::The First Native Americans and the Peopling of the Americas: New Evidence from Texas
By: Peter N. Jones ::
People have always been interested in the question of when Native Americans first arrived in the New World. Was it 10,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge, or was it via small boats from Japan, eastern Asia, and Siberia 20,000 to 35,000 years ago. Answers to these questions have always tended towards the Bering land bridge theory, which postulated that people first arrived in North America at the beginning of the Holocene epoch (12,500-9,000 calendar years before present). In the last twenty years or so, new archaeological and genetic evidence has challenged this long held theory, completely revolutionizing our understanding of when people first arrived in the Americas. The genetic evidence has been fairly straight forward, pushing back the entry of Native Americans into the Americas approximately 15-20 thousand years to the late Pleistocene. The archaeological evidence, on the other hand, has been slower at revealing a human presence older than the early Holocene in North America. However, newly emerging information from Texas, however, is providing compelling archaeological evidence for a late Pleistocene (25,000-12,500 calendar years before present) peopling of the New World, which is bringing the archaeological evidence in line with the genetic evidence.
One of the most important, and perhaps intriguing sites that have recently come to light is Gault, a large site more than 800 meters long and 200 meters across. Excavated and analyzed under the leadership of the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin, the site occupies the constricted head of a small stream valley where reliable springs flow and abundant chert of extraordinary quality crops out. Clovis technology, historically thought to be the technology used by the first Native Americans, is abundantly represented at the site, with several hundred thousand pieces of stone, bone, ivory, and teeth having been recovered and dating to the late Pleistocene/early Holocene boundary (12,900-12,550 calendar years before present). Most artifacts recovered are debris from stone tool manufacturing processes, but a diverse array of tools, along with bones of several kinds of animals have also been recovered.
Along with the Gault site, several other Clovis sites have also been found along what is known as the Balcones Ecotone in Central Texas. Each of these sites were near good springs at outcrops of abundant, high-quality chert, and were strategically situated in relation to diverse floral and faunal resources. The location of these sites, along with evidence from prey choice patterns found across the Great Plains of North America argues that the first American Indians were highly sophisticated hunters and gatherers who utilized a wide variety of resources, and who had a knowledge of the seasonal dynamics of their environment.
More importantly in terms of the peopling of the New World, there are a few areas of the Gault site where excavations have revealed small numbers of artifacts in strata beneath well-defined layers of Clovis artifacts. It is not clear at this time whether the underlying materials are early and sparse Clovis manifestations or if they represent a human presence at the site prior to the Clovis technology time period. On the other hand, this evidence, coupled with archaeological evidence from Cactus Hill in Virginia, Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, Monte Verde in Chile, and several other sites, does strongly argue for a late Pleistocene peopling of the New World.
For example, Monte Verde in southern Chile dates to approximately 12,500 years ago, Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania has revealed stone artifacts dating at least as old as 16,000 calendar years before present, Cactus Hill in Virginia has revealed approximately 15,000 year old non-Clovis artifacts underlying a Clovis component, and burned and cut bones at Cueva Quebrada in Texas with wood charcoal have been dated between 16,000 and 14,800 calendar years before present.
These sites offer strong archaeological evidence for a late Pleistocene peopling of the New World. In conjunction with the genetic evidence, it is now no longer possible to argue that Native Americans have only been in the Americas for slightly over 10,000 years. Rather, the evidence now overwhelmingly points to a much greater time depth in the Americas by Native Americans. In fact, as our understanding of the early peopling of the Americas becomes more scientifically grounded, it appears that what Native Americans have been claiming about their history is correct they have been here since illo tempore (time immemorial). Only in this case, illo tempore approximately translates to 20,000 years or more.