Arrowhead Battles ; Did the Earliest Americans Arrive by Surf or Turf?

Article excerpt

Does your heart swell with pride every time you think of those sturdy first immigrants, ancestors of today's Amerindians, who walked over the land bridge from Siberia hunting wooly mammoths with stone-tipped spears as they came? Would it deal a serious blow to your sense of self-worth to discover that those first comers took a boat and dug clams, instead?

Brace yourself: A corps of archaeologists armed with spades and obsidian spear-points is preparing to overturn the received wisdom regarding the peopling of the Americas. And they're facing stiff opposition.

In "Lost World," journalist Tom Koppel gives us not merely good reporting on field archaeology in action, but a blow-by-blow account of a major scholarly battle in full spate. When it comes to landing knockout punches, Mike Tyson has nothing on Koppel's account of archaeologists dealing near-fatal blows over dating methods.

The archaeological record in the Americas begins with a scattering of stone spear tips known as Clovis points. These distinctive artifacts have been found from the Atlantic to the Pacific in such numbers that you can easily see one in a nearby museum. Even a brief inspection separates the distinctively fluted Clovis points from the arrowheads in the display case. Indeed, their distinctiveness establishes that all Clovis points were made by a single, big-game-hunting culture.

The charcoal and bones found with them prove that Clovis culture was spread rapidly across North America from 12,800 to 13,200 years ago by hunters who used stone-tipped spears to kill animals like the giant buffalo and mastodon.

The great question is: Did the Clovis walk over the land bridge, or did they evolve from an earlier Amerindian culture, possibly a population that moved along the Pacific coast in canoes?

Koppel, a strong partisan of the canoes-along-the-coast theory, lays into the "stubborn, hidebound" academic proponents of the walked-over-the-land-bridge hypothesis with the vigor of a hungry Paleo-Indian attacking a woolly mammoth.

The advantage of the coastal migration theory is that it makes sense. Life along the littoral is easy. Oysters, after all, just lie there waiting for someone to eat them, and even an animal as large as a sea lion makes easy prey when it hauls itself onto a beach. …