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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Topper Site-Were Humans in America Over 50,000 Years Ago?

         In November 2004, Archaeologist Albert Goodyear of the University of South Carolina surprised scholars throughout the world with the claim that at the Topper site on the Savannah River, a layer containing stone artifacts and carbonized plant remains yielded radiocarbon dates from at least 50,000 years BP. This dating is far earlier than any other known Paleoindian sites in North or South America, with the exception of Pedra Furada, a group of rock shelters in eastern Brazil whose lowest levels are controversially dated at 48,000 years BP or greater (AR 3,2). If the dating at Topper is confirmed, this would be the earliest evidence of human presence on the North American continent, and the history of the original spread of Homo sapiens to the Americas would have to be largely rewritten.

          The Topper site, located near Allendale, South Carolina, (fig.1). was first studied by Goodyear in 1981 when a local resident named John Topper led him there during a survey of chert sources. Excavations since 1984 gradually revealed several features containing pre-Clovis artifacts such as chert microtools, small flakes, and pebbles, in layers radiocarbon dated to 16,000 BP. In 2004, Goodyear uncovered chert artifacts and carbonized plant remains in an earlier deposit some 13 feet below this pre-Clovis level. Radiocarbon dating of two charcoal samples yielded a surprisingly early result of over 50,000 years ago, similar to dates obtained on the soil.

          If the research is borne out, the implications are staggering. The dating extends back to an era when anatomically modern Homo sapiens were still spreading from Africa, reaching Asia and Australia not earlier than 70-50,000 years ago. The Topper site dates would mean that the peopling of the Americas came surprisingly early; or, alternatively, that the currently accepted dates for the peopling of Asia by modern humans may not be early enough.

[Fig.1: Location of the Topper site amid outcrops of flint or chert used for prehistoric tools, on the Savannah River in South Carolina].

          Based on similarities of mitochondrial DNA between East Asians and Native Americans, some geneticists support the arrival of the latter on the North American continent by around 35,000 BP (see AR 3,2). Some anthropologists, however, such as the Brazilian Walter Neves, note morphological similarities between the skulls of the earliest human remains in the Americas and those of early African or Australian populations.

          Between the 1930s and 80s, the dominant "Clovis first" model had held that America was first settled by highly specialized big game hunters of the Clovis culture not earlier than 11,500-10,800 BP (the final period of the last, Wisconsin glaciation). A series of pre-Clovis sites, however, were discovered in the 1970s-90s. These include Meadowcroft Rockshelter (ca. 19,600-11,300 BP); Cactus Hill in Virginia (16,000-10,900 BP); Monte Verde in Chile (ca. 33,000-12,500 BP); Pedra Pintada on the Amazon (ca. 12,500 BP); and Pedra Furada in eastern Brazil (ca. 48,000-6,000 BP). All support the idea that the peopling of the Americas began no later than during the second maximum of the last glacial period (ca. 20,000-18,000 BP; see AR 3,2)

          A crossing of the Beringia land bridge ca. 50,000 years ago might have been feasible as well, since it was temporarily passable during the first maximum of the Wisconsin glaciation. In this connection, recent finds from the region north of the Russian Urals at Mamontovaya Krurya, dated to 36,000 BP (AR 3,2), and the Siberian site Yana RHS, dated to 27,000 BP (Pitulko et al 2004) show that northern regions with extreme cold climate had been reached and inhabited by hunters much earlier than previously thought.

An international conference in October 2005 on early migrations to the Americas, included the presentation of the Topper site to the scientific community.

[Archaeology, 17 Nov., 2004; Pitulko, V.V. et al 2004. "The Yana RHS site: Humans in the Arctic before the last glacial maximum." Science 303: 52-56; Athena Review 3:2, 2002; "Early Brazilians Unveil African Look." Science News 159:212 2001; "Pre-Clovis Surprise." Archaeology 52:18; Powell, J.F. , & W.A. Neves. 1999. "Craniofacial morphology of the first Americans" Amer. J. of Phys. Anthro. 110 (S29):153-188; Dillehay, T. 1997. Monte Verde: A Late Pleistocene Settlement in Chile. Smithson. Series in Arch. Inq. Washington, DC; Roosevelt, A., et al 1996. "Paleoindian cave dwellers in the Amazon." Science 272:373-384; Guidon, N., and G. Delibrias, 1986. "Carbon-14 dates point to Man in the Americas 32,000 years ago." Nature 321:796-771; Adovasio, J., et al 1978. "Meadowcroft Rockshelter, 1977: An overview." American Antiquity 43:632-651]

This article appears on pages 7-8in the Recent Finds in Archaeology of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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