Monte Verde and the Antiquity of Humankind in the Americas

By Adovasio, J. M.; Pedler, D. M. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Monte Verde and the Antiquity of Humankind in the Americas


Adovasio, J. M., Pedler, D. M., Antiquity


Monte Verde and the peopling of the New World

The problem of the timing and mechanism(s) by which the New World was initially peopled has remained intractable despite at least 70 years of intensive archaeological research and several apparent resolutions of the problem in this century. Since the validation of the Folsom discovery in 1926-7, which conclusively demonstrated the coexistence of humans and late Pleistocene megafauna, and the subsequent extension of the baseline to Clovis, the preponderant view has held that no unequivocal evidence for the peopling of the New World exists before the Clovis horizon, most recently described by Taylor et al. (1996: 517) as ranging between 11,200 b.p. and 10,900 b.p. Given this seemingly late date for the arrival of the so-called 'First Americans', conventional wisdom has also maintained that the initial migration through Beringia to the Americas could not possibly have occurred before c. 12,000 b.p. (e.g. Haynes 1966; Martin 1973; Willey 1966). The open site of Monte Verde in south-central Chile [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], on the basis of its exceptionally well preserved organic materials and artefacts from an occupation with 14C determinations averaging 12,500-13,000 b.p. (Dillehay 1989; 1997), may prove to be the seminal archaeological site that will finally prevail over the Clovis-first model. It has yet to be seen, however, whether the findings from Monte Verde will achieve a broad consensus and, ultimately, transform the New World archaeological community's collective conception of pre-Clovis and Clovis.

Until relatively recent times, the Clovis phenomenon has been seen as a continent-wide, west-to-east-moving colonizing wave of highly mobile, specialized big-game hunters (e.g. Haynes 1966; Martin 1973; Mason 1962; West 1983). This perspective owes much to Haynes' (1964; 1966; 1967; 1982; 1987) characterization of Clovis and to Martin's (1973) 'overkill' or 'Blitzkrieg' model, which times the arrival of human populations at 11,500 b.p. and their spread throughout the entire hemisphere within an exiguous 1000 years. Within the perspective of this model, the verification of putative pre-Clovis localities has involved satisfying not only the archaeological principles of context, stratigraphy and 14C consistency (see below), but also the somewhat more slippery criteria of high visibility and replicability. Accordingly, as pre-Clovis peoples failed to leave a highly visible trail of evidence (e.g. 'standardized' and hence readily recognizable lithic artefacts) with extensive regional or continental analogue, they were deemed not to exist - until further notice.

That view of Clovis has been challenged by recent research concerning Palaeoindian migration and colonization processes, a refined understanding of late Pleistocene environments and the fresh questioning of human adaptation in light of this revised palaeoenvironmental picture, among myriad other approaches. Revising considerably the understanding of the environment through which Palaeoindian populations travelled, for example, Meltzer (1988: 1, 7-8; 1993: 301-2) and Custer (1996: 97-100) have noted that the late Pleistocene of eastern North America was characterized by successions of both periglacial tundra or open spruce parkland and extensive, complex boreal deciduous forest, with this mosaic of environmental conditions playing a role in far more diverse Palaeoindian adaptations than had been previously thought. Meltzer (1993: 303), in fact, considers

it is most unlikely that [eastern North American] Clovis groups were all specialized big game hunters or even that all Clovis groups utilized the same adaptive strategy

and instead suspects that these groups were probably generalized foragers. The primacy of Clovis as the earliest human manifestation in the New World has also been convincingly challenged by the Goshen cultural complex, first recognized stratigraphically below the Folsom horizon at the Hell Gap site in southeastern Wyoming (Irwin-Williams et al.

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