First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America

First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America

First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America

First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America

Synopsis

More than 12,000 years ago, in one of the greatest triumphs of prehistory, humans colonized North America, a continent that was then truly a new world. Just when and how they did so has been one of the most perplexing and controversial questions in archaeology. This dazzling, cutting-edge synthesis, written for a wide audience by an archaeologist who has long been at the center of these debates, tells the scientific story of the first Americans: where they came from, when they arrived, and how they met the challenges of moving across the vast, unknown landscapes of Ice Age North America. David J. Meltzer pulls together the latest ideas from archaeology, geology, linguistics, skeletal biology, genetics, and other fields to trace the breakthroughs that have revolutionized our understanding in recent years. Among many other topics, he explores disputes over the hemisphere's oldest and most controversial sites and considers how the first Americans coped with changing global climates. He also confronts some radical claims: that the Americas were colonized from Europe or that a crashing comet obliterated the Pleistocene megafauna. Full of entertaining descriptions of on-site encounters, personalities, and controversies, this is a compelling behind-the-scenes account of how science is illuminating our past.

Excerpt

An Albuquerque Journal reporter was on the phone. “Have you heard of the recent discoveries at Pendejo Cave here in New Mexico?” he asked and then added, laughing, “Do you know what ‘Pendejo’ means in Spanish? Our readers sure do!” I had heard. I did know. And what I said next—foolishly, in retrospect—nearly got me pummeled one night in a hotel bar in Brazil by Scotty MacNeish: excavator of Pendejo Cave, grand old man of archaeology … and former Golden Gloves boxing champion.

The fight was about a discovery as profound—or trivial—as fingerprints. Not just any fingerprints: MacNeish came out of Pendejo Cave and announced he’d found human fingerprints that were upwards of 37,000 years old, instantly tripling the then oldest accepted antiquity for the arrival of humans in the New World (the Clovis archaeological presence, dated to nearly 11,500 years ago). When the reporter asked what I thought of MacNeish’s claim, I replied, “You’re not going to convince me until you’ve fingerprinted the crew.”

Granted, it was a flip response. But I thought the point reasonable. To persuade an extremely skeptical archaeological community to accept this unparalleled discovery, MacNeish would have to demonstrate those fingerprints were just as old as advertised, and not odd clay globs his excavators had inadvertently imprinted and later mistook for archaeological specimens. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I thought I was being helpful. MacNeish thought otherwise. It surely didn’t help that my response led to his Pendejo Cave claim being named one of that year’s Albuquerque Journal Cowchip Award winners (I don’t think I need to explain why the Cowchip is not a coveted award).

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