A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
According to a lengthy article in the New York Times (August 25, pp. F1 and F6), new excavations at Monte Verde, Chile, will begin in January 2001. Despite its title, "Chilean Field Yields New Clues to Peopling of Americas," the story appears otherwise to be only a summary of the site's discovery and the results of the first excavations (see "The First Americans," March/April 1997).
Most of the area exposed in the intial excavations, directed by University of Kentucky archaeologist Tom Dillehay, dates to about 12,500 years ago, making Monte Verde the earliest known site in the Americas by some 1,300 years. The new excavations will focus on what may be a second, earlier component of the site several hundred feet to the south. A small excavation there--fully documented in the Monte Verde site report published in 1997--yielded some possible stone tools and burned wood. Radiocarbon determinations suggest the material is about 33,000 years old (32,840 and 33,900 years), far older than any reliably dated site in the Americas.
Dillehay was noncommittal about the age of this component in his 1997 site report, especially because the area exposed was so small. Nonetheless, Mario Pino, a geologist at the Southern University of Chile in Valdivia, told the Times, "There's no doubt about the age--it's 33,000 years old." Dillehay was more cautious, saying, "We'll open up that level and see what's there. If the results remain ambiguous, we will have done the best we could. But I'm leaning toward accepting the antiquity of the level and the traces of human activity." Times reporter John Noble Wilford reached into his Rolodex in search of someone to comment on the prospect of new excavations at Monte Verde and pulled out David Meltzer's name. Meltzer, a Paleoindian specialist at Southern Methodist University, pointed out the need for an extensive excavation that would make recovery of artifacts and material suitable for carbon dating more likely. His suggestion that, because they have already accepted the 12,500 date for the site's younger component, archaeologists will be more receptive to an earlier date may be overly optimistic. There is a huge gap between 12,500 and 33,000, and archaeologists will surely ask where the evidence for occupation of the Americas between the dates is.