Earliest Americans may have been even earlier

DALLAS (AP) — Archaeologists have concluded that humans lived in southern Chile 1,300 years earlier than previously thought — challenging beliefs about how the New World was first inhabited.
The findings contradict the Clovis theory — that humans who migrated from Asia established the first major New World culture on the high plains of North America around 10,900 to 11,200 years ago. Other ancient settlements were thought to originate from the Clovis settlements — named for the distinctive fluted spear points found in Clovis, N.M.
But when Tom Dillehay began excavating Monte Verde, a site at the head of a stream in grassy lowlands near Chile’s Pacific coast, he suspected that humans had lived there, and earlier than anywhere else in the Americas.
Beginning in 1977, Dillehay and his research team discovered more than 700 stone tools, a child’s footprint, fire pits, remnants of hide-covered huts and other artifacts. Peat from the stream had covered the area and preserved it. By 1978, Dillehay believed the site pushed human habitation of the New World back by 1,300 years — to some 12,500 years ago.
Other archaeologists, however, were doubtful. After all, other sites had raised hopes and had failed to be substantiated.
When Dillehay presented his initial findings in journals and at professional meetings, “colleagues were gun-shy,” he recalls. So he escorted some of his strongest skeptics last month to Monte Verde, about 500 miles south of Santiago, Chile.
And on Monday, he listened as none other than Dena F. Dincauze, a Harvard anthropology professor who is a prominent critic of pre-Clovis claims, proclaimed his work a landmark discovery.
“The importance of Monte Verde, of course, is the establishment of a greater degree of antiquity in the New World than we had been thinking about,” Dincauze said. “But even more important is, once you establish a new benchmark in knowledge, you have to then connect it to everything else you thought you knew up until that time.”
The Monte Verde settlement is 1,300 years older than the next-oldest site of human civilization in the Americas — a cave in northern Brazil.
And it is 10,000 miles south of the Bering land bridge route that has been presumed to be the path of the earliest Americans, about 12,000 years ago.
That suggests that migrating humans didn’t settle North America first after crossing over from Asia, said Elizabeth Chilton, an assistant professor of archaeology at Harvard who was not on the expedition team.
“What it means is, if they came across that kind of Siberia-to-Alaska pathway, they were fishermen” who stayed along coastlines as they moved southward, Chilton said. “That’s why we’re not finding these early sites in North America.”
Alex Barker, curator of archaeology at the Dallas Museum of Natural History, said another theory is that the first humans arrived either by sea or via the land bridge at an earlier time, perhaps when the bridge was exposed 20,000 years ago.
“Monte Verde is a little too early for people to have come through at the time we’ve always presumed,” said Barker, who organized the January trip.
Other members of the team predicted new discoveries now that Monte Verde has been authenticated.