Wednesday, October 27, 2004


America's First Immigrants came on skin-covered boats (?!?)


Smithsonian Magazine

You were probably taught that the hemisphere's first people came from Siberia across a long-gone land bridge. Now a sea route looks increasingly likely, from Asia or even Europe.

Alongside a creek in central Texas runs a swath of chipped, gray stone flakes and soil blackened by cooking fires—thousands of years of cooking fires. This blackened earth, covering 40 acres and almost six feet thick in places, marks a settlement dating back as far as the last ice age 13,000 years ago, when mammoths, giant sloths and saber-toothed cats roamed the North American wilderness.

Archaeologists have amassed nearly half a million early prehistoric artifacts here at the Gault site. Among the artifacts are distinctive stone spearheads known as Clovis points, a defining feature of the Clovis people, who lived roughly 12,500 to 13,500 years ago.

A visit to the site raises two monumental questions. The first, of course, is, Who were the Clovis people? The emerging answer is that they were not simple-minded big-game hunters as they have often been depicted. Rather, they led a less nomadic and more sophisticated life than previously believed.

The second question—Where did they come from?—lies at the center of one of archaeology's most contentious debates. The standard view holds that Clovis people were the first to enter the Americas, migrating by land from Siberia 13,500 years ago across a now-submerged bridge.

This view has been challenged recently by a wide range of discoveries. Now some researchers suggest prehistoric south Asians might have spread gradually around the northern rim of the Pacific to North America in small skin-covered boats. An even more radical theory is that Stone Age mariners journeyed from Europe around the southern fringes of the great ice sheets in the North Atlantic.

According to archaeologist Michael Collins, the project director of the Gault site, "you couldn't have a more exciting time to be involved in the whole issue of the peopling of the Americas."

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