12:01am

Fri March 25, 2011
Humans

Texas Find Turns Back Clock On Settlers In America

Originally published on Fri March 25, 2011 11:55 am

A newly excavated site in central Texas contains evidence that the first human settlers in the Lone Star state arrived more than 15,000 years ago. That's more than 2,000 years earlier than scientists originally thought.

The discovery should help end a controversy about whether a culture known as Clovis was the first to settle in the Americas. The site is on Buttermilk Creek, north of Austin, and there are plenty of good reasons why our ancient ancestors would have camped here.

"First off, you have a small spring-fed stream, which has water in it year-round, which is pretty good for Texas," says Michael Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University. "You can go north to the Blackland Prairie, you can stay in the Edwards Plateau, you can go south and head out into the Gulf Coastal Plain, and there you have various animal and plant resources at your fingertips."

Another advantage is there's plenty of chert nearby — it's a kind of quartz you can use to make sharp blades. Waters knows early humans spent time at the spot because he's found more than 15,000 artifacts.

"Most of those artifacts are small flakes or chips," he says. "They're left behind from the making of stone tools and the resharpening of stone tools."

What makes these tools particularly interesting is they come from a layer of soil that's below the level where tools from another early human culture already had been found. Those tools were made by people know as Clovis.

"Clovis is typically dated now between about 13,100 and 12,800 years ago," he says. As they report in the journal Science, Waters and his colleagues believe the artifacts they've found were made by people who preceded the Clovis to Texas by more than 2,000 years. Waters says the newly discovered tools are smaller than the Clovis tools, suggesting they were made by a culture that liked to travel light.

'Another Nail In The Clovis Coffin'

Tom Dillehay, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, says there's been a long running debate about whether Clovis were really the first American settlers, and he's not certain the findings from Buttermilk Creek will settle the issue.

"Whether or not they are pre-Clovis or early Clovis is somewhat, I think, questionable," he says. Dillehay says it will take more excavating and better dating techniques to settle that question.

But there are now several sites that point to human settlement in the Americas earlier than Clovis.

"This particular report that just appeared, if you want to put it that way, is just another nail in the Clovis coffin," says James Adovasio, the executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. He's done his own excavating at a site near Buttermilk Creek.

While the first humans to claim real estate in North America probably weren't Clovis, he says, scientists just don't know who they were.

"Everything we're learning now — from genetics, from linguistic data, from geological data, from archaeological data — suggests that the peopling process is infinitely more complicated than we might have imagined 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago," he says.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Americans like to know where their ancestors came from and when they got here. Conventional wisdom has held that the first Americans arrived here about 13,000 years ago. But there've been hints from excavations across America that humans may have shown up here considerably earlier. And now an excavation site in Texas seems to confirm that idea.

NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA: Picture the scene: It's 15,000 years ago, and you've arrived in what's now Texas. You've been travelling for a long time. Your ancestors actually started this journey in Siberia, and now you're ready to stay put for a while. So you look up the local real estate agent, and he takes you to a spot in a pleasant, tree-covered valley. Location, location, location, says the agent.

Dr. MICHAEL WATERS (Director, Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University): First off, you have a small, spring-fed stream, which has water in it year-round, which is, you know, pretty good for Texas.

PALCA: OK, OK. Michael Waters isn't really a real estate agent. He's the director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University. But he sounds a bit like a real estate agent when he describes the advantages of a spot he's excavated north of Austin.

Dr. WATERS: You can go north to the Blackland Prairies. You can stay in the Edwards Plateau. You can go south and head out into the Gulf Coastal Plane. And there you have various, you know, animal and plant resources at your fingertips.

PALCA: Another advantage is there's plenty of chert nearby. Chert is a kind of quartz you can use to make sharp blades. Waters knows humans spent time at the spot known as the Buttermilk Creek Complex, because he's found more than 15,000 artifacts there.

Mr. WATERS: Most of those artifacts are small flakes or chips. They're left behind from the making of stone tools and the re-sharpening of stone tools.

PALCA: What makes these tools particularly interesting is they come from a layer of soil that's below the level where tools from another early human culture had already been found. Those tools were made by people know as Clovis. For a long time, archaeologists have thought that the Clovis were the first American tourists from Siberia.

Dr. WATERS: Clovis is typically dated now between about 13,100 and about 12,800 years ago.

PALCA: As he reports in the journal Science, Waters and his colleagues believe the artifacts they've found were made by people who preceded the Clovis to Texas by more than 2,000 years. Waters says the newly discovered tools are mostly small, suggesting they were made by a culture that liked to travel light.

Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University says in recent years, many scientists have questioned the idea that Clovis really were the first Americans. He's not certain the findings from Buttermilk Creek will settle the issue.

Dr. TOM DILLEHAY (Vanderbilt University): Whether or not they're pre-Clovis or really early Clovis is somewhat, I think, questionable.

PALCA: Dillehay says it will take more excavating and better dating techniques to settle that question. But there are several sites that point to human settlement in the Americas earlier than Clovis.

Dr. JAMES ADOVASIO (Executive Director, Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute): This particular report that just appeared is yet another - if you want to put it that way - nail in the Clovis coffin.

PALCA: James Adovasio is the executive director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. He's done his own excavating at a site near Buttermilk Creek. He says while it's probably not Clovis, scientists just don't know who were the first humans to claim real estate in North America.

Dr. ADOVASIO: Everything we're learning now, from genetics, from linguistic data, from geological data, from archaeological data suggests that the peopling process is infinitely more complicated than we might have imagined 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

PALCA: That's the thing about science. Every time you learn something new, things that once seemed clear can become less clear.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.