The Oldest Americans Just Got Older
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
at the least, they were on to something more than 20,000 years old that would
throw American archaeology into further turmoil over its most contentious
issue: when did people first reach
The sandy soil of the trench walls was flecked with pieces of chert, the source of flint coveted by ancient toolmakers. Some of the stone flakes appeared to be unfinished discards. Others had the sharp-edged look of more fully realized blades, chisels and scrapers. Long ago, it seemed, Stone Age hunter-gatherers had frequently stopped here and, perhaps, these toolmakers were among the first Americans.
deft strokes of his trowel, the archaeologist, Dr. Albert C. Goodyear of the
"This is not a natural occurrence," Dr. Goodyear said, showing the beaten-about chert cobble afterward. "No river, fire or animals could do this. Too many blows have been struck."
he is right, American prehistory is being extended deeper in time at this
remote dig site near Barnwell. Dr. Robson Bonnichsen, an expert on early
Americans who is not directly involved in the excavation, said it could even be
"the single most significant Ice Age site in North America" as a
place bearing tantalizing evidence for "understanding the earliest prehistory
The land is owned by the Clariant Corporation, the big Swiss chemical company, which allows archaeologists to dig to their minds' content in the forest at the Topper Site, named for the person who brought it to their attention more than 20 years ago.
by the depth of sediments, the site may have been a toolmaking center at least
7,000 years earlier than the arrival of big-game hunters known as the
The two men in the trench, their shirts now soaked in sweat, were eager to find evidence that would yield more precise dates for the finds. They leaned into a seam of darker soil interspersed with black grains that the graduate student, Tony Pickering, had found three weeks before. It just might be the remains of a fireplace. If so, any residue of charcoal should give a reliable date through radiocarbon analysis.
Dr. Goodyear emerged from the trench clutching four small plastic zip-lock bags. "I don't know how we ever did archaeology before zip-lock bags," he remarked as he held them up for examination. Each bag contained soil and several pea-size black fragments that he hoped represented the residue of charcoal from a hearth.
"I hope the laboratory gets three dates out of this," he said. "And I hope they're all similar dates."
his more exuberant moments, Dr. Goodyear ventured that the dates could be as
old as 25,000, even 30,000, years ago. He has already found elsewhere on the
site what appear to be 16,000-year-old artifacts, evidence for a pre-Clovis
few conservative holdouts still question the one widely accepted pre-Clovis
claim: that earlier people were living in
Dr. Bonnichsen, who is director of the Center for the Study
of the First Americans at
Dating the putative fireplace will be an important next step. As soon as that is done, Dr. Goodyear said, he and other scientists from several universities expect to announce the age and describe the excavated materials in a journal article, perhaps by the end of the year. Even if the charcoal is from a natural fire, not a human campfire, he said, the analysis should establish the age of any artifacts from the same sediment layer.
A bigger hurdle, scientists said, may be to establish that the stone pieces are indeed human-made tools. Many a presumed pre-Clovis site has failed to gain scholarly acceptance over the question of whether stone pieces that look like tools were the work of early humans or of nature.
Dr. Bonnichsen said much of the 16,000-year-old chert material previously excavated by Dr. Goodyear "looks really good" and might well be tools. At the laboratory at Texas A&M, microscopic examination of the supposed cutting edges showed gouges and scratches that appeared to be wear marks from scraping hides, butchering and cutting wood. They look, he said, "as if they are going to qualify as artifacts."
But it is too soon, he added, to render a nature-versus-culture verdict on the stone pieces from the greater depths and earlier ages at Topper. More experimental work is required to understand how the chert could have been modified into tools.
Dr. Goodyear, whose specialty is the study of stone tools, agreed, though he insisted that "so far we have found no plausible way nature could have made these tools, but we have shown how humans could have made them." The sample collected so far, Dr. Bonnichsen and others said, is too small to be definitive.
Goodyear said he planned a wider and more intensive search next year. Dr. Sarah
C. Sherwood, an anthropologist at the
At the end of dig season this year, Dr. Goodyear seemed reconciled to the prospect of hard years of excavation, research and argument ahead.
"If this is 25,000 years old, and I think it is, then scientists will come here from all over the world to see for themselves," he said, while driving back to Barnwell after a day in the field. "And they will argue about it for another 10 years."
challenge for the Topper archaeologists, as for others making pre-Clovis
discoveries, is not only the ambiguity of the evidence, but also its
all claims for pre-Clovis cultures rest largely on finds of a much more
primitive technology. If these are tools, they are simpler and the weapon
points are not bifacial; they are finished on only one side. For these and
other reasons, archaeologists who made their careers on the
Calling this the "
is changing, though. Three other likely pre-Clovis sites have been found in the
Signs of pre-Clovis people are sparse because these mobile bands were few in number and trod lightly on the land, and also because archaeologists had until recently not been looking deeply enough.
"For generations, we assumed that Clovis was the primordial human culture south of the ice sheets, but that model has long been discredited," Dr. Brian M. Fagan, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in an updated edition of "The Long Journey: The Peopling of America," published this year by the University Press of Florida.
"We simply do not know when the first human settlers moved south of the ice sheets," Dr. Fagan concluded, noting that the archaeological record now showed the migration to be "an untidy process of rapid colonization, by people acquiring foods in many ways, who used a broad range of stone and wooden artifacts and, also occasionally, bone tools to survive."
It makes sense to Dr. Goodyear and his associates at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in Columbia that long before Clovis, bands of people moving up the Savannah River from the coast spotted chert washing out of the hillside. It still does. The dirt road at the Topper site is sprinkled with the rock. The hunter-gatherers quarried the chert, made their tools as best they could and then went on their way, to return again and again.
so will Dr. Goodyear and probably many more archaeologists in search of the
earliest people to live in the