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Who got here first? Debate is rekindled

Saturday, October 30, 1999

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

Here's the familiar story.

The first Americans walked into the New World from Siberia more than 13,000 years ago over an immense, grassy "land bridge" that spanned the Bering Sea between Siberia and Alaska.

Those bands of Ice Age hunters migrated south, stalking herds of mastodon, mammoth and giant bison. Their descendants gave rise to the American Indians and to the Olmec, Maya, and other prehistoric civilizations in Mexico, Central America and South America.

For almost a half-century, that tidy little picture of the peopling of the Americas stood as scientific dogma. During the last few years, however, new insights have forced scientists to reconsider the greatest mysteries of New World archeology: Who were the first Americans? When did they arrive? Where did they come from?

About 800 experts on the peopling of the Americas gathered in Santa Fe, N.M., yesterday for a conference that will start to paint a new portrait of the first American immigrants.

As alternatives to the Bering crossing, they will be considering such scenarios as ancient mariners who may have sailed to the Americas 30,000 or 40,000 years ago.

Not long ago, a scientist advancing such a theory "would have been hooted right out of the lecture hall," said Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution. But no one is quite so certain about the prehistory of America anymore.

"There is a tremendous amount of excitement in the field right now, and there couldn't be a better time for a meeting of this kind," said Keith W. Kintigh, president of the Society for American Archaeology.

"People realize that old ideas may no longer be valid," he said.

Archeologists also convened the conference amid growing concern about federal and state laws that scientists say hinder their quest for knowledge about the first Americans. They have complained, for instance, about how government bureaucrats implement the 1990 Federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

"Decisions by bureaucrats sometimes give American Indian tribes custody of ancient human remains for reburial before scientists can conduct a thorough study," explained Kintigh, an archeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

The conference's name, "Clovis and Beyond," comes from the ancient Clovis people, who until a few years ago were regarded as the founding culture of the New World. They were named for an excavation near Clovis, N.M., where archeologists in 1932 dug up the first artifacts of these ancient Americans.

Archeologists later discovered the remains of Clovis settlements throughout Canada and the United States, identified with the help of that culture's trademark: a chipped stone spear point sharpened on both sides. These projectile points had a striking central groove, or flute, that made it easier to attach the point to the shaft of a spear.

The evidence was so strong that a consensus emerged that the Clovis people were the first Americans and that they settled here about 12,000 years ago.

"The Clovis-first model effectively became both a scholarly position and 'holy writ,' " said James M. Adovasio, director of Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie. "To seriously suggest that there were a series of peopling events before Clovis was therefore considered to be not only scientifically untenable, but heresy too."

Now heresy may become the new holy writ, as evidence has emerged that pre-Clovis immigrations may have occurred more than 30,000 years ago.

Adovasio's own discoveries during the 1970s at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Avella helped cast doubt on the Clovis-first idea. Evidence indicates that Meadowcroft, and several other sites, may have been inhabited thousands of years before the Clovis "boundary."

Seeds of doubt germinated in the 1980s and early '90s, as an international team of archeologists headed by Thomas D. Dillehay of the University of Kentucky reported evidence of a major pre-Clovis settlement at Monte Verde in southern Chile.

Stone tools and other artifacts at Monte Verde differed from those found at Clovis excavations, indicating that these were people from a distinctly different culture. Using radioactive carbon dating, archeologists concluded that people lived at Monte Verde at least 1,000 years before the oldest known Clovis settlements in North America.

Material from a second possible habitation site nearby suggested that Monte Verde was occupied 25,000 to 42,000 years ago. The first scientific reports from excavations at Monte Verde in the late 1970s were greeted with disbelief. But in 1997, Adovasio led an expert team that visited Monte Verde and validated the findings.

"Monte Verde had a stunning effect," said Bradley Lepper, archeologist with the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. "It let the genie out of the bottle. Now it is anybody's guess when the first people arrived in the New World, where they arrived and how they got here."

Monte Verde created another dilemma for the Clovis-first hypothesis: Monte Verde is almost 10,000 miles south of the land bridge.

The "bridge," 55 miles long and up to 1,000 miles wide, was sea floor exposed when climatic change plunged Earth into an Ice Age. Sea levels dropped by about 300 feet because water was locked up in vast ice sheets up to two miles thick. As the climate warmed, the ice sheets melted, raising ocean levels and submerging the land bridge.

Scientists such as Johanna Nichols of the University of California at Berkeley calculate that the migration from Alaska to southern Chile would have taken thousands of years.

Yet the Monte Verde people already lived in Chile a millennium before the first known Clovis settlements in North America.

Artifacts suggest that Monte Verde people were not new arrivals, noted David J. Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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