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The Importance of Monte Verde "Monte Verde Under Fire"
October 18, 1999
by Mark Rose

The Clovis Orthodoxy

Monte Verde's great importance is that, granted the site is valid, it breaks the Clovis barrier, that is it is earlier than the widespread Clovis culture which has been accepted for nearly 50 years to be the earliest in the Americas. This belief in the Clovis-first model for the colonization of the New World had become so entrenched that many scholars felt that it stifled debate about the subject and that its proponents were self-appointed defenders of the faith.

The rise of the Clovis Orthodoxy goes back to the first decades of this century. Throughout the 1890s William Henry Holmes of the Bureau of American Ethnology and Thomas Chamberlin of United States Geological Survey challenged many dubious claims for Pleistocene (Ice Age) archaeological finds in the New World, a role continued into the 1920s by physical anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1926 Jesse Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History sent a crew to collect a skeleton of an extinct bison from a fossil bed near Folsom, New Mexico. Figgin's crew found a stone point at the site but moved it before an archaeologist could verify its association with the bones. Hrdlicka refused to accept the find as evidence of Pleistocene occupation of the New World by humans. Figgins, infuriated, told his crew to contact him immediately if another such find was made and to leave the point undisturbed until he arrived. In August 1927 another point was found. It was left in the ground, examined by outside experts and photographed. The find proved that humans had entered the New World sometime before the end of the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago.

In 1932 Figgins found larger, heavier fluted points with mammoth skeletons at a site in Colorado. Five years later, near Clovis, New Mexico, robust fluted points were again found with mammoth bones in a deposit beneath a layer containing Folsom points and bison skeletons. The robust points, now named Clovis, were recognized as even older than the Folsom points. Characteristic of both points is a flute, a flake struck off the base along the length of the point, presumably to facilitate hafting. The site names are also used for the peoples represented by these specific artifacts, while the broader term "Paleoindian" applies to Clovis, Folsom, and other early cultures.

In 1964 University of Arizona geochronologist C. Vance Haynes linked the dates of Clovis sites obtained through radiocarbon dating, then a fairly new technique, and evidence about glacial conditions in the north. The distinctive points had been found throughout the continental United States, all in contexts dated to about 11,500-11,000 years ago, and none before 12,000, the date geologists believed an ice-free corridor opened up between the Cordilleran Glacier atop the Canadian Rockies and the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet to the east, permitting southward migration. Haynes proposed a very rapid occupation of the Americas, with Paleoindians virtually sweeping across the continents. This accorded well with the archaeological evidence. The Clovis toolkit--fluted points, bifaces, knives, scrapers, drills, and gravers--was apparently sufficient to enable them to exploit a range of environments. Evidence of the mobility of Clovis groups came from the identification of chert, jasper, chalcedony, and other types of stone valued for making tools that was carried long distances, often over distances of 200 miles. A view that Clovis Paleoindians--mobile big-game hunters pursuing the Pleistocene megafauna (mammoth, mastodon, and extinct bison)--were the first Americans was widely accepted.

Claims were made from time to time that various sites, such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in western Pennsylvania and Pedra Furada in Brazil, had pre-Clovis occupation phases. But none were convincing. Clovis-first was the rule.

The Monte Verde Excavations

From 1977 to 1985, Tom Dillehay of the University of Kentucky excavated at Monte Verde, some 31 miles (50 km) inland from the Pacific of southern Chile. The water-saturated deposits of the site, on Chinchihuapi Creek, afforded excellent preservation of organic remains in what was interpreted as a habitation surface, designated MV-II, of a small camp used by 20 to 30 people. Radiocarbon dates from the level averaged ~12,500 years ago. Among the features recorded by the excavators were two large and many small hearths and 12 huts about ten by 11.5 feet (3 by 3.5 m). Most of the stone tools found at the site were made of local raw material and consist of cobbles with a few flakes removed to make simple but functional working edges. There were two bifacially flaked points. Worked wood, from logs to branches, was also found. Bones, ivory, and possible tissue from mastodons were found along with remains of Pleistocene llamas, small mammals, fish, and mollusks. Remains of plants that could be from coastal to Andean to arid grassland habitats were recovered. The imprint of a human foot in clay is among the most intriguing finds from the site. Upstream, limited excavation uncovered another deposit, designated MV-I, with some possible stone tools and three possible hearths dated to ~33,000 years old.

At 12,500, Monte Verde was earlier than any other site in North or South America by a full millennium. Moreover, it was nowhere near the Bering Strait, the place where most scholars assumed that people entered the Americas from Asia. That implied an even earlier arrival, after all it meant that people had to pass through the ice-free corridor and travel some 7,500 miles (12,000 km) south. Needless to say, the Clovis-first crowd didn't initially give in. In fact, the archaeological benediction of the site came only in 1997. That year many of the foremost Paleoindian specialists traveled first to Kentucky, to hear presentations by Dillehay and his team members and to view many of the artifacts, then to Valdivia, Chile, for further presentations and review of additonal, and finally to Monte Verde itself. Most of the site's occupation area had been obliterated by a bulldozer sometime after excavation, so the group had to content themselves with examining a few remnants. Later that year, the consensus was in and published in the journal American Antiquity: "The central issue dealt with at that final meeting was whether MV-II is archaeological, and, if so, whether there can be any reasonable doubt that the MV-II occupation is ~12,500 radiocarbon years old. On this critical issue there was complete unanimity: MV-II is clearly archaeological, and there is no reason to question the integrity of the radiocarbon ages." The validity of the dates received a boost when results of radiocarbon testing published in American Antiquity earlier this year by R.E. Taylor, a University of California-Riverside dating specialist, C. Vance Haynes, and others revealed nothing that might undermine the ~12,500 dating of the site in terms of either contamination, or the "old wood" effect, or radiocarbon reservoir.

With Monte Verde generally accepted, the Clovis-first orthodoxy was overthrown and discussion on how and when the Americas were colonized became wide open.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America