

Two other examples of the biased approach in Fiedel's review are his discussion of the lack of evidence for flaking at the site and differences between assessments of stone tool use by [excavation director Tom] Dillehay and me. In the first instance, it is not unusual at prehistoric sites to find stone tools but little debris from their manufacture. Fiedel is bothered by this in the case of Monte Verde. He also views Dillehay's notion that a large rib fragment might be a flaker as illogical since so little flaking debris was found at the site. In fact, there is no reason why a flaking tool has to remain at the area where flaking took place because it, like the finished stone tools, can be taken to another place. The assemblage at Monte Verde consists of a small number of highly curated flaked stone tools and a large number of minimally modified expedient tools, precisely the kind of tool assemblage likely to be found away from the place where the flaked stone tools were manufactured.

Dillehay examined lithic specimens microscopically for use wear, and I examined them without magnification for evidence of use. Our results are not particularly concordant, but that does not invalidate them. It simply reflects the fact that the kind of use producing wear that can be seen microscopically does not necessarily show up macroscopically. It probably also results from difficulties in microscopically assessing crystalline metamorphic and igneous rocks for use wear, from limited macroscopic effects from use that could be expected on hard stones that were not used extensively, and from the fact that one of the best macroscopic clues that a tool has been used is evidence for reworking. Reworking rarely occurs on expedient tools. Dillehay and I made and reported our separate examinations independently and did not force them into agreement; it seems that Fiedel takes our honesty on this point as an indication that our results are not valid.

Contrary to Fiedel's twisted presentation of my views, I see the lithic assemblage from Monte Verde as an effective, though largely expedient, set of tools that mostly were gathered selectively from nearby gravels, used in various ways, and discarded in the site. This is a bona fide archeological assemblage, it is very old, and it has profound implications for American prehistory. Problems exist in the reporting--as they do in any large report--and these must be addressed. We must not, however, take these to mean that the site and its investigation are invalid.

For additional comments, see Collins (1999).

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America