Unless you are an archaeologist of some kind (professional, in training, armchair) or – completely distinct form the first category – one of those people who can never quite manage to dig up an alien on the History Channel, you will almost certainly never have heard of the Clovis peoples of lower North America, and probably remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are at the centre of one of the most contentious issues in American prehistory.
This being, I assume, the case, you’ve not yet heard about the exciting new dig in southern Texas where even now evidence is being unearthed that is roiling the archaeological community, and in a surprise up-set has conclusively ended an eighty year old, strife-filled conflict that may once actually have lost some people tenure.
A Word of Explanation
We all learned in grade school that the ancestors of the Native Americans crossed over from Asia by way of a stretch of Alaska-Kamchatka that had conveniently decided to no longer be 500m below sea level. You’ll recall that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea under similar circumstances. In case your fourth grade history has gotten a little rusty, science suppose that this worked out because roundabout 15,000 years ago there was a fairly large ice age going on and all of the water that is now covering the Bering Land Bridge was busy being frozen somewhere in Canada at the time – or possibly carving out Half Dome – exposing a lovely highway for Pocahontas forebears and the occasional woolly mammoth to reach the Americas.
The prevailing theory has always been that sometime between 12,000 and 17,000 years ago, a group of roughly 500 (that’s right, 500. No zeros forgotten, no comas misplaced. 500. Crazier still, the entire genome for all Native Americans from Aztecs to Eskimos, can be traced to an ancestor group of only 70.) people crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska and gradually worked their way down all the way to Chile. This gave rise to the Clovis culture, concentrated in the American Southwest, by around 13,000 years ago, and eventually the Olmecs and Aztecs in Mexico, the Inca in Peru, and any other of dozens of cultures that were later wiped out by Spaniards and smallpox.
This theory differs from its more popular relatives, evolution or gravity say, in that this is legitimately only a best guess rather than a near certainty. In fact, this is one of the least studied, least study-able periods in planetary history. Hell, until now all of our evidence of this era has been dependent on some caribou shitting on a spear head before a flood or something, so that grad students from the University of Austin can come along and dig up that spearhead and carbon test that shit and place the whole mess in a 500 year window or probability.
If you can imagine how a theory that literally includes all organic life in its evidence locker (plus finches and stuff) can be seriously opposed by a theory with no evidence of any kind (show me the ark, damnit!), then you can easily see how an idea supported only by undergraduate capacity for faecal endurance and jargon-filled gymnastics about arrowhead dimensions might have its detractors.
The above version of the story was called the Clovis First Theory, and any evidence that called it into question was lumped under the heading ‘PRE-CLOVIS’ (an acronym standing for: Please Refrain from Extending Credibility, Legitimacy or Veracity, Its all bullShit). But most people who specialise in American Prehistory are used to rejection, and those archaeologists who believed that the New World was settled before Clovis tenaciously stuck to their guns. Until very recently they had two dusty pieces of evidence in support of this belief, pulled ceremonially from trunks and crawl spaces like pictures of a real UFO or an Iron Cross, and displayed to only the most like minded. Or maybe more like pictures of a real UFO, flaunted at every available opportunity because scientists just wont see!
1. Above I mentioned that the entire American genome can be traced to the same group of 70 people, and that the total migration was believed to be of only about 500. The difficulty here is that even if you assume this to be true, the genetic material of those 70 was very different from their Asian peers at the time. So different in fact that the only possible explanation for it is several thousand years of divergent evolution before any of them set foot in America. The (clumsy) orthodox explanation for this was that a group of Asian hunter-gatherers some how got split off from the rest of the herd and were then trapped in isolation by some spontaneous geologic feature or glacier or something until they were able to pick up shop and head to the promised land: Alaska. Proponents of Pre-Clovis habitation point to the fact this theory is dumb, cough something that sounds suspiciously like Occam’s Razor under their breathes, and then counter-suppose that a group of 500 settlers migrated to the Americas much earlier and spent the missing millennia proliferating rather than… right.
2. While it may seem to spoil the conspiratorial fun, dig sites do exist that seem to predate Clovis. The difficulty is that most of them have yielded only a few artefacts, or have been contaminated and mainstream archaeology has been unwilling to tip a cherished sacred cow on just that evidence. The best documented and most convincing such site is in Monte Verde, Chile. Archaeologists have uncovered more than enough proof to establish human settlement as early as 14,500 years ago, which if that math is right, leaves at most 1000 years for a group of hunter-gatherers to get all the way from northern Alaska to southern Chile, meanwhile popping out babies quickly enough to populate everything in between. Pretty damning evidence, but the site wasn’t technically Pre-Clovis and it was in Chile of all places, so let’s ignore that one.
By now you’ve probably gathered that the Pre-Clovis camp has been rich in common sense and simple logic yet still reduced to begging spare proof outside of Burger King. To make matters worse there’s a perfectly logical reason why there would be very little evidence of any Pre-Clovis Americans. From the beginning of time people, from the Phoenicians to Michael Jackson, have loved living near the water. If you assume that early Americans (who were likely mostly fishermen along the lines of indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest) felt the same way, and only gradually migrated landward, you could easily imagine bustling coastal communities thousands of years earlier than Clovis that only slowly made it into Arizona and New Mexico at some time around their 13,000yrs BP (Before the Present) appearance date. So why not just dig up these coastal villages? The simple answer is that for the same reason you can’t walk to Russia anymore, these villages are at best 500m below sea level, and if you haven’t had cause to try it yourself, wooden tools and beaver hats tend not to last 15,000 years submersed in salt water. The best evidence for a Pre-Clovis migration is mostly gone and entirely inaccessible.
But leave it to the subversives to come up with the proof anyway and undermine the Archaeological Establishment. (Wait, there’s an Archaeological Establishment? I’m guessing its two stories, no plumbing and in Chile.)
The (New) Evidence:
Recently, a group of archaeologists excavating a Clovis settlement outside of Austin, Texas made a startling discovery: beneath it, by a good 2,500-4,000 years (that’s a metric measurement of dirt right?) they found a cache of more than 800 new artefacts that conclusively predated not only the Clovis people, but the supposed arrival of any kind of people on the continent. Bear in mind that these artefacts were found in Texas, thousands of miles from Alaska, and the Bering Migration has to be pushed back to at least 20,000 yrs BP. To put that in perspective, the world’s first city was founded a measly 10,000 years ago, and that makes the Bering migration doubly as old as civilisation.
The discovery single-handedly upended the orthodox prehistory of the Americas and a suitably outraged public rose up to demand the blood of those dirt-dusted dogmatics that had kept us in the dark for so long! (Or whatever happens to archaeologists when they have to throw eighty years of bullshit out the window. So, I guess Jack Nicholson sent another letter to Obama demanding that he release the Ark of the Covenant and National Geographic declined to print an article…)
But Really Now, Why Should You Care?
Well hell, I don’t know. I usually like to say a few words here about how these little pet issues of mine might be relevant to you and your life, but honestly this is the sort of quibble that even bores geologists about a group of people best known for sun worship, casino management and a fatal appreciation for shiny hats and English blankets. I guess one might theorise that if people arrived in the Americas long before we had previously thought, they may have arrived in new and interesting ways. Perhaps they were even technologically advanced than we thought. Hell, there are batty theories galore explaining things like the technically impossible construction of the pyramids and ruts in the desert that only begin to resemble animals at 500 feet. But realistically, all of the artefacts were talking about are slightly sharp rocks and charcoal, supposing that a people who were at least 10,000 years from mastering pottery could navigate the oceans, let alone fly, requires a suspension of disbelief so all-consuming that it just might get you happily through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So yeah, that’s it. Clovis First is down for the count!