Also unresolved is the question whether Clovis hunters really were the first Americans. As always happens whenever anyone claims the first anything, claims of discoveries of pre-Clovis human sites in the Americas are constantly being advanced. Every year, a few of those new claims really do appear convincing and exciting when initially announced. Then the inevitable problems of interpretation arise. Were the reported tools at the site really tools made by humans, or just natural rock shapes? Are the reported radiocarbon dates really correct, and not invalidated by any of the numerous difficulties that can plague radiocarbon dating? If the dates are correct, are they really associated with human products, rather than just being a 15,000-year-old lump of charcoal lying next to a stone tool actually made 9,000 years ago?
To illustrate these problems, consider the following typical example of an often quoted pre-Clovis claim. At a Brazilian rock shelter named Pedro Furada, archaeologists found cave paintings undoubtedly made by humans. They also discovered, among the piles of stones at the base of a cliff, some stones whose shapes suggested the possibility of their being crude tools. In addition, they came upon supposed hearths, whose burnt charcoal yielded radiocarbon dates of around 35,000 years ago. Articles on Pedro Furada were accepted for publication in the prestigious and highly selective international scientific journal Nature.
But none of those rocks at the base of the cliff is an obviously human-made tool, as are Clovis points and Cro-Magnon tools. If hundreds of thousands of rocks fall from a high cliff over the course of tens of thousands of years, many of them will become chipped and broken when they hit the rocks below, and some will come to resemble crude tools chipped and broken by humans. In western Europe and elsewhere in Amazonia, archaeologists have radiocarbon-dated the actual pigments used in cave paintings, but that was not done at Pedro Furada. Forest fires occur frequently in the vicinity and produce charcoal that is regularly swept into caves by wind and streams. No evidence links the 35,000-year-old charcoal to the undoubted cave paintings at Pedro Furada. Although the original excavators remain convinced, a team of archaeologists who were not involved in the excavation but receptive to pre-Clovis claims recently visited the site and came away unconvinced.
The North American site that currently enjoys the strongest credentials as a possible pre-Clovis site is Meadowcroft rock shelter, in Pennsylvania, yielding reported human-associated radiocarbon dates of about 16,000 years ago. At Meadowcroft no archaeologist denies that many human artifacts do occur in many carefully excavated layers. But the oldest radiocarbon dates don't make sense, because the plant and animal species associated with them are species living in Pennsylvania in recent times of mild climates, rather than species expected for the glacial times of 16,000 years ago. Hence one has to suspect that the charcoal samples dated from the oldest human occupation levels consist of post-Clovis charcoal infiltrated with older carbon. The strongest pre-Clovis candidate in South America is the Monte Verde site, in southern Chile, dated to at least 15,000 years ago. It too now seems convincing to many archaeologists, but caution is warranted in view of all the previous disillusionments.
If there really were pre-Clovis people in the Americas, why is it still so hard to prove that they existed? Archaeologists have excavated hundreds of American sites unequivocally dating to between 2000 and 11,000 B.C., including dozens of Clovis sites in the North American West, rock shelters in the Appalachians, and sites in coastal California. Below all the archaeological layers with undoubted human presence, at many of those same sites, deeper older layers have been excavated and still yield undoubted remains of animalsbut with no further evidence of humans. The weaknesses in pre-Clovis evidence in the Americas contrast with the strength of the evidence in Europe, where hundreds of sites attest to the presence of modern humans long before Clovis hunters appeared in the Americas around 11,000 B.C. Even more striking is the evidence from Australia/New Guinea, where there are barely one-tenth as many archaeologists as in the United States alone, but where those few archaeologists have nevertheless discovered over a hundred unequivocal pre-Clovis sites scattered over the whole continent.
From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.
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