Young Americans

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
485,
Page:
6
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/485006b
Published online

The rancorous debate over when people first arrived in America has not helped science.

In 1781, American statesman Thomas Jefferson noted that Asia and America are separated “only by a narrow streight” that would have allowed passage between the two continents. There is no record of any scholarly scorn of Jefferson's ideas about the peopling of America. But in recent decades, anyone wading into the topic has needed skin as thick as a woolly mammoth's. The debate over the first Americans has been one of the most acrimonious — and unfruitful — in all of science.

As reported on page 30, one side of that debate held that, around 13,000 years ago, a group of ice-age hunters from Siberia crossed into North America over Jefferson's “narrow streight” — which, at the time, was an exposed strip of land. Armed with stone weapons, called Clovis points, these hunters spread rapidly across the continent and feasted on animals that had never known humans. The opposing camp argued that people reached the Americas long before Clovis technology appeared — at least 1,000 years earlier.

The histories of these arguments are a case study of poor communication and missed opportunities. One researcher, new to the field after years of working on other contentious topics, told Nature that he had never before witnessed the level of aggression that swirled around the issue of who reached America first. “When people stop listening to arguments and stop looking at data and instead just go with their own beliefs,” he said, “that's when it becomes completely crazy.”

He was referring to researchers who support the Clovis-first model, which was the dominant hypothesis from the second half of the twentieth century until only a few years ago. Researchers who went against that model by reporting even older sites of human occupation endured brutal criticism from opponents who did not give them, or their evidence, a fair hearing. Scientists who supported the Clovis-first model countered that reports of pre-Clovis sites were examples of poor scholarship.

Studies from the past few years now offer a convincing case that humans reached the Americas well before the Clovis culture. Credit for this breakthrough should go to open-minded archaeologists, who were willing to investigate pre-Clovis sites seriously, and to geneticists, for bringing fresh ideas and techniques to bear on the topic. The recent finds and the shift in the debate have triggered a renaissance in ancient-American archaeology. Researchers are reopening sites, re-examining specimens and searching for new sites to determine who the early pioneers were, and how and when they arrived.

As these ancient events are explored, some archaeologists should examine their recent behaviour. If what they lacked could be summed up in one word, it might be respect. Researchers must always consider that they might be wrong, and should look carefully at opposing data and conclusions. At the same time, scientists who make bold claims must marshal an extraordinary case, especially if they seek to topple a dominant model built on many previous studies. Such prescriptions sound obvious, but many scientists forget them, particularly in fields with limited data, such as archaeology.

The various factions could take lessons from those early Americans (whoever they were). These ancient adventurers spurned the well-trodden paths of their forebears to explore new territory. But they would not have succeeded without the help of those who came before and gave them their start.

Comments

  1. Report this comment #42251

    rick doninger said:

    The curious thing to all should be why, Stanford, Bradley, Waters. and collins along with some others are continuing to ignore the artifactual evidence of clearly pre-clovis tool technology being found in numerous states around the USA by amateurs. A clearly definable tool industry from a Levallois core preparation paralleled by the middle paleolithic abroad has been assembled from several states, one being in Indiana where thousands of levallois reduction tools are being found. The same technology has been found in Georgia, Tennessee, texas, and alabama testifying to a technology the professionals have chosen to ignore to this point choosing to speculate about a theoried solutrean connection based on very little actual artifactual similarities to the well documented solutrean technology found abroad. With all that has been found at the Freidkin, Buttermilk Creek site, Meadowcroft, and Cactus Hill, there is still not a clearly definable set of artifacts of a known and recognized pre clovis aged technology. If they are truly looking for a lithic technology that is known and documented probably more than any other around the world, they would take a look at the assemblages of Levallois tools being found that clearly display a tool "industry" of a technology well documented to be older than clovis. Ask yourselves folks, "why would such artifactual evidence be ignored?" Even British lithics experts are puzzled at why our "leaders" in the search for the first americans are choosing to ignore the evidence.......rick doninger

  2. Report this comment #42541

    Wesley Parish said:

    I agreed with the thesis that America was populated by beachcombers rather than inland hunters once I encountered the theory, on the grounds that the inland route was bare of food. Lately though, I have been wondering if there are gotchas in the beachcomber theory that nobody's noticed yet. Eg, consequences of the beachcomber lifestyle that nobody notices because we are so used to them anyway (eg, we are so used to our binocular vision that nobody notices the discrepancy of a prey species with binocular vision coming out of the trees and succeeding on the veldt when all other prey species have near-360 vision just to survive ... :)

    I foresee theses aplenty, if I can just get the traction ...

  3. Report this comment #63673

    Norman Morgan said:

    Researchers who went against that model by reporting even older sites of human occupation endured brutal criticism from opponents who did not give them, or their evidence, a fair hearing. Scientists who supported the Clovis-first model countered that reports of pre-Clovis sites were examples of poor scholarship.

    The same technology has been found in Georgia, Tennessee, texas, and alabama testifying to a technology the professionals have chosen to ignore to this point choosing to speculate about a theoried solutrean connection based on very little actual artifactual similarities to the well documented solutrean technology found abroad. With all that has been found at the Freidkin, Buttermilk Creek site, Meadowcroft, and Cactus Hill, there is still not a clearly definable set of artifacts of a known and recognized pre clovis aged technology.

    jocuri:web

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