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Athena Review Book Reviews


The First Americans

In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery

by James M. Adovasio with  Jake Page


2002. Random House, Inc., New York and Toronto, Canada. 329 pp.with 69 b/w photos, 14 line drawings, 3 maps and tables.Hardcover: ISBN 0-375-50552-0 ($26.95 U.S., $39.95 Canada).


This is a tale of revolution - the turbulent upheaval in archaeological thought concerning attempts to answer a deceptively simple question: Who were the First Americans? At issue is the overthrow of a long accepted notion that a band of Ice Age hunters armed with specialized stone spear points called “Clovis points” walked across the frozen Bering Straight some 12,00 years ago to claim the title of the First Americans. Putting the debate into an easily readable and highly informative package, the book ranges from presentation of early European fantasies about native American origins to modern archaeological methods and practices. Along the way, it also provides an insider's view of the difficulties in debunking scientific dogma, showing that such challenges often are a noisy and messy business. Readers also get a photographic glimpse - literally and figuratively - at the cast of characters involved in what may be one of archaeology’s most fractious riddles.

James M. Adovasio founded and directs the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., and is best known for his work at the Paleoindian site of Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania (figs.1,2). Initial radiocarbon dates from that site suggested people had stone hearths there in 13,000 BC - 4,000 years “before any human being was supposed to have set foot in this hemisphere.” Exceedingly controversial, those dates put Adovasio at the churning center of a three-decades-old academic firestorm. His candid discussion of this infighting dispels any notion that scientists are necessarily a congenial lot conducting gentlemanly discussions around a toasty fire. As Adovasio observes: “The work of lifetimes has been put at risk, reputations have been damaged, an astonishing amount of silliness and even profound stupidity has been taken as serious thought, and always lurking in the background of all the argumentation and gnashing of tenants has been the question of whether the field of archaeology can ever be pursued as a science.”

[Fig.1: Location of Meadowcroft Rockshelter and other sites with Terminal Pleistocene organic samples near edge of Wisconsin Glacier (Adovasio 2002).]

The statement applies well to his own career as one in a long line of archaeologists to tilt at the so-called “Clovis bar.” This barrier arose not long after Edgar Billings Howard found the first Clovis points in 1937 associated with mammoth remains at Blackwater Draw near Clovis, New Mexico, tools subsequently determined to be about 12,000 years old. The large, finely crafted, points contained long grooves or “flutes” on their bases - a unique type of projectile point not previously found anywhere. (Folsom points - smaller, more finely crafted and also containing flutes - were found in 1908 near Folsom, New Mexico, but were later found to be younger than Clovis points). For years, archaeologists found no definitive evidence putting people in the America's before the so-called “Clovis man”. Decades of researchers staked their professional reputations on the Clovis-first paradigm. They refused at times, Adovasio suggests, to let facts interfere with a good story. But then, who could resist an epic tale of questing hunters with a “pioneering spirit writ large” who challenged the harshest of elements with “speed, daring and inventiveness” to quickly populate a hemisphere.   Over the years, hundreds of suspected pre-Clovis sites have failed to pass academic muster and helped form a seemingly impenetrable wall against any new theory suggesting people got here earlier or via any route but the Bering Straight march across what became known as Beringia. (For an in-depth study of research on the prehistory and palaeoecology of Beringia, consult American Beginnings. An anthology of research papers edited by Frederick Hadleigh West, it was published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.)

But, as Adovasio makes clear, the debate about the First Americans really began long before Clovis points surfaced. Stereotypes portraying them as either “treacherous murdering savages” or the “noble savage” emerged throughout the years from explorations that began in the early sixteenth century. These images stuck - despite the fact that early explorers such as Cortez in 1519-20 had encountered the Aztec empire with the vast city of Tenochtitlan rivaling in grandeur and beauty anything in Europe. More questions and myths surfaced as North American settlers investigated their landscape and its indigenous cultures. Giant earthworks dotting the continent became associated with a culture of “mound builders,” Adovasio notes. He explores the lively debate associated with the mounds and the possible cultures who built them were sometimes suspected of being a “higher race,” a “lost race,” or even a cast-out population of Jews. With the ease of an accomplished storyteller, Adovasio recounts the efforts of pioneering archaeologists, such as Thomas Jefferson. to unravel their mysteries when the discipline was ill-equipped to do so in a world shackled by biblical dogma stating the earth and everything in it was only 6,000 years old.

With an introductory yet highly detailed and informative test-book-like presentation of geology and glaciology, Adovasio explores the natural science base from which later researchers began penetrating the biblical time wall. Heated academic debate and cries of blasphemy from a clergy feeling threatened by the fledgling sciences were predictable. The discussion also covers Ice Age weather and ecosystems containing varieties of flora and megafauna such as mammoths. Although extinct, the remains of Ice Age plants and animals were frequently seen in the fossil record. Adovasio explores competing theories on the Ice Age extinctions of many of these mammals. The extinctions occurred rapidly between 11,000 and 9,500 years ago. Researchers such as Paul Martin (in 1967) pointed to the Clovis culture - and its blitzkrieg of a few, but well-armed superpredators into the Americas - as the culprit in what became highly controversial theory known as Pleistocene Overkill. Fitting well with Clovis-First evidence, the hotly debated theory ultimately lost credibility against other evidence suggesting Martin’s explanation was too simplistic. Competing theories put factors such as climate change and disease into what is now considered to be a complex equation. Adovasio notes that rabid “right wingers” and “sportsmen groups” embraced Martin’s theory. Native Americans, however, branded it a “politically motivated assault” on their people. But, as scientific knowledge of Ice Age conditions grew, so did the list of pre-Clovis supporters who suspected that earlier entry should not be ruled out.

[Fig.2: Cartoon on the "Clovis-first" controversy (Adovasio 2002).]

Proponents of pre-Clovis entry to the Americas included legendary names such as archaeologist and former Golden Gloves champion Richard Stockton Scotty” MacNeish and Louis Leakey, the patriarch of human evolution research. Both men thought they had found human-made tools pointing to very early human entry to the Americas (35,000 years ago for MacNeish at Pendeho Cave in New Mexico, and up to 100,000 years ago for Leakey at Calico Hills, Calif.). Both sites failed close academic scrutiny, a fate shared by many suspected pre-Clovis sites as the search intensified during the twentieth century. Larger-than-life researchers such as Lewis Binford, Charles R. Harrington, and Frank Hibben were drawn into the fray. One player rose to became a key critic in the pre-Clovis debate - and a significant thorn in the side of Adovasio and other early-man site researchers relying on radiocarbon dating to establish the age of their sites. C. Vance Haynes is a geologist interested in what now is known as geoarchaeology, Adovasio notes. While revisiting a site for the Nevada State Museum at Tule Springs in 1962-63, Haynes initially accepted radiocarbon dates produced by earlier research showing the site was occupied some 25,000 years ago. Further research established the dates came not from firepit charcoal as suspected, but from ancient carbonized plant material (lignite) that had mimicked the appearance of fire pits - producing erroneous readings and scuttling dating accuracy. Contamination of radiocarbon samples and misinterpretation of the age of dates derived from such samples became points Haynes has raised in repeated efforts to discredit challenges to the Clovis bar - a bar largely balanced on one class of artifact, Clovis-style stone tool technology, and accepted radiocarbon dates. Beginning in 1973, Adovasio started placing new artifacts on the testing floor from his Meadowcroft Rockshelter research. Finds included bones, shell, wood, basketry, cordage and unique stone tools (fig.3) not seen before. Radiocarbon dates put humans there far too early for critics, such as Haynes, to accept. The carbon samples must be contaminated, he maintained - clouding the site’s pre-Clovis validity for decades. Meadowcroft has produced an academic row Adovasio asserts is grounded in petty politics and infighting by people with too much invested in Clovis-First research to accept any new story despite its supporting scientific evidence. He spends considerable book space defending Meadowcroft, the meticulous quality of his work there, and in lambasting his critics, Haynes among them. The critics, he said, continued perpetuating their “archaeological farce” that is “either tragic or comic, but it has never been science"with its inherent give and take through testing of hypothetical explanations against reality and a continuing flow of new information. Science, Adovasio asserts early in the book, “Is less a matter of creating facts than a process for reducing ignorance, but some people always prefer the bliss of ignorance.” His Meadowcroft example well illustrates the severity and scope of academic discourse, while providing a detailed view of research methodology, and the problems inherent in challenging firmly held scientific dogma. While considerable debate has focused on North America, pre-Clovis research does not stop there.

From Meadowcroft, Adovasio discusses South American pre-Clovis research, exploring the differences in flora, fauna and Ice Age glacial impact that would have produced a much different settlement scenario than in North America. Here the cast of characters include Alan Bryan and Ruth Gruhn from the University of Calgary in Canada, who remain staunch pre-Clovis advocates despite a long string of failed pre-Clovis sites they dug or investigated from Baja Mexico to the tip of South America. And his description of contested sites there includes Taima Taima in Venezuela and Pedra Furada rockshelter in Brazil where unique stone tools were found. The South American trail eventually leads to Monte Verde, a complex 14,500 year old site in south-central Chile that has all but buried the Clovis First paradigm.

[Fig.3: Paleoindian artifacts from Meadowcroft Rockshelter (Adovasio 2002).]

Adovasio details the range of meticulous site research at Monte Verde conducted by Archaeologist and Principal Investigator Tom D. Dillehay, and a multi-disciplinary team of sixty specialists. With thoughtful insight, Adovasio provides an abbreviated overview of the thousands of artifacts within that site. Artifacts included wood, bone, basketry, cordage and a collection of stone tools- part of an exhaustive study detailed in millions of words contained in pounds of reports written over a period of 15 years. Taken overall, Adovasio asserts, the site gives a picture of Ice Age life far more varied than the gathering of super-hunters armed with large spear points generally presented as the family portrait for Clovis man. He also details the fractious debate over acceptance of the site - a face-off culminating in 1997 with the infamous “Showdown at La Caverna,” a saloon near Monte Verde. Something less than genteel, this verbal shoot with Adovasio at its core produced some unique theatrics, more than a few bruised egos and damaged friendships. A panel of researchers embroiled in the fight, including Haynes, finally accepted the site’s validity and age. But the rancor and in-fighting continued well into 1999 when Dillehay and Adovasio again blasted Haynes and the rest of their critics on the floor of the Clovis and Beyond conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During that conference, pre-Clovis voices pronounced the Clovis First movement officially dead and welcomed the opening of more fertile research possibilities. (For further reading see The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory, by Tom D. Dillehay. New York, Basic Books, 2000).

The quest to determine who the First Americans were and how and when they came here continues, Adovasio assures us, with possible new pre-Clovis sites popping up across the land (Cactus Hill and Saltville in Virginia, Topper in South Carolina, the Gault Site in central Texas). There is also lots of new theories about the peopling of the Americas that need to be explored. These include the possibility that people migrated here by boat down the north Pacific Ocean from Asia or across the Atlantic from Europe. In addition to more reliance on basic hard science such as geology, scientific subfields such as glacial geology, linguistics, molecular biology, soils analysis, climatology and palynology will provide key evidence supporting future research, Adovasio suggests. Researchers are using much of this science while unearthing the new pre-Clovis-age sites across the United States, research Adovasio cheers and briefly explores. Reliance on a broader range of artifacts, including basketry and other woven goods, may wind up telling us more about the human behavior and social organization than we realize, asserts Adovasio, a specialist in analyzing these so-called “soft” goods. The ability to use plant fibers to make such goods, he states, may have been “one of the first major steps in the development of modern humanity as we know it.”

So, when did the First Americans get here? The jury’s still out on that question. But from all the available evidence collected on the subject to date, Adovasio  tells us, it appears “more than one group of people showed up here a long time ago and populated the entire hemisphere.” The Clovis people may have only been one such group.   Some might see Adovasio’s presentation of continued and sometimes caustic complaints about pre-Clovis critics in general, and Meadowcroft critics in particular, as merely a convenient crying towel distraction. Others might view it as opening the window on the reality of serious scientific debate. Judge for yourself while reading this frank, detailed and wide-ranging exploration into the scientific swamp. Adovasio’s use of mug-shot photos, despite their postage stamp size in some cases, provides a useful and enlightening view of the players who move across the archaeological stage. Overall, the book is undeniably a valuable contribution to the literature on one of archaeology’s landmark subjects.


reviewed by George Wisner.  From Athena Review, Vol.3,no.4.


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