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A Journey to a New Land

First people
Post secondary Level Resources

A "Pre-Clovis" Settlement

A number of archaeological sites have yielded evidence for a "pre-Clovis" population in the Americas. Radiocarbon dates from the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania and the Cactus Hill site in Virginia indicate that these sites were occupied more than 14,000 years BP. In the Yukon, paleontologists have found potential artifacts in deposited soils in the Old Crow Basin, which may demonstrate early human occupation: though the dating and context of these artifacts is not assured. Only 40 miles southwest of Old Crow, excavations at Bluefish Cave have uncovered artifacts from about 12,000 years ago, and further investigations have hinted at, but have yet to confirm, even older human presence at the site.

Evidence of the spread of people across the content comes from sinkholes at the bottom of rivers in Florida. During the time period when sea levels were lower, these sink holes would have been exposed. Recently underwater archaeologists have discovered human remains in one sinkhole that dates to at least 10,300 BP. In another sinkhole, the remains of an extinct turtle, killed and roasted by a human, was found and dated to 12,000 year ago. These sites show us that by 12,000 years ago, people were well established in North America, but how quickly did people spread across the new world? Evidence from South America is helping archaeologists answer this question.

Pedra Furada in Brazil has yielded even earlier dates in the range of 31,000 years BP. The validity of these and other "pre-Clovis" sites has been hotly contested, and they have not yet met with universal acceptance. Some archaeologists believe that the early radiocarbon dates are unreliable, and more accurately reflect contamination of the dated sample than a true early date. At Pedra Furada, the characterization of some of the stones as "artifacts" has been challenged on the basis that natural fragmentation caused by falling rock could have resulted in stones that look like intentionally-flaked tools.

The most convincing and widely accepted "pre-Clovis" site is Monte Verde, a streamside habitation site located in south-central Chile. The remains of wooden structures, hearths, as well as three footprints preserved in clay attest to a human presence near the southern tip of South America by 12,500 years BP.

Other sites, further south in Chile, are also evidence of the spread of human population across both continents. Fell Cave, from Patagonia, contains evidence for human occupation at just over 11,000 years ago. Though technically not pre-Clovis, these two southerly sites argue for a rapid distribution of people following early migration.

Despite Monte Verde's widespread acceptance as a legitimate "pre-Clovis" archaeological site, many questions about an early settlement of the Americas remain unanswered. How did people travel all the way from Beringia to southern Chile by 12,500 years BP? Why have no significant traces of their journey been found? If people were established in the Americas prior to 11,500 years BP, why have so few undisputed "pre-Clovis" sites been found? Archaeologists who support a "pre-Clovis" settlement model continue to search for answers to these questions and for more evidence that the Clovis hunters were not the first people in the Americas.

Origins of the First Settlers

Meadowcroft Rockshelter Excavations, 1977

More photographs

Meadowcroft Rockshelter