The Debate Concerning the Early Peopling of the Americas Has Always Been a Paleontological Problem

This article was originally published in “The American Paleolithic,” Volume 1 Number 1 in October of 2019.

Steven R. Holen, Ph.D., Director of Research

The debate concerning the early peopling of the Americas has been at the forefront of scientific inquiry for more than 125 years. Although the subject is too broad to discuss in this short article, one aspect of the debate is the role that vertebrate paleontologists have played and the contributions they have made. This is not a comprehensive study, however, I will provide some of the highlights of paleontological research in the United States that have helped elucidate the timing of human expansion into the Americas.

In 1895-1896, H.T. Martin and T.R. Overton, were working for S.W. Williston, paleontologist at the University of Kansas in western Kansas at the 12 Mile Creek Site (Williston 1902, 1905; Rogers and Martin 1984; Hill 2006). They found one of the first archaeological sites discovered in the Americas by vertebrate paleontologists. During excavation of an extinct form of bison they found an associated fluted projectile point. Unfortunately, the projectile point is now lost. The artifact is most likely a Folsom point based on an old illustration and the most accurate radiocarbon age of 10,520+70 rcybp (Hill 2006). This age places the site at the Pleistocene/ Holocene boundary. For various reasons discussed in Meltzer (1989) and Hill (2006) the 12 Mile Creek Site only played a minor role in the debate concerning early humans in the Americas.

Paleontologists were interested in and published research related to the early peopling of the Americas in the early 1900s. In general, paleontologists thought that humans were in the Americas during the late Pleistocene (Osborn 1910; Hay 1918) while most in the archaeological community, led by Wm. Henry Holmes and Aleš Hrdlička of the Bureau of American Ethnology, thought that Native Americans arrived in the Americans much later.

J.C. Merriam, paleontologist at the University of California (Berkley) in conjunction with the new Department of Anthropology at the same institution developed a major project to investigate reported finds of Pleistocene human bones and artifacts in California. Merriam found no definitive evidence of a Pleistocene human presence based on this research (Merriam 1915:543-544); however, he suggested that humans may have arrived quite early in the Americas, did not survive and left almost no archaeological record. He stated,

“It is possible that man coming from the Old World, the place of origin of the human race, has at various times colonized the North American continent, but was unable to secure a permanent foot-hold, and because of the brief period of his occupancy has left no ancient relics”

(Merriam 1915:544)

This astute observation of human colonization and possible extinction in the Americas was repeated many years later by C. V. Haynes (1967), a geoarchaeologist, and Meltzer (1989) an archaeologist, apparently being unaware of Merriam’s earlier work.

The Colorado Museum of Natural History made the first paleontological/archaeological discovery that completely changed the debate over early humans in the Americas in the 1920s. In 1926 and 1927 a paleontological crew was excavating a bison bone bed at Folsom, New Mexico. In 1926, fluted Folsom points were found at the site, but not in situ (Figgins 1927). In 1927, more careful excavation found a Folsom point, which was left in situ, associated directly with the bison bone. Several scientists from other institutions were called in to confirm the association. These included Barnum Brown, paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History, Frank Roberts, archaeologist from the Bureau of American Ethnology and Alfred Kidder, archaeologist from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. These three well-known scientists confirmed the association of the spear points and bison bones and it was then accepted that humans were in North America during the late Pleistocene, hunting an extinct form of bison, Bison antiquus. In 1928, Barnum Brown took over the excavation of the Folsom Site and found more Folsom points associated with the bison (Brown 1928, 1929). For a more detailed and quite interesting discussion of this discovery read Meltzer’s accounts (Meltzer 1991; 2006).

The Folsom discovery could only have been made by paleontologists because early 20th century archaeologists’ field search designs, largely dictated by Holmes and Hrdlička, assumed that Native Americans arrived in the Americans much later, perhaps 4,000 years ago. Archaeologists generally accepted this interpretation and thus were not conducting research in geological deposits of late Pleistocene age. Consequently, archaeologists relinquished research in these deposits to paleontologists.

In 1933, paleontologists from the Colorado Museum of Natural History made another amazing discovery at the Dent Site about 50 miles north of Denver (Figgins 1933). Father Conrad Bilgery of Regis College in Denver received word of large bones eroding from a cutbank at the Dent railroad siding in 1932. He took some of his students from Regis to investigate the find and found a spear point associated with mammoth bones, but unfortunately did not leave the point in place. He turned the excavation over to Jesse Figgins, Director of the Colorado Museum in 1933, and Figgins sent his paleontological crew to excavate the site. They found a spear point, now known as a Clovis point, in association with the mammoth bones, left it in place and photographed it (Figgins 1933). This was the first well-documented evidence of mammoth hunting by humans in the Americas.

Paleontological crews from the University of Nebraska State Museum made significant discoveries of Paleoindian sites from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. They reported on several sites with artifacts associated with late Pleistocene/early Holocene fauna including Meserve (Barbour and Schultz 1932a; Meserve and Barbour 1932; Schultz 1932), Scottsbluff Bison Quarry (Barbour and Schultz 1932b; Schultz and Eiseley 1936), Cumro (Schultz 1932) and the Lime Creek Site (Schultz and Frankforter 1948). The Plunkett Site contained two Goshen projectile points associated with a hearth (Barbour and Schultz 1936; Holen 2009). Barbour and Schultz (1936:431) stated that “…evidence is accumulating to show that man actually had reached North America before the last glacial advance” although they admit that the “classification of the Pleistocene is still in dispute”. In fact, all these sites were later found to be early Holocene in age based on radiocarbon dating and projectile point typology.

Even later in the 1980s, other University of Nebraska State Museum paleontologists continued their research on this subject with reports of archaeological materials pumped from gravel pits in southwest Nebraska (Myers and Corner 1985) and the discovery of Pleistocene megafaunal bones thought to have been modified by humans (Voorhies and Corner 1984). Again, these finds were not dated, and their significance remains unknown.

Paleontologists are keen observers of faunal changes including range expansions and contractions, extinctions and extirpations. They have a unique perspective on these events, including human adaptations. Kurten and Anderson (1980) devote Chapter 18 of their book “Pleistocene Mammals of North America” to the Order Primates/Family Hominidae-Man. They present evidence (some of which is now considered invalid) regarding human expansion into the Americas and state,

“At face value, the evidence suggests a pre-Paleo-Indian immigration, preceding the Wisconsinan glacial maximum, which populated the western part of the Americas. If such was the case, the population seems to have remained sparse throughout, with a low cultural profile; it may have been swamped by the vigorously spreading Paleo-Indian invaders of the late Wisconsinan, with their marked reliance on big game.”

“Pleistocene Mammals of North America” (p.356)

Other notable archaeological research carried out by paleontologists more recently includes excavation of the Kimmswick Mastodon Clovis Site in eastern Missouri (Graham et al. 1981) and the excavation of mastodon meat caches found in former ponds in Michigan (Fisher 1984a&b). Unfortunately, Fisher’s research has been largely ignored by the archaeological community. This is another example of the extreme silos within which archaeologists and paleontologists generally work despite all the calls for interdisciplinary research in Quaternary Sciences.

The latest example of paleontologists making a discovery of early human evidence is the excavation and discovery of the Cerutti Mastodon Site in southern California (Holen et al. 2017). Research was conducted as part of a highway construction project. Richard Cerutti, a paleontological monitor with significant archaeological excavation experience, noticed large cobbles in fine-grained low-energy sediments associated with highly fragmented spirally fractured mastodon limb bones. The site was excavated using archaeological techniques over a five-month period with all fragments over ca. 2 cm in size being mapped in three dimensions. All matrix was screened through fine mesh screen. Evidence from this site indicated the unexpected presence of early humans in the Americas 130,000 years ago. These early humans were breaking mastodon limb bones and molars using a hammer and anvil technique. Once again, only paleontologists could have made this discovery because archaeologists do not conduct research in deposits this old.

The prevailing bias among most archaeologists in the United States is that humans did not enter the Americas until the late Pleistocene (Potter et al. 2018) ca. 14,000-15,000 cal BP. Archaeologists generally do not work in older geological deposits because they “know” there are no archaeological sites there. Future articles will discuss the problems that have occurred because of this approach to science.

Archaeologists in the United States have effectively ceded the archaeological record older than ca. 20,000 years to paleontologists. Only paleontologists in the United States, excepting a small minority of open-minded and geologically-trained archaeologists, conduct research on a regular basis in deposits dating 20,000 years and older. It follows that paleontologists and geologists have the best opportunity to find archaeological sites older than 20,000 years in the United States. Unfortunately, many early sites have “fallen through the cracks” between the disciplines of archaeology, paleontology and geology and important data have been lost. Therefore, archaeologists should work closely with paleontologists and geologists to survey older geological deposits in search of archaeological sites. Most archaeologists do not have the necessary experience with these older geological deposits and associated dating methods so cooperation with other disciplines is mandatory. This is especially true during monitoring of construction projects in older Pleistocene deposits. Also, archaeologists in universities and colleges should remind their students that the timing of the early peopling of the Americas remains an open question and that research should be conducted with an open mind. Researchers working in Pleistocene geological deposits more than 20,000 years old will no doubt discover additional evidence of an early human presence in North America.

References Cited

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Acknowledgements: I appreciate the editorial review of this article by Kathleen Holen, Jack Hofman, Tom Stafford, and Brendon Asher. The document is better because of their comments. Any errors or omissions are my own.

Published by SarahD

Sarah has earned Bachelors Degrees in F Horn Performance and Music Composition and Theory from the University of Wyoming and an MFA in Music Composition for the Screen from Columbia College Chicago. She holds a current K-12 Music Teaching Certificate, Red Cross Water Safety Instructor certification, and Infant-Toddler Childhood Development Associate's Certificate. She is married with a daughter and has broad interests including crochet, cross-stitch, gardening, dancing, playing horn and cello in the Black Hills Symphony, and composing and arranging music.

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