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Can You Dig It?: Archeologist works to overturn long-held theory of when people first came to the Americas

How did people first come to the Americas?

Most of us learned that people walked across a land bridge from northeastern Asia to Alaska about 12,000 years ago.

It was toward the end of the last Ice Age and sea levels were lower than they are now, but still it makes the Iditarod look like a dash through a city park.

Michael Collins
Archeologist Michael Collins has presented his arguments for the earlier-than-previously-thought arrival of humans to the Americas on several television and radio shows.

Then these adventurers hiked south through what is now Canada through an ice-free corridor and spread across the continent, north to south and east to west.

Evidence has been found that by 10,000 years ago people from this culture hunted and gathered in all of the lower 48 states, Mexico and even Central America. It’s called the Clovis culture because archeological evidence was found near Clovis, N.M., in the 1930s.

Talk about a mobile society.

That theory was taught for decades. And why not? It all fit together: the archeology, the geology, the geography and the timing.

Well, maybe not.

Michael Collins, a University of Texas at Austin archeologist, and other archeologists have questioned the theory and unearthed new evidence that indicates humans were living in the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Their challenge to the so-called Clovis First theory has generated firestorms within the archeological community, but, over the years, it has gained in acceptance.

The Clovis questioner

Collins, a research associate at the university’s Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), is not the image of the academic bomb thrower. In fact, he looks pretty much like an archeologist should.

It didn’t hurt that he usually wears a blue work shirt, sturdy khakis, suspenders and strong work boots, and a broad-brimmed hat to cover his white hair makes him look like an archeologist from central casting.

We need to back up, start over and explain the peopling of the Americas with a new and rigorous explanation. -Archeologist Michael CollinsDocumentary filmmakers have used Collins’ expertise. He was a key pre-Clovis source on the Nova program, “America’s Stone Age Explorers,” which aired last fall on PBS.

Collins’ interest and love of archeology started before he could read.

He remembers visiting his grandmother in Dallas and looking through the Golden Book Encyclopedia for children.

“The pictures of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and the pre-historic flint mines in England fascinated me,” he said.

Mentors nurtured his fascination.

His father taught him how to label and catalog specimens he found. A mentor during his teen-aged years was Glen Evans, a multi-talented geologist, who, for a time, was head of the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

“He has a great enthusiasm,” Collins said.  “I have learned a lot from him.”

Overturning Clovis

Clovis points
Recovered from the Gault site in Bell County, these tools were used by humans thousands of years ago to kill game, cut wood and gather food.

About 25 years ago, Collins began to question the Clovis theory. It was just too nice and neat for him.

He and others began to unravel it thread by thread.

“We need to back up, start over and explain the peopling of the Americas with a new and rigorous explanation,” he said.

The questioning of Clovis set off bitter conflict in the archeological community.

“If you want to get beat up, talk about pre-Clovis cultures in the Americas,” Collins said.

Papers on all sides of the Clovis debate were published with astonishing alacrity and little academic politesse. Some archeologists didn’t talk to each other at gatherings.

In the early days of the pre-Clovis movement, to suggest one had evidence of such inhabitants of the Americas was to “invite ridicule,” Collins said. “It was very, very difficult to get funding for research devoted to that topic.”

The key evidence in the primacy of the Clovis culture in the Americas were the Clovis points, spearheads that had been made by men. They were flaked on each sidewith pointed tips. There were grooves on each side of the base so the head could be strapped to a spear.

Over the decades after discovery of the Clovis site similar evidence, including spear points crafted in the Clovis style, was found in the 48 states of the continental U.S. and into Central America.

The message, Collins said, is catching on. He estimated that about 80 percent of archeologists who study the Americas either accept pre-Clovis or think it is feasible.

That was the most fantastic piece of serendipity there ever was. It is the poster child of Clovis contradictions to the Clovis First theory. -Archeologist Michael Collins on the Gault siteAs archeologists kept digging into the Clovis First theory, they found evidence to strengthen their questions. Pre-Clovis sites began popping up. Monte Verde in Chile has been dated to 12,500years, before the earliest Clovis evidence.

Fighting Clovis with Clovis

Collins worked on the Monte Verde site and that convinced him that Clovis First was wrong and that Clovis First evidence could be used to show it.

 “I made a conscious decision that if you want to counter the Clovis First theory, what better database to use than Clovis itself,” he said. “Because people can’t just reject it out of hand. They’re going to have to look you in the eye and say ‘I don’t accept your interpretations for these reasons based on this evidence.’ ”

He said the archeological evidence in the Americas doesn’t match with the Clovis First theory.

The widespread nature of Clovis—in the 48 states of the lower United States and into Central America—works against Clovis First, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense that people could master the skills for survival in all those different environments in such a short period of time,” he said. “There has to be some cumulative knowledge.”

Archeologists dig on location at the Gault site
Over the course of three years, dozens of professional archeologists and volunteers recovered 700,000 artifacts from the Gault site.

Collins cites the knowledge that there were 1,500 Native American languages when Europeans made contact. When statistical analysis is applied to those languages, it indicates that some of the languages diverged more than 20,000 years ago, probably in the Western Hemisphere.

Then there is the evidence of human remains, which do not appear to have the predicted sharing of Mongoloid features by Asians and Native Americans.

“You look at the very, very few bits of skeletal evidence that we have in the Americas greater than 10,000 years old, they’re not Mongoloid,” he said. “That has to be explained.”

Gault trip

As he sharpened his anti-Clovis points, the Gault site fell into his lap.

“That was the most fantastic piece of serendipity there ever was,” Collins said. “It is the poster child of Clovis contradictions to the Clovis First theory.”

Gault is in Bell County, about 50 miles north of Austin, on land that had two resources prized by Stone Age people. There were water and stone, which could be used to make spear points and tools.

TARL started an excavation in 1998 and Collins hit pay dirt.

“One of the things you would extrapolate from the Clovis First theory is that Clovis people were highly mobile, specialized big game hunters,” he said. “The Gault site indicates that they were there for at least 200-300 years. Not permanently, but off and on.”

The stone tools were worn to the nub, an indication of long-term habitation of the site.

That's what makes this subfield of archeology so exciting right now. It's constantly changing. Every time something's published we have to step back and say 'My goodness, what are the ramifications of that for what we're doing and thinking right now.' -Archeologist Michael Collins“The site is full of worn tools made of the local stone,” Collins said. “That means they stayed at that locality beyond the use life of the tools they were making. Or, alternatively, they headquartered there, made the stone tools and took them out on some sort of subsistence round, came back and discarded them.”

There also are the remains of small animals—turtles, birds and fish, which indicates the Gault people ate more than mammoths and other big animals.

As they ended the Gault dig, the researchers were finding evidence of habitation 200-300 years before Clovis people should have been there.

“We either have evidence that you have to extend the starting date of Clovis back a couple of hundred years or that there was something there pre-Clovis,” he said.

More questions

After most of a century comfortable with the Clovis First Theory, archeology has more and more questions to answer and, so far, a new theory hasn’t been formulated. Until then, and probably after, archeologists will ask questions.

“That’s what makes this subfield of archeology so exciting right now,” Collins said. “It’s constantly changing. Every time something’s published we have to step back and say ‘My goodness what are the ramifications of that for what we’re doing and thinking right now.’”

The questions are about how and when. Collins thinks he knows why they came.

“Human beings are curious,” he said. “Human curiosity has driven development since as far back in time as you can imagine.”

Collins said he agrees with the observation of the late French pre-historian Francois Bordes that the Americas were peopled because somebody wanted to know what was over that next horizon.

“It might just be that things were fine where they were and there was no reason to think they’d be better over there,” Collins said. “They were just plain curious. I’m sure our past would be entirely different if our species hadn’t developed that curiosity.”

Tim Green
Office of Public Affairs

Photos: Texas Archeological Research Laboratory

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  Updated 2005 April 4
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