Dr. José R. Oliver

Taima-taima, a mastodon kill/butchering site, became one of the most significant finds of the mid twentieth century. It yielded archaeological evidence of humans in northern South America during the terminal Pleistocene—early Holocene periods (14,000-10,000 B.P.). Located near the coast of western Venezuela, the site of Taima-taima gained notoriety in the contentious debates among scholars and academics regarding the antiquity and character of the human diaspora into South America among New World archaeologists. It was, and remains, one of the sites with a clear archaeological association between human-made stone (lithic) artefacts and the remains of butchered bones from extinct megafauna. Taima-taima. In this presentation, the most salient aspects of the site and its significance will be briefly noted. For those interested in further details, bibliographic references are provided in the section "Further Reading". The two key references for this essay are Ochsenius and Gruhn (editors, 1979) reporting on the results of the 1976 excavations, and Alexander and Oliver (2003) which discuss Taima-taima, Muaco and Cucuruchú in the regional context of other early sites in western Venezuela.

The photographic essay accompanying this essay includes pictures never published before, some taken over 40 years ago by the discoverer of the site, Professor José María Cruxent (1910-2005). Cruxent's passing away in February 2005 thus, marked the end of the pioneering generation of archaeology in Venezuela. This modest presentation of Taima-taima is dedicated to José M. Cruxent in homage of his contribution to New World paleohistory.

In memory of J. M. Cruxent (1910-2005)
Here Cruxent (far right) poses with Wolf Petzal (second from right) a geologist who worked with him in the first campaigns of the Pedregal Valley, and at Muaco and Cucuruchú; at the center is geomorphologist Charles S. Alexander (third from right) who conducted a geochronological study of the Perdegal River terrace formations with Oliver and Cruxent in 1984-85; Sr. Temistos Figueroa (fourth from right), is the local guide at Pedregal, whose father was the discoverer of the El Jobo sites back in 1956; and Sr. Miklos Szabadics (far left) is an amateur and advocate of archaeology who is credited with the discovery of El Cayude site. The photo was taken in Terrace III of the Pedregal Valley at the El Jobo locality, 1984.

Site Location and Present Environment

The site of Taima-taima is located near the Caribbean coast on the State of Falcón, western Venezuela. The current climate is semiarid, with a xerophitic vegetation dominated by drought-resistant cacti and sparse thorny (matorral) vegetation, such as 'tuna' (Opuntia sp.) dividive (Caesalpinia coriaria) and mesquite or cují yaque (Prosopis juliflora). It is an environment similar to the Brazilian arid savannah or caatinga. Goat herding, introduced by the Spanish from the Old World into this region around 1520 and adopted by the indigenous populations has significantly contributed to the desiccation of the Dabajuro Platform, the coastal strip facing today's Gulf of Venezuela. The LANDSAT image shows the desert zone in light colours, and denser areas of semiarid vegetation as red. The site of Taima-taima is found just east of the Isthmus of Paraguaná a landscape feature that connects the mainland to the Peninsula of Paraguaná. It is presumed that during past Pleistocene interglacial periods (inter-stadia), the isthmus submerged at high sea-level stands, and Paraguaná became an island.

Taima-taima is one of several artesian wells in the area that are structurally controlled by local geology and tectonics. At the artesian well of Muaco, archaeologist J. M. Cruxent and palaeontologist J. Royo Gómez identified in 1959 the first archaeological site with extinct megafauna that could potentially date to the terminal Pleistocene. However, the presence of intrusive modern debris (glass, nails) left Muaco's archaeological associations questionable. Another locality, Cucuruchú, while yielding man-made lithic artefacts and megafauna bone remains, their association was clearly the result of re-deposition of sediments (colluvium) transported by the Cucuruchú Creek. Still others, such as Curazalito, Boca de Muaco and Guadalupe, yielded late Pleistocene megafauna remains but no evidence of human presence.

The local landscape is characterised by low elevation ridges and drainage bottoms (gorges) that discharge on the Caribbean sea or into the artesian wells, as can be appreciated at Taima-taima itself. Walking on the ridges and slopes one can appreciate a series of fossilferous outcrops dating to the Tertiary and transgressive deposits and sediment outcrops dating to the Pleistocene. Likewise, as a result of tectonics, the uplifted and folded basal marine bedrock dating to the Miocene epoch is observed on most hill-tops and slopes as a mosaic of broken slab/cobble pavement. In drainage and bottom areas, this mosaic lies under alluvial and colluvial deposits formed afterwards. At Taima-taima, this fragmented bedrock appears as a cobblestone pavement underlying the Pleistocene and Holocene deposits. It is upon this feature that the remains of megafuana were found.

Taima-Taima in 1980, view to the south

The artesian well of taima-taima
The artesian well of taima-taima, view to the east. On the edges around the well is where the excavation was conducted during the various campaigns since 1962.

There is precious little hard evidence about the paleoclimatic and environmental conditions around the time when Taima-taima was used as a kill site, some 13,000 to 10,500 years ago. Pollen does not preserve well in this region, but woody twigs (possibly Sapotaceae, but mostly unidentifiable) and macrobotanical remains of unidentified cacti thorns, and Portulacaceae and Coccoloba uvifera seeds were identified from the sediments surrounding the ventral area of an Haplomastodon (juvenile), at the bottom of the excavation. Palaeontologist Claudio Ochsenius tentatively suggests that these macro-plant remains suggest a xerophtic, semiarid vegetation similar to today's. Other paleoclimatic data reviewed by geologist Carlos Schubert, however, tentatively suggest that toward the end of the Late Glacial Maximum (circa 18,000-11,000 B.P.) this region of Falcón experienced a more humid climate than today.

The Significance of Taima-taima

Cruxent and Gómez first excavated Taima-taima in 1962. Since that time, several excavation campaigns were conducted by Cruxent until about 1967, when excavations were briefly halted, as a response to the vandalism of the bones and archaeological specimens left in situ, but continued irregularly thereafter, as Cruxent became involved in other projects. It was in 1976 that, at the invitation of Cruxent, Canadian archaeologists Alan Bryan and Ruth Gruhn joined him. The objective was to expand the investigations at Taima-taima and, most importantly, to lay to rest the many critiques levelled by (mainly) North American archaeologists at Cruxent's interpretations which, if accepted, would conclusively refute the so-called Clovis 'Parenthood' Hypothesis.

José M. Cruxent (1910-2005) and José R. Oliver with the Pedregal Valley on the background, 1985

Already throughout the 1960s, Cruxent's reports on his finds at Muaco, the Pedregal Valley and Taima-taima had stirred controversy. The conventional wisdom, especially among North American archaeologists, was that the first South Americans were the result of a very rapid migration from North America, following big game, and a tool tradition highlighted by the use of a projectile point (spear) technology. In North America, the accepted earliest evidence was tied to the Clovis fluted projectile point technology, dated to no earlier than 11,000 years B.P. It was then argued that the earliest migrants to colonize South America would have a Clovis-derived tool technology and that it would have to post-date 11,000 B.P. The initial radiocarbon dates obtained from Taima-taima (and Muaco), however, were several millennia earlier than any accepted dates from Clovis sites in North America, which suggested to Cruxent that the hunter-gatherers in Venezuela were not derived from Clovis. Moreover Cruxent insisted that, assuming that the New World was breached through the land bridge at Bering Straits (Alaska-Siberia), the earliest penetration into North America would have had to be considerably earlier than the 12,000 B.P. assumed under the Clovis hypothesis. He as well pointed out that the lithic projectiles at Taima-taima and found in other areas of Falcón, was technologically different from the North American fluted point traditions (Clovis-Folsom).

Today, a growing number of equally early sites, have yielded high-resolution and solid archaeological evidence supporting the thesis that early humans had reached South America at least by 13,000-12,500 B.P., including the far south of the continent, as demonstrated by the famous Monte Verde site in Chile. Not just the time-depth of initial human penetration has increased but also the diversity of tool technologies, local adaptations, and of diverse food procurement strategies—encompassing specialized big game hunters and scavengers to broad spectrum diet of hunter-gatherers— have now rendered the Clovis 'Parenthood' Hypothesis inadequate. The evidence and arguments to support this claim have been succinctly reviewed by Thomas Dillehay (2000) and in a language accessible to both specialists and lay alike.

Taima-taima was highly significant because it was among the first sites in South America that appeared to fit the archetypal (but narrow) vision of the early 'Paleo-Indians' as specialized, highly mobile, big game hunters. But the chronology and artefact evidence initially challenged and eventually refuted the expectations of the Clovis Parenthood Model. It was the excavation conducted in 1976 that produced substantial evidence of an early hunt and butchering of extinct Late Pleistocene megafauna supported by a set of radiocarbon dates consistent with their stratigraphic depth and distribution, as well as archaeological context. Still, it took over twenty years more for North American archaeologists to accept the evidence as first proposed by Cruxent and augmented by Cruxent, Bryan, Gruhn, Ochsenius and Casimiquiela through the 1976 investigations. It was not until Dillehay and colleagues published the results of their work at Monte Verde (Chile) that Taima-taima's validity as an early, genuine megafauna kill site was broadly accepted. If Monte Verde was the 'hammer' that nailed the coffin of the Clovis theory, Taima-taima was to provide first nail on the lid of the 'Clovis First' or Clovis Parenthood model and related theories (e.g., the well-known Martin-Haynes' megafana extiction and rapid population radiation hypothesis).

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