by Stephen Oppenheimer
Another veteran high-profile site under siege is Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Pennsylvania.
For thirty years, Pennsylvania archaeologist James Adovasio has led work on this site. He and his colleagues have dug through eleven floor layers, unearthing 20,000 stone flakes and objects and a huge quantity of animal and plant remains. Fifty-two radiocarbon dates have been published for the Meadowcroft finds, the oldest at the bottom in sterile clay 31,000 years ago and the youngest at the top, just 1,000 years old. Dates unambiguously associated with Palaeoindian occupation go back to 16,225 years ago, while dates in excess of 19,000 years have been claimed for the deepest occupation layer.
As soon as these old dates were published they drew a storm of protest. No prizes for who has been the fiercest critic: Vance Haynes. Years of criticism focused on details of stratigraphy, documentation, dating anomalies, and possible contamination by a coal seam a kilometre away. Adovasio is reported as regarding such criticism as pathological scepticism. Thousands of pages have been written answering specific questions. The contamination issue was buried by an independent geomorphologist in 1999, but Haynes still wants to get carbon dates on a few remaining items, a nutshell and some seeds. Adovasio has had enough, however. He is reported to have informed Haynes three years ago at the Monte Verde meeting that, ‘I will never run another date you have asked me for, because since 1974, we’ve addressed every criticism anyone has raised. I have spent half my life on this.’
If professional sceptics such as Haynes and Fiedel are right, then they are to be congratulated for maintaining their integrity in the face of a massive synthesis of false evidence. If they are wrong and/ or biased in their approach, on the other hand, then they would have successfully and vaingloriously held up the progress of American archaeology for three decades and artificially prolonged the life of the obsolete Clovis-first orthodoxy to around seventy years. With the ever-accelerating pace of scientific discovery, that would be an extraordinary achievement. Even Hrdlicka did not achieve that length of filibuster at the beginning of the last century.
Two other, more recently discovered North American pre-Clovis sites now vie for immediate attention Cactus Hill and Topper. Cactus Hill, on the East Coast near Richmond, Virginia, now has a full site report, written by two competing private archaeological teams, waiting for the sceptics to tear into it. Joseph and Lynn McAvoy of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources run one team, while Michael Johnson of the Archaeological Society of Virginia runs the other. Cactus Hill is an ancient sand dune, so called after the prickly pears that cover it in the summer.
The original find at Cactus Hill was made, as often happens, by a perceptive farmer; he noticed a stone point in a pile of sand dumped some way from the hill and traced it back to its source. Digging through the layers of time, the teams have uncovered stone points of progressively greater antiquity including some of the fluted Clovis type. At the lowest level they found flaked tools, a scraper, a quartzite core, and some small blades. Radiocarbon dates from this bottom layer are in the 15,00016,000-year age range earlier than the opening of the ice corridor. In one of the deep layers, unusual stone points suggested an antecedent to the full Clovis style. Together with the other tools, these finds constitute even more evidence for a pre-Clovis culture. Needless to say, Haynes and Fiedel have been here too, to doubt the age of the artefacts. They have not, of course, suggested that they are older, rather that they are younger.
The other new site is Topper, in South Carolina, named after David Topper, the forester who discovered it. The site research is directed by Al Goodyear, a state archaeologist with the University of Carolina. Five years ago Goodyear and his team were forced off another site by floods and re-excavated Topper instead. Only this time they dug deep, deeper than the Clovis level. Formerly an uncontroversial card-carrying Clovis-first archaeologist, Goodyear was converted by the shock of what he found. Below the Clovis level were small blades of chert, chiselled burins, a scraper, and microblades. The technology was more reminiscent of the Upper Palaeolithic in Siberia than anything previously found in the American south-east. Luminescence dating puts the age of the artefacts at 13,000 years.
Have the sceptics chimed in again? Of course. This time their beef is not with the dates but with the tools. Were they made by humans? Another objection: most Clovis sites do not have pre-Clovis tools beneath them. According to the journal Science, Vance Haynes finds it hard to accept that this is just ‘a coincidence’. Such an argument seems rather like rejecting the Roman occupation of England because not every house in England has Roman remains beneath it. ‘I’ve been looking at this for 40 years’, says Haynes. Two more recent sites with pre-Clovis dates are playing out their cycles of claim and criticism: Schaefer and Hebior, in south-eastern Wisconsin. Both sites have been radiocarbon dated to around 12,500 years ago. At one of them, Hebior, near Kenosha, flakes, a chopper, and two flaked stone bifaces have been found among butchered mammoth bones.
With archaeologists such as Dillehay, Adovasio, the McAvoys, Johnson, Goodyear, and their colleagues going to extreme lengths to document their evidence, warts and all, and the persistent ‘what if’ responses from the critics, there has been a sea change in discussions on the pre-Clovis issue. The critics are at last being viewed less as the careful counsel of the establishment, and more as those who ‘doth protest too much’.
The Clovis-first mindset has, at last, been weakened. There is now a rash of recycled, new, or alternative explanations of the early colonization of the New World. The debate is moving from asking whether there was a pre-Clovis movement into and throughout the Americas, to which, and how many, exotic routes were taken. These ‘big arrows into America’, which, if all valid, would have to imply multiple entries from elsewhere, including a west coastal land route, a west coastal sea route, a North Atlantic route from Europe, a South Pacific route from Australia, and a South American re-entry after the ice age. There is, however, less secure archaeological evidence for any of these scenarios than for Monte Verde and Meadowcroft.