Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: Pushing back the dates for America’s first people

Review of: Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals About The First Americans
Authors: J.M. Adovasio and David Pedler
Publisher: Firefly Books
Source: Barnes & Noble online
Grade: A

How thrilled I was as a kid to get a National Geographic book in the 1960’s trumpeting the c. 13,000-year-old North American Clovis culture as the earliest evidence of humans in the new world. And what I pang I experienced at how dated that estimate of Native Americans’ arrival seemed when the time came to turn the beloved book over to my grandchildren. Then I found Strangers in a New Land, as gorgeous as any National Geographic coffee table-worthy volume, as beguiling, and far more up to date than my old favorite.

Archaeologist J.M. Adovasio, who has spent decades researching one of the best-dated pre-Clovis sites, and archaeological editor/illustrator David Pedler combine their skills in Strangers in a New Land to provide a layperson like me with an overview of the antiquity of Native Americans in both North and South America, as well as critiques of accepted, disputed, and decidedly controversial pre-Clovis sites – some of which would push the date of arrival in the Americas into the earliest migrations of modern humans.

While many questions about the origins of the first Americans – the exact site of their homeland in northeastern Asia, their original languages and migration routes – may never be resolved, it is becoming clearer that their original, often multiple journeys into the Americas, occurred thousands, even tens of thousands of years before the origin of the Clovis culture would indicate.

The Meadowcroft Rock Shelter site in Pennsylvania, where author Adovasio has worked, is conservatively estimated to have been occupied 2,000 years before the appearance of the first distinctive Clovis artifacts. The Cactus Hill site in Virginia may date to more than 20,000 years before the present, and successive occupations at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile may date to more than 30,000 years before the present.

Such early dates, including some of the eastern coast of South America, Adovasio argues, increase the likelihood that early Americans arrived, probably in successive waves, in boats working their way along the continental coastlines as well as overland via the much-touted Bering land bridge between Asia and North America.

None of these earlier dates detract from the important of the Clovis-Folsom cultures discoveries. Until African-American cowboy George McJunkin discovered strange bones eroding out of a dry wash near Folsom, New Mexico, in the early 20th century (bones later recognized to be from archaic bison associated with Ice Age era stone tools), scientists generally held that humans could not have arrived in America until after the last Ice Age. (McJunkin did not live to see the vindication of his discovery, or that shortly afterward of similar stone tools in nearby Clovis, New Mexico, which would co-opt the name of their shared culture.)

More decades would pass before the Clovis First theory of American settlement would be overturned by definitively pre-Clovis cultures thousands of miles to the east and south. The authors of Strangers in a New Land list brief accounts of 24 Clovis and pre-Clovis sites, including sites who pre-Clovis origins – sometimes of far greater antiquity – are disputed, or at least controversial, including sites in Mexico and South America that may be less familiar to North American readers.

Each account includes a map and photographs of the site, its discovery and significance, and plentiful photographs of artifacts. Also included are a glossary and discussion of radiocarbon dating, especially helpful for this nonspecialist reader, notes and a bibliography that invites further investigation.

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