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David Templeton's Seldom Seen: Meadowcroft still ignites controversy over settlers

Sunday, October 15, 2000

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.

We local folks tend to regard the Meadowcroft Museum of Rural History near Avella as a historical retreat featuring a postcard setting that provides an inspiring look at rural life more than a century ago.

But for a quarter century, archaeologists and anthropologists worldwide have bristled -- prepared for hot debate and even exchanged some name-calling -- when they heard the Meadowcroft moniker.

That's because the Meadowcroft Rockshelter near the entrance to the museum in Jefferson continues to stir controversy over what prehistoric people first came to North America and when.

And that scholarly skirmish promises to continue into the new millennium with articles in the past two years appearing in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, Discover and other publications -- not to mention countless academic papers -- that discuss Meadowcroft and its significance in the debate.

While Meadowcroft has been the target of criticism in the past, excavations of other prehistoric East Coast sites are confirming the evidence found at Meadowcroft, prompting more archaeologist to embrace its significance in the complex subject of how and when the continent was populated.

What Meadowcroft suggests is that Paleo Indians from Asia came by land and sea in pulses of migration to North and South America, eventually winding up at the rock shelter.

"There's not a site that's engaged more vitriolic debate -- been more of a lightning rod -- than Meadowcroft," said James Adovasio of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie who led the excavation of Meadowcroft in the 1970s.

Yesterday, a crew from public television in Germany was scheduled to interview Adovasio at Meadowcroft for a documentary on the topic of how and when North America became populated.

Adovasio said interest is continuous, and crews from Great Britain and France have filmed at Meadowcroft, while archaeologist from as far away as China and Russia have visited the site. Yesterday, Adovasio conducted one of his periodic public tours.

Albert Miller, the founder of Meadowcroft, got things rolling decades ago when he discovered ancient artifacts in a groundhog hole near the rock shelter, three miles west of Avella, and encouraged archaeologist to study the site.

Adovasio, then a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, began excavation in 1973, and in 1975 published his first findings that people used the rock shelter 16,000 to 17,000 years ago.

It was archaeological heresy.

Until Meadowcroft, the oldest evidence of human existence in North America was found in Clovis, N.M., where artifacts were 11,200 years old.

Clovis evidence helped generate a theory that Paleo Indians of Mongoloid stock walked to North America across the Bering Strait, a land bridge created during the last Ice Age when water stored in massive glaciers in the northern half of North America caused oceans to recede.

Based on that theory, the earliest residents walked on a narrow strip of land between two large glaciers and discovered a continent full of bison and other game. Clovis is directly south of the strip of land separating the glaciers.

Adovasio's findings suggested that Paleo Indians of Mongoloid stock lived at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter 5,000 to 6,000 years before Clovis. And as proof that this debate is heated, Adovasio refers to scholars clinging to the Clovis-first theory as "the Clovis Mafia."

As a Meadowcroft video proclaims, "This is a detective story" that probes "the mystery of the first Americans." It describes the rock shelter as "one of the most important sites in American archaeology."

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter turned up chips of pottery, bones from game, charcoal and other evidence left by the people who returned to the rock shelter for thousands of years, making it the oldest site of human inhabitation in North America, with "the longest record of human occupation in the Western Hemisphere."

They even found a gin bottle from 18th-century Europeans.

That's because the rock shelter is situated along the banks of Cross Creek, a tributary to the Ohio River, has a rock overhang providing shelter, faces south and catches sunlight, and sits high enough to protect inhabitants from flooding and other dangers.

It was a perfect prehistoric Motel 6.

Adovasio's work is praised for its "impeccable excavation" that set standards for archaeological study. While many who reviewed his work found no holes in the data, some critics continue sifting through the evidence to find mistakes.

Age is determined through carbon-14 dating that measures how much radioactive decay has occurred.

C. Vance Haynes Jr., a professor at the University of Arizona, has been the chief critic of Meadowcroft findings, and he continues insisting that the carbon-14 testing was contaminated with coal, which contains carbon that skews results. But Adovasio said four top laboratories found no contamination.

But in recent years, Haynes' criticism has been muted somewhat by Cactus Hill, an archaeological excavation in Virginia, 45 miles south of Richmond, that shows evidence of human occupation along the eastern seaboard in the same time period as Meadowcroft.

Then came discovery of an ancient settlement in Monte Verde, Chile, that suggests Paleo Indians traveled by boat along western coastlines of North and South America, rather than by land, and long before Clovis. In Washington, discovery of Kennewick Man, a Caucasoid who lived 9,300 years ago, raised new questions about whether early inhabitants came from Europe.

There are three main theories. The original one says Paleo Indians walked across the Bering Strait. Newer theories state that Paleo Indians sailed from Asia along American coastlines, and Caucasoid settlers from Europe may have followed glaciers and coastline from Europe to reach North America.

So the debate rages on, but Adovasio said he's still 99.9 percent certain that the Paleo Indians camping at the rock shelter crossed the Bering Strait and eventually headed east. But he thinks they were not among the first Americans.

"Each finding is another piece in a very complex puzzle -- new tiles in the whole mosaic," he said. "Ultimately, people probably crossed [the Bering Strait] 20,000 years ago and were here 20,000 to 25,000 years ago."

David Templeton can be reached by e-mail at:

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